Despite exploitation, we keep buying.

The international clothing industry is worth an estimated $3 trillion and employs millions of people across the world. Here, Anja Nielsen outlines the exploitative conditions that lie behind much of the industry, and offers a potential solution in light of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Many of us, knowingly or unknowingly, will at this very moment be garbed in clothing made by people from Indonesia, Thailand, and China. And that’s okay. In fact, as major industries in all three countries (as well as many others in the Global South), it borders on the inevitable. What isn’t okay is that these people do not enjoy the same working conditions, security, and Human Rights as workers in other sectors or countries. What really isn’t okay is that we know that, and we keep buying.

Marissaorton/Creative commons license

Marissaorton/Creative commons license

The daily conditions of workers are often appalling. Verbal and physical abuse, dirty drinking water and harassment continue in places such as Bangladesh, where the garment industry provides four million jobs. Many workers receive impossibly low wages, and even those who earn minimum wage do not earn a living wage. And we keep buying.

The issues, unfortunately, extend beyond the working age population (defined in the UK between 16 and 64); children are not immune to these conditions. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has defined ‘hazardous child labour’ as ‘work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions that could result in a child being killed, or injured and/or made ill as a consequence of poor safety and health standards and working arrangements.’ Sadly, in fact devastatingly, the ILO has identified that more than 115 million children work in such conditions, ‘in sectors as diverse as agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, service industries, hotels, bars, restaurants, fast food establishments, and domestic service.’ These are the daily conditions of millions of children. And we keep buying.

Appalling conditions are not the only devastation that exploitation in industry causes. You may recall the tragedy that happened in Bangladesh in May 2013, when 1100 individuals lost their lives, and 2000 more were injured, in a garment factory collapse. That same year, three workers in a trainer factory in Cambodia died when the floor collapsed. A further six were injured. More recently, in 2015 a tannery in Tamil Nadu, India saw a wall collapse that drowned ten workers in ‘toxic sludge’. And we keep buying.

We keep buying in the face of these facts, in the face of our reality, and in the face of the many organisations that campaign for the rights of those employed in the garment industry. Human Rights Watch, Labour Behind the Labour, and the International Labour Organisation are just a few of the groups that work hard to educate those who implicitly perpetuate this cycle of abuse.

It is tempting to simply throw in the proverbial towel and fall back on the excuse of inevitability. And perhaps, for this generation, it may indeed be the reality we have chosen. But the next generation does not have the same force of habit, yet, and that is how we could begin to address this massive global inequality. Despite exploitation we keep buying – but they don’t have to.

Education is so often cited as the key to change, and this case is no different. By educating young people right from their first comprehension that all children and all people are the same and deserve the same rights, the pattern can change. If a child in Florida understands that their

United Nations Photo/Creative commons license

United Nations Photo/Creative commons license

Anna and Elsa dolls were made by a child like them or a mother like theirs, and that those individuals will never have the chance to play with Anna and Elsa dolls because of their working conditions, it seems feasible, even inevitable, that they will question the supply chains of their toys. And from toys, they will question clothing, and from clothing – everything. This is one way we can finally begin to address the appalling inequality of the global supply chains.

In the next 15 years as the Sustainable Development Goals are pursued, we have a ready-made platform through which to teach young people that all global citizens, no matter who they are, where they were born, or what language they speak, deserve to live a happy and healthy life. The world should not miss this opportunity to change a dynamic that sees millions of people subjected to unfair working conditions, perpetuated by the ignorance of others. By using the SDGs as a catalyst for change and educating young people about the truth behind present supply chains, we can shift the narrative. Because we may keep buying, but they don’t have to.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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