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Does over-production contribute to the exploitation of garment workers?

This insightful 🖋article by Eilidh Burns offers us a peek into the consequences of overproduction.

"None of the retailers are giving us an ethical price. An extra £2 or £2.50 on a garment would sort everything out. Instead, they squeeze us for pennies. If they don't sell everything, they send it back and charge us for the carriage. Suppose we are an hour or 30 minutes late with delivery they fine us £500. " — Saeed Khliji, Factory Owner in Leicester

Societal desires for products increase every year alongside companies' desires to drive profit margins has left us with an environmental and social sustainability crisis. As trend cycles speed up, we see the effect of 'fast fashion' and the over-production of clothing. In the UK, we are buying more clothing per person than any country in Europe, according to Greenpeace [1]. Modern slavery revelations from garment factories in Leicester have shown that fashion is destroying the planet and exacerbating human rights abuses.

Fashion consumption is causing a waste problem in the UK and other countries. UK citizens discard around a million tonnes of textiles every year. Despite high rates of charity shop donations, roughly three hundred tonnes of clothing still ends up in landfill or being incinerated. To add insult to injury, a lot of the destroyed clothing has never been worn or sold. Retailers and manufacturers dispose of unsold stock in this way as it is the most 'cost-effective'.

Thousands across the UK donate their clothing to charities with good intentions every year. However, most of what we donate ends up getting shipped abroad. The majority of our unused clothing is traded abroad for profit, as estimated by Dr Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at King's College London [2]. Wrap (Waste & Resources Action Programme) estimates that over 70% of all used clothing is sent overseas to join a worldwide secondhand trade.

So, where does this clothing go? Unused clothing is sent to secondhand markets like Kantamanto in Ghana, Africa's second-largest secondhand clothing market. Kantamanto has been the recipient of increasing amounts of cheap and poor-quality clothing [3]. Estimations show that roughly 40% of the clothing bales the market receives are either sent to landfills or in the sea. In other words, the Global South often has to deal with the waste of the Global North, and their environment is suffering as a result.

So what is the answer? Some organisations like the OR Foundation are calling for countries in the Global North to reduce their clothing production by 80% and to find new ways of handling excess clothing, e.g. repair, resale or upcycling. However, the production of clothing isn't slowing down.

The over-production and disposal of this clothing also contribute to the exploitation of garment workers. This incorporates their labour rights, human rights, welfare and safety and community development which manifests itself in forced labour, excessive working hours and low pay. Workers affected the most by human rights violations in supply chains have no opportunities to call attention to these problems or seek redress. Brands are under pressure to reduce costs and increase profit margins as the societal desire for products grows faster. Garment workers are the ones who suffer as a result, as suppliers are forced to cut costs to meet brands' increasing demands. This pressure on suppliers to offer unrealistically low prices was also recognised by manufacturers.

UK factory owner and chairman of the Textile Manufacturer Association of Leicestershire, Saeed Khliji, said: "None of the retailers are giving us an ethical price. An extra £2 or £2.50 on a garment would sort everything out. Instead, they squeeze us for pennies. If they don't sell everything, they send it back and charge us for the carriage. Suppose we are an hour or 30 minutes late with delivery they fine us £500. I have been told of one retailer who is making £2 million a year from fines."[4]

It is widely recognised that companies should undertake human rights due diligence measures. However, they are not legally binding, so who is responsible for social sustainability is often disputed.

Ultimately, this debate disproportionately affects garment workers who continue to work in terrible conditions for very poor wages. Despite the horrendous garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013, working conditions are not improving. Garment workers seeking recourse for poor conditions and pay are often repressed and ignored, and their access to trade union representation is low. In many countries where there are garment factories, mechanisms for collective bargaining could be stronger or more effective. It is reported that over 90% of workers in the global garment industry have no means to negotiate wages or conditions. It is volatile for workers seeking better conditions, which is met with apathy from brands.

This situation is not exclusive to developing countries either. Leicester has the second highest concentration of textile manufacturers in the country, with 700 factories employing 10,000 textile workers, producing around 1 million garments weekly for online clothing brands. More than two years on from the shocking modern slavery revelations from Leicester, a study conducted by the Garment and Textile Workers Trust revealed that more than half of garment workers in Leicester said they are paid below the minimum wage and receive no holiday pay [5].

Workers also expressed fear of speaking out against working conditions, with more than half reporting that they feared dismissal. Moreover, around 8% of those surveyed were working illegally, and 4% had no right to work in the UK, leaving this already exploited workforce with no mechanisms for redress. This has been ascribed to "ineffective or nonexistent law enforcement". [6]

Our current system celebrates economic growth but does not support environmental and social concerns. As climate change and social well-being become more prevalent, more brands will be concerned with translating environmental and social sustainability into their business model. Brands need to take a holistic approach to sustainability by innovating and creating new technology to be more sustainable and considering environmental, social and economic sustainability for all parts of the supply chain.

As consumers, we can commit to buying better quality clothing less often, pledging to re-wear outfits in our wardrobe, and trying to purchase secondhand on resale platforms before buying firsthand. Educating ourselves on the environmental and social consequences of our shopping habits is equally important to help us choose better.

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