At this point, sustainability has become the buzzword that never stops buzzing. Coming to the limelight only a few years ago, it has stuck in the fashion lexicon like no other term. Yet most of the talk surrounding sustainable development relates to its environmental pillar. The industry often leaves behind social and economic aspects, which has somewhat relegated talk of fashion exploitation to the background.
Yet one cannot solve problems if one cannot see them. Exploitation in the fashion industry is real to the point where refusing to mention it can come off as purposeful. So, in an effort to shine a light on these prominent issues, we’ve decided to talk about it. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but here is a rundown of some significant forms of fashion exploitation.
Little Sweatshops of Horror
Child Labour, Meager Pay and Structural Collapse
In 2013, the Rana Plaza incident propelled the issue of sweatshop laborers to the mainstream. The Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, did not meet any of the construction requirements. So, when the building literally collapsed on thousands of textile factory workers, the problem became very clear. The low cost of fast fashion had a price: the lives of those subjected to life-threatening working conditions.
Of course, the event triggered the emergence of articles upon articles laying out the problems and perils of fast fashion. But things have yet to really change. Seven years after the Rana Plaza accident, a fire broke out in an Indian denim factory. The factory was not following safety regulations, and seven people died.
But what is really behind all of this? Simply put, if companies want to sell, they have to push down their prices. And how to push down prices without losing profit? Cutting down expenses wherever it’s possible. Countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh depend on the garment industry to keep their economy afloat. Brands use this as leverage, obliging suppliers to offer the cheapest prices possible if they want to keep their clients. And the only way to ensure such prices is poor working conditions, meager pay and child labour. Indeed, hoping for economic gains, parents send their young daughters to work in textile factories.
It’s worth mentioning that the pandemic rendered the irresponsibility of big companies apparent. COVID-19 led garment sales to dip dramatically. Companies sought to avoid holding a surplus of a product that they would not sell. Hence, they refused to pay for the millions of dollars worth of clothes that they had already ordered from suppliers. As a result, suppliers had no choice but to fire garment workers. Millions ended up with their own devices; to make a living out of nothing.
The Old Tale of Colonialism
A particularly interesting—and perturbing—fact about the garment industry is that it perpetuates and reinforces colonial power dynamics. As a matter of fact, apparel trade routes are currently almost the same as they were 150 years ago. At the time, European colonization was at its peak.
Indeed, big clothing companies—majoritarily Western—source labor from former colonies. The conditions colonialism left these countries in is precisely what allows them to offer cheap labor. So, apparel companies draw benefits from the past doings of colonialism.
Simultaneously, brands allow for human rights and labor violations to happen. They even encourage them, threatening to go to other suppliers and spurring a race to the lowest price (and salary). Hence, companies follow the footsteps of former colonial powers, building their profit on the exploitation of black and brown bodies.
It’s essential to keep these phenomena in mind when considering what fashion exploitation means. It is not simply about the rights violations tied to the fashion industry. It is also about those violations’ ties to the past. It’s about the general picture: that of exploitation at a colossal level.
Unions As Solutions?
Now, not all is gray and cloudy. To every problem there is a solution, and this cannot be an exception. With the previously mentioned pandemic controversy emerged a wave of protests against big brands and companies. Workers have begun to demand rights respect. Unions have arisen.
Certainly, unions have historically been tied to increased labor rights and protection for workers. Hence, garments workers unionizing might be a way to fight against the many human rights violations that they face. That’s not to say that there aren’t any obstacles to this.
Suppliers are well aware that improving working conditions and wages would mean increasing the cost of their work. This would lead garment companies to simply drop them and recur to a country where labor is cheaper. Thus, suppliers—as well as the police—allegedly discourage workers from unionizing through violence and harassment. Furthermore, legislative measures including laws demanding 30% of workers within a factory to form a union prevent associations from arising.
Ultimately, however, unions could be a specially helpful tool if most suppliers adopted them. That would entail an international effort and a consensus to raise standards. While that might seem like too hard of a task, anything is possible if one puts one’s mind to it.
Finally, on an individual level, one can always use dollars to cast one’s vote. Though a privilege, buying from companies that concern themselves with fair work conditions is a step in the right direction.
Models or Manikins?
Sadly, sweatshops are not the only place where fashion exploitation takes place. While some often glamorize it, the modeling industry has cost too much to many.
A Lawless Industry
Models find themselves in an intersection of unfavorable positions. The industry has mostly immigrant workers. Labor rights are famously faulty when it comes to this sector of the population. Additionally, agencies commonly encourage models to work illegally (meaning without a working visa), which obviously leads to abuses of power. As a result, models are often overworked and underpaid.
In fact, a number of models work in debt with their agencies. They do not have access to their finances, which allows the latter to pay as little as they want. Surely, modeling agencies are not licensed and they’re not regulated. Hence why modeling and trafficking are so closely tied together.
Endless Sexual Traps
To add to the evil workings of modeling agencies, they are known for putting their models in great danger. They have even worked as trafficking agents, sending models to shoots or castings that end up being traps. For instance, agent Jean Luc Brunel allegedly recruited girls for Jeffrey Epstein’s famous trafficking network.
This sector seems to be particularly prone to sexual harassment and assault, as it is ultimately about bodies. When photographers hire models, they hire bodies that will pose according to instructions. But where is the limit? Drawing the line can be difficult, especially in the face of prominent figures. People like Emanuele D’Angelo allegedly rely on their fame and status to force models into performing sexual favours.
Getting the Work Done
In an industry like fashion, in which reputation matters so much, speaking out can mean killing one’s own career. Yet some former models, such as Ekaterina Ozhiganova and Sara Ziff, have bravely broken their silence and helped make things better. The former founded Model Law in 2017, which offers education and legal advice to models in France. The latter founded Model Alliance in 2012, which looks to improve labor standards and create safer workplaces for models.
It is essential for us to support and talk about such organizations. Because in to solve a problem, it needs to be seen first. And since not everyone has the privilege to speak out, we must amplify the voices of those who do.
Cultural Appropriation as Exploitation
Unfortunately, fashion exploitation expands further than the modeling industry. It’s time to focus on the much-talked-about problem of cultural appropriation.
When Those Who Do The Work Don’t Get The Profits
Cultures have been drawing inspiration from one another for centuries. And there is beauty in that. It is an essential part of artistic creation. To stop such processes from happening would be to prevent the new to emerge.
Nevertheless, there is a very clear difference between drawing inspiration from something and downright copying it. Cultural appropriation refers precisely to the latter—to the “exploitation of marginalized cultures by more dominant, mainstream cultures.” For instance, in 2020, Isabel Marant was accused of appropriating Mexican Purepecha patterns without giving them any credit.
To be clear, this is not about gatekeeping aesthetics and forcing them to stay where they originated. It is about giving credit where credit is due, about giving monetary compensation to those who deserve it. Because at the end of the day, big Western brands benefitting from the designs of marginalized communities is exploitation. Much like in the case of sweatshops, it both benefits from and perpetuates colonial power dynamics.
Black and Brown Bodies As Focus Points
Though not necessarily the same issue of cultural appropriation, the use of colored people as cultural objects is also problematic. Most recently, the French brand Sezane was accused of using an indigenous Mexican woman in their campaign without compensating her financially.
A video surfaced of Sezane’s crew (unmasked) taking what seemed like professional pictures of the previously mentioned woman. Though the brand later claimed that the photoshoot was meant for personal and not commercial purposes, some question that. The crew instructed her to dance, prompting some to claim that it was making a circus out of her.
The issue is that the brand used her as cultural capital. The crew seemingly objectified the woman and reduced her to her indigenous roots. Once again, this constitutes not only a violation of labor rights (as she was not paid), but also recreates colonial power dynamics.
With such a thing becoming a pattern within the fashion industry, it is essential that we call attention to it. Ending fashion exploitation might ultimately come down to conferring power to those at the periphery of the supply chain. Yes, focusing on the negative is never the solution. Still, in order for things to change, we need to be aware of what is happening.
We must be aware of how our clothes are intrinsically linked to the exploitation of people. More specifically, to the exploitation of those who the system has oppressed for centuries. We must use our voices to speak for those who cannot. We must raise awareness.
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