This is the first article in an ongoing series where we’ll be diving deep into pressing injustices our world is facing.
For each article, we’ll begin by unpacking the history of the problem (in this case, garment worker exploitation) so that we can learn from the past as we look towards solutions, then we’ll explore current policies connected to the issue, practical steps for individuals to get involved with, places to shop that shift our dollars in a better direction, and people to learn from. And we'll always end with positivity.
What’s the problem with human rights in the fashion industry and how did it start?
In recent years, the idea of “sustainable fashion” has become far more prevalent — to the point that it’s now common to see the phrase pop up within marketing materials and brand mission statements alike.
In its purest definition, sustainable fashion embodies care for the environment through materials, circular design, and production techniques, as well as care for the people throughout the entire supply chain. Unfortunately, the human rights element is frequently overlooked.
Though respect for garment workers should be included under the “sustainable” umbrella, the term “ethical fashion” is often employed to refer specifically to the treatment of people within the industry.
A quick google search for ethical fashion will reveal countless conversations around workplace safety, wage theft, working hours, and fair pay. In a globalized industry, there is much to explore within each facet of the topic, but for the average shopper, a simple way to think of it is boiling the questions down to compensation and safety.
Are people being paid fairly, and is their working environment safe and voluntary? Perhaps surprisingly, many companies can’t answer that question.
Late 1800s — Early 1900s
Exploitation in the fashion industry is nothing new. On the heels of the Industrial Revolution, sweatshops with unsafe and unfair working conditions surfaced in the late 1800s.
Though workers unionized and held strikes that sometimes resulted in individual factory improvements, it took a tragedy to prompt widespread change in the U.S.
In 1911, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City’s Greenwich Village claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly young women from immigrant families.
Bulky equipment and blocked exits prevented most workers from escaping the flames.
Paul Cole, Director of the American Labor Studies Center, explains that this event “awakened a nation to the dangerous and deplorable conditions that many workers faced on a daily basis.”
The tragedy shed light on both safety hazards and unethical practices in the day-to-day operations of sweatshops where teenage seamstresses often worked thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, bringing home just $6 weekly.
In two years following the fire, factory committees were empowered and over thirty laws focused on safety, factory inspection, and sanitation were passed in New York along with employment rules for women and children.
This movement transformed New York into the most progressive state protector of laborers in the nation. Many of these reforms were then swept into federal law during the 1930s New Deal, making “Made in America” a far more trustworthy stamp.
Make no mistake though; there are still sweatshops in the U.S. to this day despite the laws put in place to protect people.
Late 1900s — Present Day
In the 1970s, many U.S. companies began outsourcing production to Latin America and Asia, where they saw an opportunity for cheap labor, access to plentiful raw materials, and the ability to mass-produce orders quickly.
Over the next few decades, companies began two dangerous races fueled by unbridled access to these resources and virtually zero accountability. The first, a race of speed—churning out new style trends as fast as possible. The second, a race to the bottom in pricing.
Combined, this competition created what’s now known as fast fashion.
While fast fashion entices shoppers with its astonishingly low prices — a shirt cheaper than a cup of coffee, who could resist? — the situation that it has created for thousands of workers around the globe is nothing short of horrific.
Clothing is the third-largest manufacturing industry, and it’s estimated that only two percent of garment workers worldwide earn a liveable wage; the other 98% are often paid meager wages and sometimes not paid at all for their labor.
Long hours in dangerously crowded and often toxic spaces is the daily reality for those who make the majority of the world’s clothing.
One disturbing 2018 report found that the fashion supply chain funnels more money toward modern slavery than any other industry besides tech.
Sometimes companies even start producing with a safe, vetted factory overseas but then grow to the point of participating in exploitative practices without realizing it. How does this happen? The companies request their suppliers to manufacture large orders with tight deadlines to keep up with the hectic pace of trends. Manufacturers are then forced to outsource production to subcontractors, which are often unregulated and have no agreement with the original company.
Exploitive practices and sweatshop conditions are commonplace in this scenario, yet the company itself is removed from any blame since they aren’t directly employing the garment workers.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of companies don’t produce their goods themselves, and this makes accountability very difficult.
Similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, it took another massive tragedy to precipitate a modern movement towards a more ethical industry.
In 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh, collapsed in under two minutes. Over a thousand people were killed and more than 2,500 were severely injured. The accident has been dubbed “industrial homicide” as it could have been avoided if safety precautions had been upheld for workers.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, brands and unions joined together to sign a landmark legally binding agreement called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The agreement has made buildings safer for at least 2.5 million garment workers across 1,600 factories.
Still, with fast fashion brands putting the pressure on for more and more cheap clothing, most garment workers are not being paid a fair living wage.
Consumers in the last decade have become increasingly curious about how their clothing is made and how the people making it are being treated.
This curiosity and concern is largely thanks to the work of activists, the helpful spread of information on social media, and the distribution of documentaries such as The True Cost which exposes the dark side of fashion.
Those who begin to learn about the atrocities of the industry are often left asking, “How can we help?”
Are there any current policies to support that will uphold garment worker rights?
Though there are many voluntary certifications that companies can pursue, Cline sees policy as the most effective avenue to focus on.
She explains, “When it comes to creating real change for garment workers, we’ve seen that voluntary initiatives simply don’t work, especially when you compare them to the impact of something legally binding like the Bangladesh Accord.”
From a global perspective, there’s definitely momentum. “All across Europe we’ve seen this proliferation of due diligence laws in country after country.
Now, the European Union is looking at passing a law to obligate all companies based in the EU to ensure they’re not creating human rights harms by driving down prices or asking suppliers to make things too fast.”
Cline notes that the U.S. is far behind in holding fashion brands accountable for their impact on people and environments where their products are produced. “We strongly urged President Biden to appoint an official ‘Fashion Czar’ to coordinate both domestic and foreign policy around ethical and sustainable fashion, but so far we haven’t seen any movement in that direction.”
Nevertheless, there is good news. Governor Newsom of California signed Senate Bill 62, also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, into law on September 27, 2021.
This makes California the first state to require an hourly minimum wage for garment workers. It prohibits piece rate pay which typically only pays 2-6 cents per garment and leads to inhumane working hours in order for workers to earn enough money to survive.
Additionally, SB62 will penalize both manufacturers and brands for wage theft. This level of accountability is a game-changer for the industry. Activists hope to see this legislation used as a blueprint for other states to follow and, ultimately, implemented at the federal level.
“One particularly exciting aspect about SB62 is how hands-on garment workers were with its creation,” Cline remarks. “Garment Worker Center really led the charge on this landmark bill, and these are exactly the people we should be organizing with. They understand the issues within the industry at a deeply personal level.”
Practical steps anyone can take to support garment workers:
Cline recognizes the role social media plays for politicians and encourages consumers to use their voice accordingly. “Now that the bill has passed, it’s important to show continued support and ensure that it’s enforced.
We know that politicians are paying more attention than ever to social media, so it’s worthwhile to take a moment to comment, post, or tweet and thank Governor Newsom for signing the bill while expressing interest in seeing it actively implemented.”
Cline also encourages people outside California to contact their own elected officials and let them know that they want to see SB62 in their state or at a federal level. (Here’s where you can easily find your elected officials’ contact information.)
While Cline and her colleagues continue to push for state and federal policy, she points out that there are other ways people can lend their digital voices to the movement.
With awareness of ethical fashion rising, there’s often a conversation around individual consumers choosing to “shop ethically” and only supporting brands that are treating people well.
This concept is something that Elizabeth Cline has shifted her perspective on in recent years. “We need to get away from the mindset that when we shop ethically or sustainably we’ve done our civic duty. If you really want to make a difference, get involved with a community organization or mutual aid group — it doesn’t even have to be about fashion specifically. All of these issues in the social sphere are so connected. Organize and collaborate with others instead of obsessing over each personal purchase.”
"We need to get away from the mindset that when we shop ethically or sustainably we’ve done our civic duty."
Another leader in this movement is Brittany Sierra, founder of The Sustainable Fashion Forum. When asked about her perspective on the role of consumer purchases, Sierra agrees, “There’s absolutely value in supporting ethical companies if you have the means to do so and it aligns with your values, but I would caution anyone to rethink spending all their time trying to shop perfectly and then abstaining from the conversation around how to make things better in the mainstream fashion industry.”
"I would caution anyone to rethink spending all their time trying to shop perfectly and then abstaining from the conversation around how to make things better in the mainstream fashion industry."
With that said, Cline does make sure to mention that there are clear benefits to supporting small and sustainable businesses. “Giving money to companies with ethical practices demonstrates that there is a demand for these business models. As they grow, these businesses are also getting involved with larger movements. It was incredible to work with so many businesses who put their support behind the Garment Worker Protection Act last year. These businesses are using their influence in the industry to shift it for the better.”
In addition to championing policies, some companies have taken initiative to encourage transparency and ethical practices beyond their own supply chains.
For instance, competitors Nisolo and ABLE teamed up to launch the #LowestWageChallenge which asks other brands to publicly share their lowest wages and have them 3rd party verified.
The companies use a sophisticated reporting tool that not only verifies wages but also measures a supply chain’s impact and implements solutions to improve operations and ensure the expectations of conscious consumers are met.
Places to shop that champion ethical and fair treatment of garment workers:
A growing number of companies are designing their supply chains with both people and the planet in mind.
The specific companies below have supported Good Good Good to bring this article to life and are excellent examples of truly ethical fashion:
ABLE offers high-quality leather, denim, apparel, shoes, jewelry and accessories, designed for you to feel confident in everyday life.
As a women-run fashion brand, ABLE is dedicated to being as transparent as possible in their mission to be ethical, sustainable, and empowering to the women who make up 75% of the fashion manufacturing workforce.
They’ve also grown to see their opportunity to impact not just the people in their own supply chain, but to be something much bigger than that: To be a brand that moves fashion forward and breaks the cycle of generational poverty.
Best known for their high-quality footwear, Nisolo offers a variety of stylish accessories for both men and women. Nisolo understands that a fair wage is a living wage sufficient to cover housing, food, water, education, healthcare, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs.
They ensure a fair wage is paid by frequently monitoring living wages in all of the countries they operate in and working with our suppliers to ensure their even the lowest wage is a living wage.
They visit suppliers regularly and evaluate their practices in partnership with their HR teams as well as employing 3rd party auditing to guarantee socially and environmentally responsible practices.
Miakoda is an eco-friendly, sustainable, and ethically made comfy clothing company that uses exclusively plant-based materials. Julia, the owner and designer, regularly visits the factory they work with in the Bronx, NY.
She has a relationship with the workers and the owner of the factory. All of the workers are paid an hourly wage — as opposed to a "per piece sewn" wage which is an easy way for workers to be underpaid and treated unfairly.
The factory owner ensures that the garment workers hold fair hours and are paid overtime if they work extra hours.
Visiting the factory frequently ensures the conditions are safe and clean, and that the workers are happy and well taken care of.
Tradlands creates timeless, well-made essentials from sweaters to sets that redefine the meaning of effortless style for women. They work with different partners specializing in the garments they’re constructing.
Production partners of Tradlands hold social welfare and production quality to the highest standards. They employ adults who are paid a living wage, work in bright, clean, and airy environments, and choose to come to work.
Employees are given U.S.-based standards of working hours, paid overtime, and never allowed triple shifts.
Tradlands performs compliance audits yearly to evaluate employee satisfaction and environmental conditions.
Some of the links included in this article are affiliate links — which means that Good Good Good may earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase — at no cost to you. Thank you for your support!
People and organizations making a difference for garment workers and ethical fashion:
We’ve just scratched the surface in this article, and if your interest is piqued, there are some fantastic people to learn more from and get inspired by.
There are so many different ways to become a Helper.
People making a difference in the ethical fashion movement
- Aja Barber is a writer (Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism), stylist, and consultant whose work deals with the intersections of sustainability and the fashion landscape. Her work builds heavily on ideas behind privilege, wealth inequality, racism, feminism, colonialism, and how to fix the fashion industry with all these things in mind.
- Betty Yu is a socially engaged multimedia artist, photographer, filmmaker, educator, and activist. Her documentary "Resilience" is about her garment worker mother fighting sweatshop conditions, and her multi-media installation, "The Garment Worker" was featured at Tribeca Film Institute's Interactive Showcase.
- Brittany Sierra was fascinated by the ethical/sustainable fashion industry but unsure where she fit in the conversation. She noticed a disconnect between sustainable fashion enthusiasts and industry leaders. In 2017, Brittany responded with the Sustainable Fashion Forum, which has grown into a wildly popular and industry-recognized digital platform, and a growing global conference.
- Céline Semaan is a Designer, Advocate, Writer and Founder of Slow Factory Foundation, a nonprofit that advances collective liberation for people and nature by preparing historically marginalized people to become climate leaders through regenerative design, open education, and narrative change.
- Dominique Drakeford is a non-traditional environmental educator with a BA in Business Environmental Management and a Master’s Degree from NYU in Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Fashion. She works at the intersections of sustainability and style to spark equitable change for economic well being.
- Elizabeth Cline is a New York-based author, journalist, and expert on consumer culture, fast fashion, sustainability and labor rights in the apparel industry. Critically acclaimed author of Overdressed and The Conscious Closet, Cline has turned her expertise towards strategic organizing and campaigning for labor rights in fashion.
- Kalpona Akter is a former child worker who is now the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). She is on the front lines fighting for jobs with dignity for all.
- Livia Firth was the executive producer of the 2015 documentary “The True Cost” and founder of Green Carpet Challenge. This project aims to raise the profile of sustainability and social welfare by encouraging celebrities to wear ethical designs at high profile events. Firth also established Eco Age, a consultancy firm that provides bespoke solutions for brands looking to improve their supply chain.
Organizations making a difference in the ethical fashion movement
- Fashion Revolution was founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Since then, they have grown to become the world’s largest fashion activism movement, mobilizing citizens, brands and policymakers through research, education and advocacy.
- Garment Worker Center is a worker rights organization leading an anti-sweatshop movement to improve conditions for tens of thousands of garment workers. GWC develops leaders who demand enforcement of strong labor laws and accountability from factory owners, manufacturers, and fashion brands. They center immigrant workers, women of color, and their families who are impacted by exploitation in the fashion industry.
- Remake is a community of fashion lovers, women rights advocates, and environmentalists on a mission to change the industry’s harmful practices on people and planet. They make sustainability accessible and inclusive across three pillars of work: education, advocacy, and transparency.
- Slow Factory Foundation is a non-profit organization focused on generating climate change solutions and systemic change for regenerative social and environmental justice through fashion. Since 2013, it has partnered with other nonprofits, academics, and global brands to facilitate education, design, and community programs in the fashion industry.
- Sustainable Fashion Forum is a global online and offline community for conscious fashion enthusiasts and sustainability advocates (of all industry levels) looking to make a tangible impact in their community and beyond.
Pausing for positivity before we go on our way…
It can be overwhelming and downright heartbreaking to learn about human rights abuses throughout the fashion industry, but progress is being made towards a better future.
A 2021 study revealed that shoppers are genuinely concerned about the ethics behind the products they purchase, and the ethical fashion industry is anticipated to grow by over 25% in the coming year.
With the recent passing of Senate Bill 62 in California, there’s good reason to believe further policies will be introduced in the interest of protecting the rights of garment workers.
The list of people above is just a sampling of the many Helpers who are organizing, innovating, and speaking up.
Whether it’s through simply changing your own purchasing habits, using social media to support new policies, or getting more deeply involved with an organization championing garment worker rights — you can be a Helper too!
Six ways to make a difference for garment workers
To recap, here’s how to get involved in making a difference for garment workers:
1. Change Policy
While individual action is important, systemic change requires people to rally behind effective policies to effect widespread results. Call your elected official and tell them you’d like to see The Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) implemented in your state, and most importantly, at a federal level.
2. Sign Petitions
Check out #PayUp campaign and add your name to the list of individuals demanding that brands treat the people in their supply chains with dignity.
3. Shop Ethically
4. Follow and Learn From Leaders
While this article offers a holistic overview about ethical fashion, it’s important to learn from industry leaders and activists as the conversation continues to evolve. Check out at least a few of the people in the list above and stay informed!
5. Get Involved with Nonprofits
Peruse the organizations linked in this article — and look for ways to get involved, some of them even have local cohorts for in-person connections and collaboration.
6. Share About the Problems and Solutions
Share this article and other resources. Help more people get educated and take action — and leave people feeling hopeful with steps to be part of a better future for garment workers all across the globe.