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Sweatshops and Fast Fashion: The Human and Environmental Cost of Cheap Clothing

CRISIS - Pollution Crises by Lei Nguyen Asia Feb 25th 20234 mins
Sweatshops and Fast Fashion: The Human and Environmental Cost of Cheap Clothing

Since the 1990s, the popularity of fast fashion has increased significantly in first-world nations. Consumers buy inexpensive, fashionable clothing for a small fraction of the cost of high-end goods. Clothes manufacturers have been able to build this business model by relying on cheap labour in developing nations, where workers are exploited and underpaid and often work in inhumane conditions. We explore what sweatshops are and how the trend has been evolving in recent years.

What Are Sweatshops?

A sweatshop refers to a “typically tiny manufacturing establishment employing workers under unfair and unhygienic working conditions”.

Many fast fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21 receive new clothes shipments every day. These brands are able to sell a huge amount of clothing and at extremely low prices by contracting with suppliers in underdeveloped nations. These businesses subsequently contract out the production to unregistered vendors that do not have to abide by any laws. In other words, there is no requirement for these brands to provide safe working conditions to these workers. 

Underpaid And Overwork: The Human Cost Of Cheap Clothing

Sweatshops are not a recent phenomenon and have been covered in the media for decades. The fast fashion industry has long been complicit in a system that pays workers below subsistence in order to maximise profits. This business model, which focuses on selling mountains of clothing at unsustainable costs, has yielded less and less profit to those who directly create them.

sweatshops; fast fashion

From Bangladesh to Leicester, the fashion industry is built upon mass exploitation. Credits: A.M. Ahad/Copyright 2018 The Associated Press.

In order to manufacture things quickly and inexpensively, sweatshop workers – often women and children – suffer grueling workdays and meager pay that does not cover basic expenses, while offering them cruel working and living circumstances. In several manufacturing nations, including Bangladesh, China, and India, the minimum wage only covers half to a fifth of what a family needs to make ends meet. In Bangladesh, workers are paid about 33 cents per hour, while the average wage in sweatshops in India is barely 58 cents. 

Working conditions are poor, unhygienic and unsafe since a large number of sweatshops are located in poor nations with weak labour laws and little government control; as a result, if workers attempt to challenge their rights or work conditions, they risk losing their jobs. Workers in the garment industry are required to put in 14 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week, and endure verbal and sometimes even physical abuse from managers. Oftentimes, workers are exposed to harmful substances while working without enough ventilation. Accidents and injuries are also frequent. In 2013, over 1,000 garment employees in Bangladesh lost their lives while at work as a result of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory.

sweatshops; fast fashion

Bangladesh garment factory collapsed in 2013. Source: Business and Human rights. 

While these businesses rely on the poor, they particularly target underprivileged kids. According to a survey on mills in India, 60% of the employees were under the age of 18 when they started working. These kids are particularly vulnerable to being compelled to work in sweatshops because they are caught in the cycle of poverty.

The Severe Impact of Sweatshops and Fast Fashion on The Environment 

The ongoing demand of consumers for new clothing has a significant negative impact not only on humans but also the environment. When you combine this with the fashion brands’ planned obsolescence, which ensures that items wear out more quickly due to poor manufacturing quality, you have a business strategy that is inevitably wasteful. 

Between 80 and 100 billion new pieces of clothing are reportedly manufactured annually around the world, while a lorry load of worn clothing is burned or buried in landfills every single second. The number of wears an item of clothing receives before being discarded has reduced by more than a third since 15 years ago, according to market experts Euromonitor International. British citizens alone reportedly discard around one million tonnes of textiles annually

Fashion is ranked as the second most polluting business in the world by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), right behind the oil industry. It takes 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, which is equivalent to 7,500 litres needed to create just one pair of pants. The amount of plastic microfibre that is dumped into the oceans each year is close to 500,000 tonnes. 

The poisonous colours produced in factories and the chemicals used in cotton growing are other aspects that highly contribute to polluting the environment. Water that is chemically contaminated kills organisms that are in or close to streams, therefore reducing ecological biodiversity in these regions. The chemicals used in dyeing have also been linked to a number of malignancies, digestive problems, and skin irritation, all of which have a detrimental effect on human health. When crops are irrigated with dirty water, contaminated vegetables and fruit enter the food chain, representing a huge threat to human health.

You might also like: 10 Stunning Fast Fashion Waste Statistics

How Can You Tell Which Brands Rely on Sweatshops?

A good rule of thumb is to verify a brand’s level of transparency; if they are not openly releasing information, it is definitely a red flag. In May 2020, two reports from Global Labour Justice (GLJ) describe the mistreatment of Asian female garment workers in H&M and Gap supplier factories, including (but not limited to) physical abuse, sexual harassment, unfavourable working conditions, and mandatory overtime. 

The best way to learn more about a brand is to visit its website and read what it has to say. These days there are a number of websites such as Fashion Revolution which produce an annual Fashion Transparency Index reviewing 150 of the world’s biggest fashion brands. You can also use apps like GoodOnYou to search for specific brands that have been rated based on factors like how they treat their employees, the impact they have on the environment and animals, and more.

Featured Image: Flickr

You might also like: Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact


About the Author

Lei Nguyen

Lei is a student at Masaryk University pursuing her studies in Politics, Media, and Communication. With a strong passion for writing and journalism, she aspires to become a prolific writer in the field of social issues, particularly mental health and climate change. Currently, she is working as an Editor Assistant at IVolunteer International and Contributing Writer at Earth.Org.

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