Organised irresponsibility: the aberrations of the fashion industry

© Fernando Moleres/Panos
The fashion industry is one of the most agile that exists: manufacturing is splitted into many different processes and is globalised. Garments are generally made in several different stages and countries, and in many different factories. Companies make the most of the competition between different sites, but fail to take responsibility for workers.

The international supply chains are dominated by big brand names like H&M, Inditex and C&A, as well as retailers like Walmart and Lidl. These companies place their orders and set the prices, time-lines, materials to be used and quality requirements, and their specifications determine almost all the details of the various stages of production.

More infos

  • Precarious working conditions: brands fail to act responsibly

    Manual labour in the fashion industry is performed by an estimated 60 to 75 million young workers. In most cases their wages are only a fraction of the living wage that would allow them and their families to survive. Working conditions are mainly of an informal, precarious nature, and are often dangerous and inhuman.

    Although the brands determine the conditions and methods of production, thus playing de facto the role of the employer in the supply chain, they refuse to be responsible for employees, and systematically avoid having any formal link with them. Almost none of the brands have their own factories: an untold number of textile factories, sweatshops and backyard workshops act as a barrier between the employees and the brands. This makes it very difficult for employees or trade unions to stand up for their rights with those who are their de facto employers; it also helps the brands to avoid shouldering any responsibility for the abuses involved in the production of the merchandise.

  • The pressure of competition keeps prices low

    The way things are structured feeds the organised irresponsibility of the brands that play factories, regions and even countries against one another. Suppliers are highly demanding in every way: productivity, quality, reliability, speed, flexibility and very short production deadlines – and of course prices have to be kept very low. As a result, production decisions often favour places where the labour costs are lowest. Delocalisation is very common, and most new production units are built where salaries are lowest.

    The textile export countries like India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Bulgaria or Macedonia set the legal minimum wage well under the living wage. This is to encourage the development of their textile industry. And to avoid losing existing investors and attract new ones, many governments introduce repressive measures against those who defend human and labour rights. They also subsidise exports or create special export zones where workers’ rights are limited, working conditions more flexible, and taxes and tariffs are lower.

  • Billions in profits, thanks to fast fashion

    Profits in the fashion industry are made mainly at the top of the supply chain. This is generally the level where the highest margins can be found: the brand leaders like H&M and Inditex make double-figure operating profits, and their owners are members of the world’s richest classes.

    The big brands have developed a business model and marketing of so-called “fast fashion” to encourage people who already have everything they need to buy more. New collections are launched at a whirlwind rate, and with very short delivery times; special offers and price cuts are the norm; clothes are practically disposable goods; and expensive marketing campaigns are undertaken. And all to continue to grow an already saturated market.

  • We call on companies to act responsibly

    Together with trade unions, employees, organisations that defend workers’ rights, and considerable individual support around the world, we want to end this system of organised irresponsibility. We are deploying various means to demand that companies assume their social responsibilities and that governments regulate the sector properly.

    You too can commit to responsible fashion.