The thought of 14-year-old children working 12-hour days in a garment factory probably sends a chill through your spine. It is a despicable notion, and certainly not the kind of thing that should be happening in our world here in the year 2016.
But, it does. And the apparel brands utilizing this labor could very well have their logo attached to the clothes you’re wearing right now.
A new book that recently hit shelves in Sweden called Modeslavar (“Fashion Slave” in English) includes the revelation that multiple factories in Myanmar had young teenagers working illegally long hours to make clothing. One girl interviewed for the book, according to The Guardian, suggested that these facilities hardly bothered with labor rules and regulations, noting that the people running them “employed anyone who wanted to work.”
Among the companies contracting these factories? None other than H&M, one of the largest clothing retailers in the world.
Swedish-based H&M has sprawled across the United States over the past couple of decades, and is one of the primary brands behind the “fast fashion” phenomenon that is gripping the nation. This term refers to constantly changing fashion trends, which are pushing more stores toward a model of rapid turnover in their apparel offerings.
In order to meet this demand while keeping prices down, retailers are leaning hard on foreign labor for mass production, and with manufacturers competing to offer the lowest cost possible, it isn’t hard to see how we have reached a point where garment workers are being taken advantage of and laws are being bent if not outright broken.
If you are perturbed by this, you’re not alone. Humanitarian organizations like Oxfam have been very active in calling out these practices and promoting the need for increased regulation and enforcement. However, it is an epidemic that presently shows no signs of dissipating. The aforementioned examples out of Myanmar are sadly not rare in occurrence. Not even close.
The system is broken. So what can we do about it?
Kill the fast fashion trend? Not likely. The apparel industry is booming with the help of this model. Fast fashion retailers are dramatically outpacing their traditional counterparts in terms of growth. In a society driven by capitalism, it’s just not realistic to believe such a money-making business is going away any time soon.
But there are certainly ways to increase the visibility and transparency of what’s going on at the other end of the supply chain. New technologies continue to emerge providing capabilities that were not available even five years ago.
Leveraging these innovations in order to ensure greater accountability and responsibility in third-world countries that can be difficult to monitor is a vital objective. Without these types of measures, it will become impossible to sustain the current system.