The average American family spends $1,700 a year on clothing, often without a second thought about how all that clothing was produced.
In the United States, people view clothing as disposable and ignore the labor required to produce garments. What might not come to people’s minds are the 40.3 million people, of which 71% are young women and girls, currently living in modern-day slavery. While contemporary slavery may seem removed from Americans’ everyday existence, it is still alive, and the proof can be found in our closets.
The Global Slavery Index tells us fashion is the second most likely industry to perpetuate modern-day slavery, and in 2018 the 20 countries with the largest economies imported $127.7 billion worth of garments identified as at-risk products of slave labor. Furthermore, in 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor found child and forced labor were used in the production of garments in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, among other countries. In Bangladesh, garment workers earn only $96 a month, less than a third of what constitutes a living wage, while they are exposed to mental and physical abuse and toxic chemicals that have lifelong health consequences.
In China, tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims were forcibly enslaved in 27 garment factories between 2017 and 2019, where they faced harsh working conditions such as a prohibition on practicing their religion and compulsory Mandarin lessons. These slave establishments represent part of the supply chain of dozens of businesses, most notably Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Anthropologie, Free People and Target.
Omer Kanat, the executive director for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, demanded action from the brands that benefit from slave labor.
Brands must “ask themselves how comfortable they are contributing to a genocidal policy against the Uighur people,” Kanat told the Guardian in 2020.
The average U.S. consumer inadvertently contributes to these unethical conditions by purchasing from fast fashion brands. ASOS, Forever 21, H&M, Nike, Urban Outfitters and Zara are just a few more of the popular brands that currently produce clothing in sweatshops, where workers are underpaid and subject to dangerous labor conditions. Out of 219 brands surveyed, 75% did not know the source of all their fabrics, and half could not trace where their products were manufactured.
People often associate a higher price tag with more ethical production, but even at luxury prices the infamous “Made in Italy” tag is no guarantee clothing is produced with integrity. In Italy alone, there have been multiple incidents of sweatshops employing undocumented Chinese immigrants who produced items for brands such as Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Fendi, Gucci and Prada.
Neither brands nor consumers should be bystanders to slave labor for the sake of fashion. The top international fashion labels have brand values in the billions and easily have the means to not only pay their employees a living wage, but also provide them with a safe and healthy working environment.
While legally mandating ethical working conditions is necessary, voting with the consumer dollar is a more direct means of change. If cost prohibits people from supporting small, sustainable brands, then the best option is first mending the clothes they already own, then turning to secondhand stores when needed. For people who have the resources to buy from luxury brands, the best alternatives to take a stand against the current fashion regime are small, domestically produced, sustainable businesses.
Wherever people choose to purchase clothing, shopping websites like Good on You and Fashion Checker can also arm consumers with knowledge about specific brands’ practices and policies in relation to their workers. Being informed about the manufacturing of garments is the first step in eliminating the unethical constitution of the fashion industry.
Fashion should not have to cost people their lives, and the desire to consume and maintain a stylish wardrobe does not excuse feeding the cycle that keeps millions of people around the world stuck in contemporary slavery.
Annabelle Pukas is a sophomore in the College. What’s in a Wardrobe appears online every other Thursday.