What you need to know about sweatshops


If you buy clothes, chances are they were made in a sweatshop. As shoppers, we don’t often ask where the products on our shopping lists have come from. But high street fashion is at the heart of modern-day slavery.


How do sweatshops work?

Fashion brands these days need a lot of clothes. Zara alone produces 840 million of them annually. Most fashion brands outsource the production of their garments to contractors in countries where labour is cheaper. That helps them to keep their prices low and stay competitive. The profit margin on clothes that cost only a few Euros is low. Still, everyone has to earn something: The fashion brand, the contractor and the workers. The contractor can increase their profit if they save on space and wages for their employees. The fashion brands are the customers and dictate the prices; they often go for the lowest offer. As a result, contractors will try to squeeze as many people as possible into the factories and pay them as little as they can get away with. Working conditions vary from one sweatshop to another. Some have better conditions than others, but all have dangerous working environments.


So what’s wrong with sweatshops? 

Quite a few things. First of all, the crowded conditions make it hard to work. Often, the country chosen by the fashion brand doesn’t have proper safety regulations for workers or doesn’t enforce them. During the pandemic, that meant employees often didn’t have masks and other PPE to protect themselves against Covid. A lack of safety equipment can lead to severe accidents. If that happens to an employee, they won’t get paid leave but might lose their job. Since their salary is low, they often can’t afford a doctor. That can lead to further health complications. 

The same can happen if the employees don’t finish the garments within the deadline set by the retailers. If they cancel the order, the contractor will often fire workers on the spot or force them to work unpaid overtime. 

Then, there’s the issue of child labour. Although most countries in the world have laws that forbid employing children, many don’t enforce them. And if you’re poor, you need everyone in the family to pitch in. As a result, there are still 160 million children that have to go to work instead of attending school. Of course, that means they miss out on a good education that could lift them out of poverty.  


What can you do to help?

Sweatshops are a reality of the fashion industry. They exist because we all love affordable fashion that reflects the latest trends. And let’s admit it: It’s hard to feel the same compassion for people you have never met and who live in a country far away from you. If we can’t relate to them, we’re less likely to feel the need to change. There’s a way to change that. Get to know some of them by watching videos like these.  But there’s more you can do. 


Know the real story 

Diving deeper into the world of fast fashion can be an eye-opener. Laura Bravado has written a great book called “How to break up with fast fashion” that helps you do precisely that. “Fashionopolis: the price of fast fashion” is often called the definitive book on fast fashion and a great read. In the documentary The true cost”, filmmaker Andrew Morgan gives us a look into the world of sweatshops and the damage caused by the fashion industry. 


Go shopping less often

Shops are designed to make you feel good about spending money. The store design, the smell, the music, everything serves one goal: to make you part with your cash. And often, shopping has become a habit, a way to meet up with friends and spend a fun afternoon browsing through stores. Like any routine, once you’re aware of it, you have the power to change it. See if you can mix things up. Maybe you can meet your friends at the park or go for a coffee instead of hitting the shops. You might notice that you didn’t need to buy these clothes after all. 


Avoid brands that use sweatshops

Not sure which ones do? Here’s a list of 13 of them. Some of these brands are slowly changing the way they operate, so keep an eye out for your favourite brands. You can also look up brands with the help of tools like Good on You to see which brands are making an effort to change the fashion industry. 


Buy second-hand

You knew we would say that, didn’t you? Buying clothes that have already been produced is often the easiest choice for many people. They can still wear brands they love or find a unique piece without having to ignore the uncomfortable truths behind the label. As we pointed out in another blog post, clothes made until the late 90s are also often of higher quality, so you can enjoy them longer. There are so many options to find vintage clothing: Organising a clothes swap party is one we like. 


There are some signs that the fashion industry, led by conscious consumers, is slowly improving its practices. But there’s still a long way to go until working conditions improve for everyone, not only for us in the Western world. Change takes time. By choosing clothes that weren’t made in a sweatshop, you can do your bit to speed up the process. 


If you want to know what else you can do to help make fashion sustainable, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.


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