Today marks the day in 1865 that the last enslaved Black people in America learned of their freedom in Texas, over 2 1/2 years after the rest of the country. Juneteenth, while recognized in most states as a holiday, is not yet nationally recognized. Current events are driving us to reflect on the incomplete history we've been taught. Are we aware of our mistakes of the past and have we learned from them? Have we changed?
Forms of slavery still linger throughout the world and especially in the fashion industry. Fashion has a history of child, forced and bonded labor. It may not may not be as overt as America's history of kidnapping and enslaving generations of Africans, but it indeed still exists all over the world, in many forms.
An estimated 40.3 million (1 in every 200) people are living in some form of modern slavery. (The Guardian)
Because 98% of fashion is imported from countries with low labor costs, most supply chains are out-of-sight and out-of-mind. That disconnect makes it easy for consumers to enjoy shopping-- they don't see the consequences of their purchases, and so the cycle continues.
Here are some ways fashion continues to exploit the world's most vulnerable humans.
Factories will hold migrant workers' travel documents, making it impossible for them to leave without completing a specified amount of work. They often live in dormitories, where they given the bare minimum of food and accommodation to get by.
Until recently Uzbekistan required citizens to pick cotton, unpaid, during the harvest. A ban on Uzbek cotton helped to reduce, but not eliminate the practice.
When lead times are crunched, forced overtime is common. Workers must complete the order, with excess, unpaid hours, or lose their job. Sometimes they are locked inside, with a guard to protect exits.
Child labor still exists in garment supply chains, especially in unskilled tasks or with homeworkers who get paid very little per garment. Homeworking situations allow factories to pay very little to the most vulnerable-- they are essentially "invisible" because their employment is not recorded and they receive no benefits.
Sumangali schemes, a form of bonded labor in India, are such that young girls are promised a lump sum dowry after a number of years of service, but cannot leave before that work is completed.
A demand for cheap labor means corners are cut at every step of the process. Many garment workers are forced into unsafe working conditions or lose their job. The Rana Plaza Factory Collapse is an extreme example, but factory fires due to non-compliance with fire safety laws are quite common.
Government-sanctioned work-study programs form loopholes for factories to exploit children in "return" for apprenticeships.
This is just the beginning. Once we know the truth, we can't unknow it. So, how can we be sure that our clothes are not contributing to the problem?
1 Get to know the brands you support. Learn about who makes your clothing and where they are made. Do they have an active stance on fair treatment of workers?
2 Ask questions of brands. The more people who show interest, the more likely brands and retailers will listen.
3 Look for certifications. Without the proof, there is know way for a global brand to know if their supply chains are free of forced or child labor. GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard) is how we ensure our products protects people and planet from the farm to your closet. (Check out the newest revisions that expand on protection of worker rights)
4 Learn about how the fibers you choose are harvested. Are they hand-picked, harvested by a machine or synthesized in a laboratory?
5 Listen to your gut. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A $5 t-shirt cannot be made by someone who was paid a living wage.
While we have a long way to go, the fashion industry has also come a long way. Child labor has decreased over time, but still $127.7 billon worth of apparel imports to G20 countries are at risk of having modern slavery in their supply chains. It is possible to make beautiful, affordable clothing that lift people around the globe. We are proving it every day with our GOTS certified organic cotton products. YES we can look good... AND we can do good too. Challenge your favorite brands to commit to fair and organic supply chains!