The True Price of Fashion: How does modern slavery exist in the fashion industry?

No matter your stance on the latest fashion trends or your style of outfits, fashion is part of our daily lives. The fashion industry made around US$1.53 trillion last year alone, but how much of that has been linked to modern slavery?

The demand for fast fashion and the rise of ultra-fast fashion has almost doubled the size of the fashion industry itself in the last 15 years, and the risk of modern slavery continues to rise. The clothes we choose to wear, whatever the price point, have ripple effects on society and where we choose to buy our clothes can have either positive or negative impacts on the fight to end modern slavery, without us even realising the extent of it.

Growth of the fashion industry can be good, as it expands the economy, creates new jobs, and improves society through economic growth. However, increased production and excessive consumption have also been linked to adverse effects such as fuelling climate change, increasing landfill waste, increasing social inequality, and damaging people’s mental health.

How does modern slavery exist in the fashion industry?

Modern slavery can exist at all points of the supply chain; from sourcing raw materials, to processing and dyeing of textiles, assembly of garments, distribution of products, and transportation to stores and customers. Whilst the fashion industry is arguably further ahead in transparency than other industries, there’s still a lot of work to be done to continuously address risks as they change and evolve.

Source: Global Slavery Index Spotlight “STITCHED WITH SLAVERY IN THE SEAMS”, Walk Free, 2023

According to the recently published Global Slavery Index report, almost US$468 billion worth of goods at risk of modern slavery were imported by G20 nations in 2021, with garments accounting for US$147.9 billion and textiles almost US$13 billion of overall at-risk imports. The United States is the biggest importer of at-risk garments and textiles at US$57 billion, with Germany (US$20 billion), Japan (US$19 billion) and the United Kingdom (US$11 billion) following. 

Further findings illustrate that nearly two-thirds of all forced labour cases were connected to global supply chains and that most of these forced labour cases were found in the lowest tiers of the supply chains, such as the extraction of raw materials and production stages.

Rachel Hartley, Consultancy Director at Slave-Free Alliance comments “Supply chains are complex, fragmented and have many tiers. Within them changes are constantly happening, so it’s difficult to map down to raw materials and data integrity is one of the biggest challenges. However, transparency down to raw materials is imperative to effectively identify and address the risks of modern slavery and labour exploitation. Due to the dynamic nature and complexity of supply chain transparency, collaboration is key to working towards transparency in lower tiers, and companies need to partner with experts and industry colleagues to have a greater impact together”.

Labour exploitation can cost a country over £300,000 per victim, and estimated costs as a whole between £3.3 billion and £4.3 billion. This comes from funding police investigations to uncover the exploitation, providing services to help victims recover, and setting up processes to help prevent the crime.

Source: Global Slavery Index, Walk Free 2023

Yet, the true price of fashion is the cost of the human lives exploited within the industry. Many workers in the fashion industry are exploited, whether through unsafe and hazardous working conditions, gender-based violence, lack of fair pay, or in the worst cases, forced labour.

What are businesses doing about it?

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses have a corporate responsibility to respect the human rights of those in that business, and cannot act in a way that would adversely impact anyone’s human rights, such as allowing forced labour to exist within the supply chain.

Supply chains can be complex, dense and lack transparency. But this is no excuse. Businesses have a responsibility to address the risk of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. This begins with examining, understanding and mapping supply chains, and ensuring this practice is also passed down to suppliers, right back to the source. Unfortunately, we know from countless conversations and site assessments by our SFA team that many companies across many industries are not yet conducting enough due diligence to address modern slavery and lack robust escalation processes to resolve issues.

In a highly competitive market, fashion companies need to be dynamic and respond to an ever-changing environment. As a result, the welfare of workers in the supply chain can be adversely impacted. To prevent this, fashion companies need to conduct robust due diligence. Transparency of the supply chain is vital because we can’t manage what we don’t know. Building visibility of suppliers and their workforces allows fashion companies to understand where their risks are globally and take the right steps to address those risks. To do this, understanding where vulnerable workers, such as migrant workers and temporary workers, exist in the supply chain is an important step to focus efforts, empowering the workers’ voices and protecting the welfare of workers.

It is essential for fashion companies to assess their own buying practices, forecast effectively, collaborate with suppliers, and recognise where a push for increased margins, cost savings and last-minute order cancellations and changes could impact the ability of a worker to earn a fair wage. To achieve this, fashion companies should train their buyers on responsible purchasing practices.

Similar to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, governments need to create relevant legislation to ensure that corporate social responsibility is not merely voluntary and that there are robust enforcement measures in case of non-compliance.

This has already started with recent legislation being developed and solidified across the world requiring mandatory due diligence reporting, such as:

    • The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, 2010 (California, USA)

    • Modern Slavery Act, 2015 (United Kingdom)

    • Modern Slavery Act, 2018 (Australia)

    • Act on Corporate Due Diligence in Supply Chains, 2021 (Germany)

    • LOI no 2017-399 du 27 mars 2017 relative au devoir de vigilance des sociétés mères et des entreprises donneuses d’ordre, 2017 (France)

    • State of New York 2022, Assembly Bill A8352 (New York, USA)

    • United States 2022, S. 3578 Slave-Free Business Certification Act (USA)

Yet, we, as consumers, can act too.

So, what can we do about it?

Firstly, we can educate ourselves on the extent of the problem and how it exists.

Nasreen Sheikh, a former child labourer, forced marriage survivor, and a leader in the movement to end modern-day slavery says that even when she was a child working in the illegal sweatshops in the inner-city slums, she “knew in my heart that people would not choose to purchase these items if they truly understood where they came from and how they were made”.

No one wants to actively aid human trafficking, but without understanding our purchasing power and how we as consumers can impact the levels of modern slavery in the fashion industry, that’s exactly what we end up doing.

Secondly, we can make informed and responsible fashion purchasing choices. 

Look into the brands you like to wear and the places where you like to shop. Examine their website and see their commitments to fight modern slavery, perhaps through their modern slavery statements (if based in the UK) or through their work with external organisations, and examine their websites, social media and reports to see if their actions match their commitments. To get a more detailed view of different brands and their actions, you can look at ranking platforms to inform your decisions, such as the Fashion Transparency Index, or the Good On You Ratings.

When we buy an article of clothing, our purchase funds the company and we have the power to choose which companies to fund through our purchases. Our purchases act like a vote for that company, increasing the demand and then in turn increasing the supply of products. If the products’ supply chains are not protected, the demand for (and supply of) forced labour could also increase.

So, by understanding the brands we buy from, and choosing to purchase ethically by doing due diligence, we can be assured that we aren’t indirectly funding exploitation and harming workers.

The fight to end modern slavery continues today with almost 50 million people trapped in modern slavery. We all have the power to reduce this number, through smaller actions such as deciding where to shop and how to engage with fashion brands.

To learn more about how your business can become more transparent, contact us at info@slavefreealliance.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *