Committee on International Market and Consumer Protection

“Decolonising fast fashion: The abuse of human and labour rights is rife in the fast fashion industry, and many brands have been refusing to pay their garment workers in the wake of the pandemic. With 80% of the 74 million textile workers worldwide being women of colour, these unethical practices implicate layers of injustice. What can the EU do to eradicate such practices and improve worker protection while keeping clothing accessible to customers?”

By Lidewij Mes (NL) and Sasuke Ikemizu (NL)

Relevance of the topic

Modern society, fueled by a world economy largely reliant on capitalism, is characterised by a constant need for consumption, and fashion is one of the branches of the economy where it is most apparent. Fast fashion is the term used to describe the low-cost mass production of clothing, designed to provide consumers with on-trend pieces as quickly and as cheaply as possible.  Thanks to the fast fashion industry and its 52 micro-seasons a year, keeping up with trends has never been more difficult, and has never offered bigger money-making potential.
To be able to sell clothes at a low price, most fashion retailers outsource their production to low-income countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. In these factories, where most of the employees are women, garment workers work under “sweatshop” conditions; they are underpaid, work very long hours and are constantly exposed to health and safety risks. Furthermore, many factories are not enforcing the necessary measures required to make environments COVID-safe for employees. Very little testing is being done and social distancing is not being made possible.

To make matters worse, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, garment workers have been further underpaid or not paid at all. 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and 10% of its GDP depend directly on the textile industry. In March, in Bangladesh alone a total of 3.18bn dollars’ worth of orders were cancelled or put on hold – nearly one-tenth of the country’s annual textile exports. Since coronavirus shutdowns began in the retail industry in March, millions of garment workers in some of the poorest parts of Asia have lost their jobs.

Key actors

Consumers, by buying their products, contribute to the fast fashion industry by creating demand and therefore, knowingly or unknowingly, contribute also to the abuse of human and labour rights.
Fast fashion companies rely on cheap and fast labour, in order to be able to sell their clothing at a low price. Because of this, they outsource their products to factories where human rights are often abused. However, slow fashion companies play an equally important role. Slow fashion is the movement against fast fashion, focusing more on sustainability, quality and fair wages.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is an organisation that unites employers, workers and governments of 187 member states to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men. By giving each actor an equal voice, they ensure that the views of each social partner are included in the making of labour standards and policies. Their main goals are to enhance social protection, encourage decent employment opportunities and make the dialogue on work-related issues stronger.
In today’s world where social media plays a big role in the daily life of many people, influencers hold an important position in affecting people’s purchasing behaviour. By promoting certain brands, they have the power to change consumers’ habits and push them to not support fast fashion companies. 
When it comes to legislation and issuing directives and regulations, different bodies of the EU play different roles. The European Commission has the responsibility and initiative to propose legislation; the Commission submits proposals to the European Parliament and European Council, who must agree on the proposal for it to become European law.

Key conflicts

In today’s world of consumerism, as mentioned before, fast fashion companies try to produce as many clothes and styles as possible in order to keep customers happy and to fuel the market. To do this, they rely on garment factories in low-income developing countries where their products can be produced quickly and cheaply. However, these manufacturing companies are officially not authorized by or affiliated with the fast fashion companies that outsource their production. This way, the fast fashion brands are not obliged to ensure a safe working space and decent working conditions.
Fashion companies put huge amounts of pressure on suppliers, demanding more and more clothes for less and less money.  This creates extremely high levels of competition in the industry, and results in suppliers sacrificing workers’ rights in order to keep up. Margins are thus unsustainably small and companies, suppliers and garment workers are constantly vulnerable. We saw the consequences of this at the beginning of the coronavirus shutdowns. Companies stopped being able to pay their suppliers the minute the crisis began, demonstrating the lack of ethics in the fast fashion business model. Garment workers’ livelihoods are seen as dispensable, as they are the first to suffer when problems arise. Garment workers are often forced to work overtime and through breaks without being paid, in order to meet targets. When targets are not met, garment workers are often physically and sexually abused as punishment. 
One of the main things to keep in mind when tackling this problem is that clothes should stay affordable. Most ethical slow fashion brands  that don’t outsource their production to developing countries are often much more expensive than fast fashion brands. Making the fast fashion industry more ethical and sustainable should not come at the cost of its affordability. UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises have set standards of corporate social responsibility for Western brands that outsource their production to developing countries. However, these standards are not binding, and therefore companies that don’t follow these standards are not sanctioned. Meanwhile, when it comes to the supply chains and impact on the environment of fast fashion companies, there continues to be a lack of transparency in the fast fashion industry. A lot of companies don’t share details about where and by whom their products are made and how sustainable their companies are, making it hard to make changes in the industry from the outside.

Measures in place

CARE is an organization committed to saving lives, defeating poverty and achieving social justice. With help of the EU and the Austrian Development Agency, they set up the ‘Oikko’ project. The aim of this project was to improve the working conditions of women in the garment industry in Bangladesh by helping them realise their fundamental rights, as many of them were unaware of the rights they had. 
WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) is a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on empowering the working poor, especially women, who work in the informal economy. The informal economy comprises economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state. In the informal economy, earnings are typically low but costs and risks are high. WIEGO creates change by building capacity among informal worker organisations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. WIEGO’s work includes its Core Programmes, which, among other things, involve assisting informal workers’ organisations in their advocacy for social protection, and informing policy debates and increasing the political visibility of informal workers by improving the quality and quantity of statistics about their work.
After the accidents that happened in garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan and the repression of protests of textile workers, the European Parliament has adopted multiple resolutions, such as a resolution on “Labour conditions and health and safety standards following the recent factory fires and building collapse in Bangladesh”. Amongst the many commitments made in this resolution is an endorsement of the reforming the labour laws so as to allow workers to form trade unions without prior permission from factory owners.

Clean Clothes Campaign is a global organization focused on improving working conditions and empowering workers in the garment industry around the globe, by, for example:

– Putting pressure on companies and governments to take responsibility to ensure garment workers’ rights are respected and implemented
– Raising awareness
– Urging people to take individual or collective action.

During the pandemic, Clean Clothes Campaign started a campaign that introduced the hashtag #PayYourWorkers  to raise awareness around the fact that garment workers were being underpaid or not paid at all, and to put pressure on companies to take responsibility for their garment workers.

What now?

– How can it be ensured that clothing stays affordable and accessible for everyone?
– Is it possible for the EU to create better and safer working spaces, even though the factories are located outside of the EU?
– Can consumers and influencers be held responsible for perpetuating an unethical fashion industry by participating in it? Do they have the power to effect change or should all the focus be on the companies themselves?

Links for further research:

Covid led to ‘brutal crackdown’ on garment workers’ rights, says report – The Guardian
Fast fashion, slow destruction: this is the price other people pay for the cheap clothes we buy – The Correspondent
How Instagram Influencers Fuel Our Destructive Addiction To Fast Fashion – Huffington Post
Factory Exploitation and the Fast Fashion Machine – Green Business Network