Fast Fashion and Sustainable Development Issues: Environment, Human Rights and Labour Protection by Asel SOORBEKOVA
The current tendency of fashion brands to produce clothes that were made without due regard for the environment, human rights and health, resulted in very cheap and low-quality clothes. Their extreme cheapness, accessibility and influx of retail shops became a reason for people to shop more often than needed. Shopping thus became a therapy, a hobby or a regular Saturday afternoon activity for many. As a result, clothes became allthemore disposable than ever before. An unsustainable way of living in search for the perfect outfits and desire to keep getting shiny objects in the world of social media, the consumptionism and materialism has thus resulted in people buying unnecessary products, low-and-poor-quality clothes which end up in our dumpsters and land-fills; the clothes’ particles - microfibers and textile and garment dying products are ending up in our soils, waters and oceans, contaminating our fish, animals, fruits and vegetables, to the point of causing cancerous and chronic diseases to humans. We, consumers, do this every day, without realising one thing - what is going on “behind the scenes” of the fast fashion industry and what is “the true cost” of fast fashion. And this is only a beginning, unless we embrace the dangers of the fast fashion industry and take actions.
According to UNCTAD, the fashion industry is the second largest polluting activity in the world . UNCTAD further indicates that “some 93 billion cubic meters of water - enough to meet the needs of five million people - is used by the fashion industry annually, and around half a million tons of microfibre, which is the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil, is now being dumped into the ocean every year” . Furthermore, the fashion industry’s carbon emissions prevail over those of all the international flights and maritime shipping, taken as a whole . Apart from the environmental pollution, there is also a human cost: workers of infamous sweatshops work under unsafe working conditions; they are underpaid and work long extensive hours which under some circumstances may qualify as a forced labour; child labour and violence against women are also other big issues, to name only a few.
The reason behind this drastic situation lies in the development of the business model that received its unofficial name, as being “fast fashion”, as a result of the expression of the worldwide concern about human rights and the environment, due to production of clothes for “fast fashion brands”, coupled with the fact that the fashion industry pretty much gets away without being responsible for these things.
So, what is “fast fashion”? And who is responsible for its development and its negative impacts on the environment, human rights and labour rights? This paper will try to respond to these questions, by using the international law approach on the responsibility of States and private actors and by briefly focusing on the role of the foreign direct investments (FDIs) into the fast fashion industry as a potential solution to ease the human and environmental costs to some extent. Its purpose is to provide a better understanding of the legal and moral sides of the fast fashion industry and reveal what actors are to blame for unsustainability of this industry.
Remembering the Rana Plaza, Tazreen and Ali Enterprises Factory Accidents
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, “a fast fashion is an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers” through production of clothes in countries where labour is cheap, via a local garment factory. Fast fashion brands work with garment factories and sweatshops, located in China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Cambodia, Viet Nam and others. Therefore, fast fashion revolves around a concept of creation of garments in countries other than the country of residence of the brand itself, thus, without an ownership of the garment factory by the fashion brand itself. For example, H&M operates in Sweden, but it works with garment factories in Bangladesh, China, etc., just like other brands. But fast fashion is not only this definition. And more importantly, fast fashion is not a massive production of clothes – 24 or 52 collections per year. And to understand that, I invite you to remember some sad historical facts, the ugly truth about the fast fashion industry:
24 April 2013, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1,137 workers dead and around 2,500 people injured after the collapse of the five-floor commercial building “Rana Plaza” , making it so far, the deadliest garment factory accident of all times that involved apparel manufacturing for the biggest brands, such as the United Colours of Benetton, Bon Marché, The Children’s Place, El Corte Ingles, Joe Fresh, Mango, Matalan, Primark , Zara, Walmart, C&A, Carrefour and others .
A little earlier, 24 November 2012, again, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Tazreen Fashion factory fire took lives of at least 117 workers and injured over 200 persons, making it the deadliest factory fire in the history of Bangladesh and likewise, involving many renowned brands .
A year earlier, 11 September 2012, this time, Karachi, Pakistan. More than 255 workers were killed and 57 injured in the fire at the garment factory, as a result of the Ali Enterprises garment factory fire accident, making it the most serious industrial accident in Pakistan’s history . The factory was producing clothes for the German retail brand “KiK” .
When people talk about the abovementioned accidents, the first words that come into their minds are fast fashion, loss of human lives and health in a working environment. The examples above were given to show that working conditions in developing countries that attract fast fashion brands leave a lot to be desired and how serious consequences of employment accidents due to non-compliance with international labour standards can be.
These are only some examples of occupational accidents that have created a lot of resonance around the whole world. They are a proof of how the mass media and public’s attention is usually drawn post-factum, in the aftermath of an accident to situations that leave many dead and injured at one place.
Certainly, respective stakeholders in the global garment industry learnt some lessons after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, Tazreen factory and Ali Enterprises factory fire accidents. So did fast fashion brands and the entire fashion industry.
However, even after the Rana Plaza accident, even after 7 years, the situation of workers in terms of occupational safety, regulation of hours of work and decent pay has not much improved ever since and leaves a lot to be desired.
The reason behind this is the fact that the situation of human rights protection in the field of the fast fashion industry is one that is complex. It is complex, because it involves a group of actors that together comprise an undividable chain in terms of who is to blame and who takes the responsibility.
Fast Fashion: Issues of Labour Protection
There are three key points of decent working conditions which are a big issue in the fast fashion industry – occupational safety and health, regulation of hours of work and decent work pay. And we are not even talking about a one-month annual vacation. We are just talking about the fact that in this industry, workers need to have a safe working environment, their salary needs to be decent, and they must not work excessive working hours. This is what they have been trying to achieve, but without much progress.
1.) First, a safe working environment both for health and life is an important element of decent work concept, because it is linked to the protection of the right to life. This concept must be understood as both long and short-term-wise. In other words, workers are working now and seem fine, but their health is weakening over the course of sometime or there will be obvious signs of diseases a few years later or that they are working in ridiculously unsafe conditions in a building which can crack any minute. Therefore, occupational safety and health should not be interpreted narrowly, but encompass a larger understanding. A human right to life of those who died in the abovementioned three accidents was violated. Furthermore, unfortunately, since occupational safety and health measures are still weak in sweatshops and workers are not safe up until today. Locking-in workers is also a big problem. The ILO says the following in this regard:
“A situation, involving locking in workers implicates the restriction of movement of the persons concerned, which is related to the abuse of their position of vulnerability. If coupled with other means of coercion (e.g. threat or use of force), this situation may be interpreted as definitely excluding voluntary offer or consent” .
2.) The second element is a work without excessively long working day. It means that garment industry workers are supposed to work hours, whether day or night shifts, that are not excessive. Usually, the standard is 40-45 hours a week, but overtime work is allowed, if compensated with salary and a rest time. Many sweatshops force workers to work up to 80-90 hours a week to finish orders from fashion brands, often under threats to cut off their salaries or sack them . The ILO says the following with respect to excessive over-time working week:
“Forced labour occurs, if overtime exceeds the weekly or monthly limits allowed by law and is made compulsory by threats of a penalty, irrespective of the reasons for such overtime” .
3.) And third, a decent salary that reflects the life in that country – how much is enough to live a normal life, is likewise important. For example, in Bangladesh this is equivalent to around 200 USD, whereas workers do not even get half of this amount.
Therefore, a decent work pay remains a big issue in the countries of the fast fashion garment production.
When it comes to the fast fashion business model, there is a problem with the protection of workers’ rights – about the three elements that we discussed above, which are extremely important to the garment industry workers. The average reader that is not fully aware of the existing pattern in the fast fashion industry in terms of labour rights protection might ask: “Well, what kind of a problem? Because we have workers who are making the fashion brands’ garments and we so far see the employment relationship. These workers are getting a salary and nobody is forcing them to come to these garment factories”. The answer is “Yes, and no”. The problem exists in that fast fashion brands are not considered as employers of workers in the fast fashion garment industry. Defining who is “an employer of these workers” is of a central importance in terms of who pays them their salaries and who is responsible for their occupational safety and health within the framework of decent work.
Now, we are coming to the central question which is defining the employment relationship: defining who are employers of workers of sweatshops (garment factories). In order to find out who is “the real employer”, let’s look at one example, by taking a specific country. Bangladesh, a country of the two out of the three abovementioned garment factory accidents as being the saddest accidents in the textile and garment industry and that of the fast fashion industry, can be considered as a good example to study a situation of labour rights protection in the field of the fast fashion industry. Moreover, it is the second largest country after China to be active in this field. Just to be clear – the practice that exists in Bangladesh is also one that has been long observed in other countries of the Global South.
Protection of Decent Work: Defining Employment Relationship
In Bangladesh, the Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry plays a unique role in the Bangladesh economy. The RMG is the largest exporting industry in Bangladesh which experienced phenomenal growth during the last 20 years. The available workforce at a low wage, duty-free market access in the major export destination, preferential location in the heart of the Asia-Pacific region - all this acted as a facilitator to attract fast fashion brands in the textile and apparel industry.
According to the United Nations (UNCTAD) Investment Report 2012 , because local garment factories and businesses do not want the massive inflow of foreign direct investments (FDIs) – in other words, since the local garment factory businesses do not want foreign fashion brands to open their own factories and become foreign direct investors, these local businesses are the ones trying to limit foreign direct investment inflows into the garment industry. They want to keep their businesses and keep making clothes for cheap and sell them to fast fashion brands. For the local factories’ owners – the fast fashion business concept is a strategy to exist as an enterprise, at minimum.
So, who are the “employers of workers that are making our clothes, stricto sensu, that is, according to the law, both national laws and international laws? The answer is that local Bangladeshi garment factory owners are employers of these workers. But what would be different? When could we call fast fashion brands as “these workers’ employers”? The situation would be different only if fast fashion brands came and opened their garment factories in Bangladesh, for example, in a scenario of a classical foreign direct investment. If owners of garment factories are foreign investors as in fashion brands themselves, the issue of responsibility for violation of labour rights and causing ecological damage would be better settled, because foreign direct investors can be held responsible for the deeds of their representation, companies or subsidies on the territory of a host State, for example, in Bangladesh.
However, the issue with the fast fashion industry in Bangladesh is different. It is different in the sense that fast fashion brands, other than trading with private local in-country enterprises that lower the protection that is available at the national level through the Labour Act 2006 of Bangladesh, strictly speaking, are not the directly responsible sides for the environmental pollution and violation of labour rights.
Surely, fashion brands that do business with local Bangladeshi garment factories have their hands on, because they are doing business with these unethical businesses and this goes without saying. But, according to the national laws and International Law, the responsibility is on the local garment factories. The responsibility is also on the Government for failing to oversee and inspect activities and buildings; for lowering the protection accorded by the national labour legislation, legalization of a very low monthly low work pay, further followed by unethical decision of fast fashion brands to do business with the local RMG businesses, on the basis of which the practice has been established between local businesses and fast fashion brands, with the latter, largely taking advantage of the whole situation.
And now, we are coming to the final part of this analysis – factors that made fast fashion grow. I have singled out 10 factors which, in my opinion, make fast fashion the way it is today. There is no issue about the production of the fast fashion rapidly, as such. In other words, fast fashion is not about the speedy rates and timelines at which clothes are made and the fact that we have from 24 to 52 collections per year which means that the time span of production and transport to shops is 10-12 days which is catastrophic in terms of the environmental impact and labour protection, considering how workers have to perform more than 80 hours of a working week to finish orders from fast fashion brands . The issue, however, is quite deeper than that and is layered in multiple levels – involvement of multiple actors. And according to my research and calculations, there are at least 10 undividable factors around which the fast fashion is built.
10 Inter-Connected Factors Contributing to the Growth of the Fast Fashion Industry
1.) First, we have to understand that Governments of the countries of the Global South are authorising a low wage labour market to boost their countries’ economies.
Every time workers demand better wages and go for a strike or a rally, law enforcement officials meet them with violence and suppress them (for example, Bangladesh and Cambodia);
2.) Second, garment factories that belong to local entrepreneurs are creating unsafe working conditions and are making workers work insanely extensive working hours;
3.) Third, Governments (for ex., India and Bangladesh) are closing eyes on these unsafe situations by not inspecting these places on a regular basis, by not shutting down those factories that do not conform to safety standards and that violate the labour legislations. On top of that, there is also a sufficient presence of corruption, starting from first instance local administrations.
4.) Fourth, on the basis of points 1-3, Governments are attracting fast fashion brands, by creating an accessible environment for these businesses;
5.) Fifth, on the basis of points 1-4, fast fashion brands do business, based on the environment that was especially created by Governments to attract these brands and support the countries’ SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and other local enterprises;
6.) Sixth, on the basis of points 1-5, fast fashion brands sometimes knowingly and willingly collaborate, sometimes, partner up with Governments and governmental factories or factories that belong to former or current members of Governments or other influential personas;
7.) Seventh, International Trade Mark Law, by authorizing “knock-offs” - copies of original products, has contributed to allowing these fashion brands to develop into what they are today. It is thus easier to create 52 or 24 collections when all fast fashion brands have to do is to copy the originals instead of creating their own designs. Surely this means that fast fashion brands had something to do with it and influenced International copy right law in the way we know it today, so that they have a leeway and margin of appreciation to produce their products by modifying existing designer models or designer houses’ ideas;
8.) Eighth, it is about the dilemma among garment factories which is to produce more money and compete with each other at the cost of the environment or be more environmentally friendly and spend money on environmental protection measures. As much as they want to filter waste water and be more ecologically sustainable and labour rights wise-ethical, they end up competing with each other. They think that those sweatshops and garment factories that do not follow environmental standards will be better profitable often times they get away without being caught;
9.) Ninth, the garment factories even if they conform to international standards, they can do business with local dying and textile enterprises that are not ethical and also hire subcontractors whose production is not so sustainable;
10.) And tenth, a cherry on the top – it is people, consumers, endlessly buying for the sake of buying without questioning where and how their new clothes were made and who made their clothes.
So, I think that these ten factors are interconnected and together they make an undivided chain around which the fast fashion is built and what is Fast Fashion.
To conclude, the fast fashion industry is not 24 collections or 52 collections per year or how disposable clothes have become today. The fast fashion is the compilation of many factors and responsibility of 4 actors – governments, sweatshops, fashion brands, and customers. Consequently, to break this cycle and to make improvements, it must take everyone mentioned, to improve the situation.
Fast Fashion Business Model: Toss, Repair or Keep?
And what is the solution? Yes, buying less seems like a manageable first-hand option on an individual level, buying less and making sustainable choices is what comes first as the best individual solution that each of us individually can do to produce less garment waste. But, on a more problem-solving level, sort of a global approach, we need to start from the governmental level and then the level of garment industries and the people of these countries. Also, we cannot say no to fashion in the sense that the majority of the world population is poor or middle class and cannot afford expensive garments.
1.) First, to satisfy the needs of masses, we need to have “affordable” fashion. Surely, us, consumers, we need clothes, but these clothes here in Europe, or anywhere in the countries of G20, they must not cost 15-25 euros per jeans and surely not 10 euros per t-shirt and not 19 euros per a button-down shirt. So there needs to be a better price for our clothes that takes into account and reflects labour rights – better salaries and working conditions, and the environmental protection measures;
2.) Second, fast fashion brands limit their collection to at least 12 collections per year – one collection each month, to start with, the fashion might move towards becoming more sustainable. Well, the answer can be yes and no, but surely, there could be much less garbage and waste from our clothes, if fashion brands follow this approach and make sustainable choices, further followed by 4 collections per year;
3.) And needless to say, we, consumers, must stop seeing in fashion a therapy. We need to buy only what is necessary. We need to stop consuming and buying on a regular basis shiny things;
4.) Garment factories need to gather together and boycott fast fashion brands regarding the contractual terms that these brands establish. They should join forces in unions to negotiate better prices and longer timespan for the production of clothes, instead of competing with each other.
Having said that, I will conclude by saying that the current pattern that exists in the world of fast fashion is that fast fashion brands are going to countries whose labour and human rights protection mechanisms are one of the lowest and labour is one of the cheapest. They, fashion brands, are declining the tiniest portion of responsibility, because they have built a business model, according to which – they do not hire workers, but work with local garment factories who are employers of these workers. Perhaps, things would be better, if fashion brands came to these countries as foreign direct investors, considering how, within the past 10 years, matters of sustainable development, including the environmental protection, human rights and labour rights protection have been getting an increased attention in international investment agreements through specific chapters and provisions. But the reality is that with local enterprises resisting an FDI flow, we are not there yet.
This model has existed so long for a long time, but now it has been starting to get shaky. Shaky, because you cannot keep feeding consumers with the unhealthy model that has beaten itself up – with clothes that are not of good quality and unsustainable. People are now becoming more and more aware of the “behind the scenes” of the fast fashion industry. More pressure needs to be put on fast fashion brands through peaceful means, through its clients - customers, and sustainable development activists, as well as International Organisations and the United Nations Organisation, including its newly established UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.
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BBC, Bangladesh factory collapse toll passes 1,000, 10 May 2013 (date accessed: 15 February 2018) available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22476774. For additional information on the accident, also see CBS, Bangladesh charges dozens over factory collapse, June 1, 2015, 10:40 AM (date accessed: 15 February 2018), available at:
Clean Clothes Campaign, Rana Plaza – a man-made disaster that shook the world, Review 2013 (date accessed: 15 February 2018), available at: https://cleanclothes.org/ua/2013/rana-plaza;
Sarah Labowitz, Why We have one eye open and one eye closed: The dirty labor secrets of fast fashion, 24 April 2017 (date accessed: 15 February 2018), available at: https://qz.com/967197/fourth-anniversary-of-rana-plaza-disaster-fast-fashions-dirty-secrets/;
Clean Clothes Campaign, Four years since the Tazreen factory fire: justice only half done, 24 November 2016 (visited on 08 February 2018), available at: https://cleanclothes.org/news/2016/11/24/four-years-since-the-tazreen-factory-fire-justice-only-half-done;
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For more information on the subject and to see that workers in Bangladeshi sweatshops are forced to work extensive working hours, visit Fashion Factories Undercover (Documentary) | Real Stories, available at:
ILO, Q&As on Business and Forced Labour, on over-time (date accessed: 27 May 2020), available at: https://www.ilo.org/empent/areas/business-helpdesk/faqs/WCMS_DOC_ENT_HLP_FL_FAQ_EN/lang--en/index.htm#Q9.
UNCTAD, Investment Policy Review 2012, Bangladesh. New York and Geneva, 2013 (date accessed: 13.05.2020), available at: https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/diaepcb2013d4_en.pdf, p.1;
Fashion Factories Undercover (Documentary) | Real Stories (date accessed: 25.05.2020), available at: