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  • Writer's pictureSFI Blog Team

Drowning in Clothing

By Kat Coleman

“Confronting the sustainability imperative will inspire the future of fashion. A future that is not linear, but circular. Where value is not lost. Where fashion does not pollute. Where economies (informal and formal) prosper. Where repair and reuse are not radical acts. Where the labor is dignified and never termed ‘unskilled’. Where designers work with joy and purpose. Where Fashion Has A POSITIVE IMPACT” -The Sustainable Fashion Initiative.


Whether you know it or not, the fashion industry is present in nearly every single person’s life. What many people don’t realize, is how it will affect us and already negatively impacts the environment. This negative impact affects the well-being of both people directly (garment workers) and indirectly (consumers). I conducted a survey to gain responses regarding how much consumers know about their clothing and where it comes from. I want to be able to fill that gap with all of the information that isn’t relayed to consumers and those interested and passionate about making adjustments in their textile consumption. These adjustments will bring more ethical and thoughtful forms of consumption. For a positive trajectory in fashions ethics, we need transparency.

The lack of transparency in the industry is concerning as society is unaware of where their clothing comes from, who is behind the construction and what conditions these garment workers are working under. In addition, companies fail to be transparent about the supply chain and international shipping habits. These are topics that consumers may not usually find valuable but that are important to consider when thinking about the ethics of the design industry and process. As a consumer, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on the social and ethical injustices of the industry. As consumers we should also recognize how we play a part in the supply chain and making personal decisions to be more sustainable as well as thoughtful when we purchase clothing.

Arguably the most disturbing and heart-wrenching topics around the garment industry are on garment workers. Subsequently, these topics are the least talked about by companies and are where transparency is the bleakest. The reason for this is because many corporate companies look for cheap slave labor where factory conditions are extremely dangerous and poor, wages are not livable, and unions are fighting to be heard while being threatened by the aggressor higher-ups in the factory. While majority of garments are produced in factories such as the ones described above, there are companies who do a good job of monitoring their factories to ensure workers are happy and healthy and are being paid a livable wage.


Factory conditions in third world countries are inherently unfit for workers yet hundreds and thousands of workers work in single rooms daily for copious hours. The conditions commonly consist of a lack of ventilation, no access to clean drinking water, limited access to restrooms, violence and abuse by supervisors, use of dangerous chemicals without proper resources to protect themselves all while working on averages of 10-14 hours and forced overtime. Transportation to work is also another danger for workers as many take “public transportation” which refers to vehicles made to carry goods. Hanging off the sides and backs of these vehicles on busy dirt roads, resulting accidents are extremely common. In 2015 alone, 7,227 workers died in traffic accidents in Cambodia (“Transport”).

(“Car Crash.” Citizen Journalists)

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia the population is approximately 1.4 billion and 600,000-700,000 of those people work in garment factories with 90% of them being women working 60 hours and overtime a week (“A Living Wage is a Human Right”). Due to high temperatures averaging around 104 degrees Fahrenheit, workers faint daily. The response of supervisors is to send workers to receive Paracetamol (Tylenol) and then to send them back to the factory floor. Workers have to take matters into their own hands when it comes to treatment by utilizing a practice known as “coining” to relieve their pain from heat exhaustion. Coining is the act of raking the surface of the skin with a coin in order to bring the blood to the surface and to aid in maintaining consciousness. (“Garment Work”). Who is behind the decisions and lack of proper regulation that cause workers to suffer like this? Dare we say that the corporate companies,

H &M, GAP, Walmart, and Adidas who combined share a revenue of approximately

$760 billion (43 times Cambodia’s GDP) are the cause (Hale)?

("Coining." Citizen Journalists)

In addition to the tragedies mentioned in the city of Phnom Penh, factory fires and disasters happen all over third world countries every year. One of the most commonly known was the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh. An eight-story building that lacked a sound structure collapsed after workers repeatedly complained and showed their concern regarding the cracks in the walls. There was a total of 1,134 deaths that consisted of people being buried and burned alive. Another tragic event was the factory explosion of Ali Enterprises in Pakistan. On the ground floor, workers were buried by rubble. On the second floor, with windows barred shut, workers were unable to escape and were suffocated by smoke. In the basement, workers were trapped while scolding water flowed from firefighter hoses and were burned to death by the hot water (“Working Conditions”). This was a factory that filled demands for a German company called Kik. The plant manager demanded that the workers stay in order to save the mass piles of jeans for Kik. In this case and most, the corporate world was to blame whether it was direct or indirect. (“Working Conditions”).


It is only expected with the poor conditions and treatment that workers are forced to work in, with little pay, that worker unions would begin to form. Due to the minimum wages that are not livable, workers have no other option but to work in garment factories. A living wage is considered “enough money to cover an individual’s basic needs for them and their family” (“Living Wage”). Predominately women ran and advocating organizations are being formed but they are all fighting for the same rights for workers. Organizations such as Women Working Worldwide and Maquila Solidarity Campaign are supporting rights of women workers as well who may not have that stability and voice to speak for themselves (Hale). There goals are all the same in that they want to improve the solidarity between workers and consumers across nations.

Organizations like these set goals to partner with trade unions that have been formed in response to the challenges and difficulty to unionize. All workers are faced with the same challenges and hardships within the factories, for example, an estimated one percent of Maquila workers are represented by trade unions outside of Honduras. While more formalized organizations such as The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the United States labor rights and monitoring organization, exist, we still are not seeing change and that makes me wonder what is really being done and for who (Hale). If 70% of the world’s clothing exports come from developing countries, there should be branches of powerful organizations such as WRC in several developing countries who can monitor rights, regulations and conditions for workers up close and can be an accessible outlet for workers to reach out to immediately. It is impossible to regulate hundreds and thousands of factories from overseas and expect not to have a lack of transparency.


Garments go through various steps in a production process before even being distributed to stores and then being sold to consumers. Since the chain is so long, companies find it easy to bypass transparency in this process making it difficult for consumers to truly understand who makes their clothes, where it comes from and what processes it goes through in order to be placed on the racks of retail stores. Within production and policy, something that is important to incorporate and abide by as a company is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is a private business’ international regulations that focuses on improving their societal goals of sustainability, transparency, activism, accountability of shareholders and overall ethical practices (What is CSR?). These companies tend to be self-regulating and they aim to aid in their own

personal accountability. Many companies fail to do this because they choose not to discuss the impact of subcontracted production and the pressure that exists on lower tiers of the supply chain Hale). To offer an image for the idea of the brand manufacturers’ supply chain, I created a pyramid to show each level.

(Hale, Image mine)

Within the supply chain model there are six sections that can be further split into the tiers that are visible and transparent to the public (peak and 1) as opposed to the tiers that are less visible (2-5). Knowledge of production policies, increasing cost of production, working conditions and more get blurry when there are so many steps in the garment supply chain that are less visible and not transparently accounted for. The raw materials factories are those that supply materials such as yarns, packaging materials and closures. The manufacturers are the various kinds of factories that working garments are shipped from to be cut, embellished, assembled, packaged, etc. (Hale). Intermediaries are all groups in the chain that don’t focus on transport and shelf stocking such as wholesalers, buyers and agents. Finally, on the frontline there are retailers and merchandisers who receive the product and sell to the consumers.

The fashion and garment industries are known as buyer driven supply chains. This means that the retailer is in charge of determining production details. They buy the clothing from the manufacturers and because of this, they determine production turnaround time, prices for production and quality (Hale). In other words, the companies who do not see or monitor the working conditions in the factories that produce their clothing, make all the decisions that determine how hard and long garment workers will have to work in order to fill an order. Reflect on why giving even more power to the larger, unethical and unsustainable buying companies such as GAP, Levi and other name brands is the wrong way for a supply chain to operate.

If this information was relayed to the public and was more readily available, there would be more pressure on companies to be held accountable. If large retailers do not cooperate, media will eventually catch eye of this, and they may be motivated to expose companies and decrease the power of these top retailers. This action would turn the power around on manufacturers who have a closer insight on factories and their conditions. Without this kind of attention on retailers they can get away with unjust acts that benefit their production but hurt garment workers such as lean marketing. Lean marketing is the act of a company placing an advance on their orders in order to rotate their inventory often (Hale). This causes issues such as suppliers resulting to relocation due to not having the correct materials or supplies. It is the kind of decision that leads garment workers to work overtime where a position isn’t guaranteed and contracts are shortened. All of this is to say that the policies and decisions made behind the scenes by large corporate companies are the foundation to many injustices in the industry and not enough of this information is available for the public consumers.


This lack of information is showcased within the research I did with consumers. I conducted a survey that asked questions regarding how much individuals know about where their clothes come from as well as questions on their consumer habits and knowledge on sustainability and ethics as a consumer of the fashion industry. While my population consisted of 80% 18-24 year old’s, I received 152 responses from people from under 18 and over 65. I was surprised but yet expected the overall responses that lacked a clear understanding of the industry to be from older individuals. Now you know where your clothing is made, but many of the individuals I surveyed were unsure. A large group of the individuals interviewed knew that garment workers in sweat shops, child labor and overseas production were the main components to how their clothing is made. But many others were left unsure responding with answers such as oil, in a factory by machines (which is partially accurate), or simply unsure. If commonly shopped companies were transparent about their production actions individuals could know for sure that their clothing was being produced by real people predominately overseas. From there, individuals would soon find out about the conditions that people have to work under and companies will be motivated to adjust their factory decisions.

When consumers shop, I wanted to know what they look for and how they decide whether it is worth buying or not. I asked the question “Do you check care tags/labels before buying a piece of clothing?” The responses were nearly split equally between responses “yes”, “no” and “sometimes” with 38.2% of individuals saying that they do. While these consumer acts are a step in the right direction towards becoming conscious consumers, the majority of responses suggested that they checked the tags for size, price and care instructions of a garment rather than seeing where it was made or the fabric content. Based on my survey we are on the right direction for consumers to begin caring more about their personal purchasing power and ability to shop better but we still have a long way to go.


Sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry are becoming more commonplace and known amongst consumers. Although, the leading companies are still getting away with unethical production practices that lead to poor and unfair conditions for factory workers. The fashion industry is one of the leading waste industries in the world, producing 13 million tons of waste annually with 95% which could be reused (“How Much Waste”). There are companies today that are becoming more transparent and should be used as examples for larger corporations where transparency is even more important. Companies such as Patagonia, Mara Hoffman, and Eileen Fisher are taking on acts of ethics such as posting detailed information regarding their materials, manufacturing, commitments and operation guidelines. If companies can begin to take on common responsibilities such as factory visits and commitments to their garment workers such as allowing working unions, the ethics of the industry and be sure to improve.

It is our responsibility to educate ourselves on the working conditions of garment workers, the unequal wages, garment workers’ ability to unionize, the process behind garment production, and what companies are actively working to improve any issues in the industry. As consumers, we need to vow to find responsibility and patience in our purchases. As consumers, we need to know what we are partially responsible for when we purchase something designed and produced by large corporations such as Zara, Anthropolgie and Gap who do not practice transparency or ethics. As consumers, we need to vow to consume less and consume better. Companies think that they need to utilize cheap labor but with our knowledge we can change what companies think they need.

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