If you’re a socialist, or at least concerned about consumerism and capitalism, then fashion may seem to be at complete odds with the fundamental principles of left-wing ideology. It’s increasingly difficult to purchase “ethical” clothing these days; many brands masquerade as “sustainable” to the point where it’s becoming almost impossible to tell the difference between “green,” ethically-made clothing and the dreaded fast fashion.
“Fast fashion,” if you’re not familiar with the term, refers to the world-wide phenomenon in which popular brands—such as Target and Fashion Nova—rely on a model of overproduction, mass consumption, and mass waste. The waste is much more extreme than you may realize: according to a recent McKinsey report (sorry), people globally consume an excess of 100 billion pieces of clothing a year. This may seem excessive, given that there are only 7.5 billion people in the world, but millions of tons of clothes end up in landfills every year, with many consumers adopting a “buy to wear once” mentality toward clothes made out of cheap plastics. With brands pushing consumers to spend more and amass endless amounts of products, the world simply cannot cope with the rates of production any longer. According to the World Bank, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. At this pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50 percent by 2030.
Workers can’t cope with the rates of production and exploitation, either. Many politically-engaged people will remember the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, where a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, crushing 1,134 of its workers to death. Many popular U.S. and U.K. brands had orders placed with Rana Plaza factories, and were therefore considered partially responsible, if not liable in what is considered the worst industrial disaster in the garment industry. Trade unions called the incident a “mass industrial homicide.”
Horrific disasters are not at all unheard of in the garment industry. Historically, it’s been a very dangerous profession, as illustrated by famous events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in which 145 workers were killed. Conditions in the garment industry are often miserable, when not actively murderous, and for this reason, garment making has a long history of unionism, with many notable strikes across the world (such as the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909 and the Great Bombay textile strike of 1982). It was partly because of poor conditions in the mills in Salford, England that Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, before he would go on to write The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx in 1848.
In recent years—up until the Rana Plaza disaster—the fashion industry had been doing a fairly decent job of covering up its humanitarian crimes, such as the polluted, dyed-blue river in Xintang, the denim capital of the world. Through a mixture of outsourcing and expensive P.R. companies, most brands had been able to paper over the glaring cracks in the industry. The shoe industry was a notable exception; in the 1990s, a global boycott of the sneaker brand Nike changed the game, and inspired a generation of activists that change could be possible, provided we hit corporations where it hurts—in their profits.
Anti-fast fashion activism, however, had been somewhat on the decline until the Rana Plaza disaster. That event jarred many people awake, and provided a direct link between the fashion industry in the West to the exploitation and often abuse of entire cities in the global South. Pressure from human rights organizations and consumers alike forced brands that were sourcing clothes from the Rana Plaza factory to face up to their murky connections of such exploitation and publically commit to doing something about it. Around 250 companies signed two initiatives to tackle this underground garment production: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
These initiatives were created to ensure that no such incident could ever occur again and to increase and enforce safety for garment workers. But while an incident like the Rana Plaza disaster can create a panic and shine a spotlight on a particular aspect of the industry for a few months or even years, other crimes often quietly take place in the shadows. Horror stories cut through now and again, such as when consumers find labels stitched into their purchases overwritten with cries for help. But these stories are often quickly forgotten, filed away after commitments to investigate supply chains that corporations often claim to not know about anyway.
Many modern clothing brands rely on webs of subcontractors to fulfil their garment orders, and by doing so can feign ignorance or defer responsibility when things go wrong. They usually claim that they simply “had no idea.” The reality is that exploitation in these largely subcontracted industries is so entrenched that it just takes on a different name or structure, going further underground—often to the further risk of its workers. Sadly, since the Rana Plaza incident, thousands of underground garment factories continue to produce clothing for popular Western brands across the world. Exploitation in these underground factories is all but guaranteed: a future disaster may reveal it, but once the disaster has been cleaned up and new regulations passed, we can expect this industry to retreat even further into the shadows.
The Clean Clothes Campaign—a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment industries—has noted that:
The garment industry, not only the fast fashion industry, is built on poverty wages and sweatshop conditions. These working conditions are no mere flaws of individual factories, but they are driven by an industry practice of pushing for the lowest price and shortest lead times in an eternal race to the bottom. The awkward truth is, that as long as this dynamic is not addressed, scandals about working conditions in factories in the UK, Bangladesh or Ethiopia will continue to resurface from time to time. As long as brands respond by cutting and running or just addressing conditions in a single factory, the overall level of exploitation will not change.
As it stands, the fashion industry is doing fine. Brands have been reporting record sales amid the coronavirus pandemic, with companies such as the leading throwaway fashion brand Pretty Little Thing reporting swelling profit and growth. This is the same Pretty Little Thing that this year was found to have had connections to sweatshops discovered in the United Kingdom paying less than minimum wage and with conditions likened to those in Dhaka and Bangalore. Pretty Little Thing has spent the year defending their position in the stock markets and tempting their concerned customers back with Black Friday sales selling items for as low as 8p (around $0.11).
But what about the rest of the fashion industry? Many corporations must be breathing a large sigh of relief that Pretty Little Thing and other lower-priced and lower-quality brands such as Boohoo and Missguided have taken most of this year’s flak for their exploitative production models. However, more established and expensive brands have also been linked to cancelled contracts totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds in the Global South. Such cancelled contracts as a result of national lockdowns and shut-up shops across the world have resulted in the shuttering of factories across countries like India, and have supposedly given cover to union-busting.
For example, according to a report by Gautam Mody—the General Secretary of The New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI)—H&M has been implicated in a significant scandal. One of their contractors, the Euro Clothing Company of Gokaldas Exports, had been producing solely for H&M for the past couple of years. Workers made roughly INR 8,000 per month ($109.59), and it also happened to be one of the very few garment factories where the (mainly female) workers were unionized. In June 2020, citing the supposed cancellation of orders, Gokaldas decided to shut the shop down entirely and illegally fire over 1,200 women workers. H&M was also reported to have cancelled large orders from garment factories including another Gokaldas factory, the Euro Clothing Company site in Bengaluru in Karnataka, India.
In response to what appears to be organized attempts to break the will of workers, Mody told me: “women workers are more vulnerable than ever and the company is hoping that they would not be able to hold up for long under these precarious conditions and they will have their way. H&M is bound to continue its orders as per the Global Framework Agreement signed between Brands, Unions and ILO.”
Labor power in the garment industry can only go so far: entire towns in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar currently survive at the behest of these global corporations who, if threatened, can simply shut down factories and move to some other place that offers the cheapest labor and the lowest safety regulations. When it comes to companies like Gokaldas Exports and H&M, how can we fundamentally and irreversibly force them to change their ways? Is consumer pressure the answer?
Jay Kerr from No Sweat, a grassroots campaign that builds solidarity among garment workers worldwide, has some answers to this question of consumer power and responsibility. He notes there are huge problems of exploitation in the fashion industry at many levels (from the catwalk to the production line), and it is impossible to have any involvement in fashion without coming up against the issue of exploitation. For Kerr, consumer boycotts are not the answer: the major brands that control the industry still have the power to pull out of a contract with a factory at any given moment if their profit margins are under threat, which in turn puts workers’ livelihoods in danger.
More and more “ethical” fashion brands appear on the market all the time, but Kerr explains that the corporate social responsibility model—with its Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives and ethical accreditation labels—has been proven largely to be “not-fit-for-purpose,” as he puts it. Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) are voluntary partnerships between governments, civil society, and the private sector. They’re intended to attempt to address development challenges as a collective, entrench democratic practices, and strengthen existing regulatory frameworks. While increasingly popular over the last 15 years or so, MSIs remain purely voluntary and have no binding power whatsoever.
In Kerr’s mind, what’s needed is greater solidarity between producers and consumers, greater support for the trade union movement, and more efforts to amplify the voices of workers calling for decent conditions and a living wage across the world.
Compensation is a good place to start. If, for example, the large fashion corporations that control the garment industry worked to reduce the pay differentials at the executive level, then everyone further down the chain could earn a living wage. The global garment industry is worth something like $1.3 trillion. The profits currently end up in the hands of shareholders, even while there’s plenty of money in the industry to improve both working conditions and environmental impacts. But corporations are designed to make money and won’t make these changes on their own.
What Kerr does not advocate is an opt-out strategy. Simply buying more expensive, supposedly ethically-sourced clothes is not the answer. Only through stronger unions, greater consumer pressure, genuine worker-led compliance schemes, and political campaigns for environmental sustainability and a living wage throughout the entire industry can we make fashion something fair and enjoyable for all.
“If we don’t engage with the fashion industry,” says Tansy Hoskins, campaigner and author of a groundbreaking political analysis of how the fashion industry operates, “we are leaving this enormous industry with its 60 million workers, often the poorest in society, to the right-wing and unhindered capitalism. Or we can leave it to well-meaning free-marketers, who often are only slightly scratching at the surface of its myriad of problems, and thinking the market can be trusted to change the industry.”
As it stands, the free market is more than willing to engage in the language of change, but not actually change much at all. The term “sustainable fashion” gets thrown around a lot: it requires garment producers and brands to only create amounts of clothing that can be sold in a “conscious” manner. Sustainable fashion in principle removes the need to burn deadstock and doesn’t rely on over-selling products to consumers already swamped in clothing, only to end up in a landfill either at home or offshore in an illegal site in the Global South. In principle, the sustainable method of producing clothing with workers paid a living wage, and fabrics used that don’t contribute to the ever-growing climate crisis should be the way forward.
“Sustainable fashion,” like most “green” initiatives, is simply a method that corporations use to further greenwash their sins. “Greenwashing” is when corporations use the language of environmental responsibility to sell their products; it’s a trick that large corporations perform to pretend to the rest of the world that they give a damn about climate change. See Pretty Little Thing’s “recycled clothing,” which they sell for just above the minimum wage of the workers who produce it. H&M also actively participates in greenwashing; they market much of their stock as “sustainable” and even champion green politics. Recently topping the Fashion Revolution transparency index—which was created to hold brands to account over their terrible production practices—H&M used the announcement to once again tout its faux-green credentials and its transparency. H&M is, of course, not especially green or transparent about its practice: it’s just that every other brand is so bad that H&M is the best solely by comparison. Their commitment to environmentalism is almost certainly insincere; they have just noticed that sustainability is a trend that can sell more things.
It’s not enough for leftists to simply rely on brands to buy into sustainability, and then choose from a select few which jeans are the most likely to have been made by an adult being paid 3 pence an hour in Myanmar as opposed to a one-handed child. It’s our responsibility to throw our efforts into campaigning for the top-down overhaul of the entire fashion industry to protect the workers within it and the planet that it’s helping to destroy.
Capitalism in the 21st Century is persuasive—in its ability to make us buy things we don’t want or need, but also in its ability to absolve us of any personal responsibility around the choices we make. Or, it convinces us that our consumer choices are the only available moral decisions, and that no further action is needed.
As leftists, it’s our responsibility to look at the fashion industry with a critical and collective approach and to move beyond an analysis focusing on personal consumption alone. By tackling this enormous industry as a unified body we can begin to create impactful systematic change for the climate, for the 60 million workers the industry continues to exploit, and for ourselves and our future. Beyond concerns for workers and the environment, it’s important to examine the fashion industry’s cultural control, and the outsized impact it has when it comes to how people think and feel about their bodies. The fashion industry creates so much pain, particularly for women. It deforms our understanding of gender, sexuality, and race. We have to free ourselves from the fashion industry in its current state, and this can only be done together, not through individual shopping practices.
That being said, when we talk about fashion we are talking about objects of consumption that are closely tied up with a sense of individual identity. Inspiring people to think about their personal consumption is actually a decent place to start: it can be a gateway to getting people to think about fashion as a wider structure. We want people to consider how they can support workers and inspire change, through holding environmental actions, supporting strikes, etc. When we encourage others to think critically about their wardrobes, about the conditions of the people who make their clothes, and what we would like a fair and non-exploitative fashion industry to actually look like, we encourage people to realize they have more in common with workers in the factory than the bosses who own the brands.