The clothing we buy at chain stores and most local boutiques isn’t made by machines or 3D printers. People, not machines, make almost everything we wear, from socks to jeans to dresses to hats. Whether it’s a “hand-embroidered” scarf at a small local boutique or a t-shirt that is sold in thousands of stores across the country, the garments, shoes, and accessories we buy are the result of human labor.

Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, many of these laborers, many of them women and some of them children, work in dangerous or very uncomfortable environments for low or exploitative wages. In some cases, the laborers making the clothing we buy were forced into his or her position.

In this Smart Girls Understand, we’ll take a look at the state of the fashion industry and the complicated truth about much of the clothing we buy while also looking at the sustainable fashion movement–its environmental, humanistic, economic objectives–and how it hopes to change the status quo.


Fast fashion is a ideology in the fashion industry centralized around the idea that clothes are meant to be consumed cheaply according to trendiness and in large amounts (think of encouragements to “get one in every [cut/color/pattern]”). The upside to fast fashion is ostensibly that styles can be had at every budget. There are, however, grave downsides to the fast fashion industrial complex, such as gross carbon emissions and resource waste. The intense demand of fast fashion also relies heavily on cheap labor, which involves human cost.

Although fast fashion retailers are a big part of the problem, they are not the sole contributors. According to The Atlantic, most, if not all major global retailers–whether or not their clothes are cheap or expensive, luxe or flimsy–utilize exploitative labor. According to journalist Stephanie Hepburn, “Garment workers in the primary exporter nations—China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh—don’t make anything close to a living wage. Their wages don’t cover basic needs such as food, rent, healthcare, transportation, education, or even clothing.” Many of these laborers work 14-hour days with little or no access to water or bathrooms. Some are not allowed to leave until they reach a quota of garments completed.

IBM Africa


Most clothing companies, particularly fast retail companies with a global presence, contract factories in locations where labor is cheap. Although a great deal of these companies ensure compliance with local labor laws in addition to the hiring company’s own labor and safety standards (for example, that factories have accessible exits, that employees are paid a living wage, that employees are of a minimum age) the truth is that most of these factories employ sub-contractors who are not protected and may have been on-boarded through human trafficking.

Sub-contract employees are often already disadvantaged migrant workers and/or victims of human trafficking and are not always privy to the same rights and safety guarantees as regular employees. In large part due to the prevalence of subcontracting in the global fashion supply chain, it’s very easy for companies to unknowingly employ a supply chain that is dangerous or abusive to its laborers. In 2011, athletic wear company Patagonia, historical champions of ethical and sustainable supply chain, found their own supply chain compromised, but it was only Patagonia’s decision to self audit that led to this realization.


Sustainable garment from Good Cloth.


Cotton, while technically an organic fabric, is also one of the most wasteful to produce. It takes a lot of water–nearly 5,000 gallons, in fact–to make just one t-shirt and pair of jeans. According toEcoWatch, cotton, which makes up 40% of our collective wardrobe, consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides.

Clothing dyes are another environmental scourge. While dyeing technologies that don’t use water are out there in the market, much of the world’s clothing manufacturing relies on fresh water–using up to a half trillion gallons each year. Dye wastewater is commonly discharged into local rivers where the pollutants are bound to trickle into the world’s oceans.


Journalist Stephanie Hepburn became engrossed in the sustainable fashion movement while researching her book Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight. It was the connection she found between human trafficking and the garment industry that led her to galvanize the sustainable fashion movement.

According to Better Work, she says, women make the majority of the world’s clothes. Hepburn also says that while women may be such a deep part of the garment industry because of traditional gender roles, oppression and marginalization also plays a part:

“Instead of exploiting girls and women’s vulnerability and marginalization to obtain low-cost labor, sustainable fashion designers actively seek to employ and empower marginalized women. This includes women who are members of minority ethnic groups or are HIV positive and ostracized by their families and society. Part of the sustainable fashion ethos is to provide fair trade wages, access to safe jobs, education, healthcare, and a sustainable income for women artisans.”

“The vast majority of designers in sustainable fashion are women. I can’t say exactly why there are so many more women than men designers entering the sustainable fashion world, but there are.”


Words to look out for: Unfortunately, if a company does not tout their sustainability to a trumpet-like degree, their supply chain is very likely not sustainable or ethically-minded. Beware of “green,” “organic” “vegan” or “recycled” if you’re interested in purchasing garments that are made with fair labor. “Sustainable fashion” and “fair-trade” are both good hallmarks of ethical fashion.

Shop fair trade, shop sustainable. Companies like Mata Traders, Good Cloth (founded by Stephanie Hepburn) and MadeFair are great places to start. Hepburn also recommends checking the #EthicalFashion tag on Instagram to discover more sustainable fashion designers.

Shop used. Especially from an environmental perspective, buying second hand clothes is a great way to recharge or build up your wardrobe without supporting an unsustainable supply chain. There are plenty of cute, gently worn clothes out there in need of great homes.

Wear what you have. One of the unexposed shadows of the fast fashion world is the “clothing deficit myth.” The notion that we can continue to buy more clothes and simply get rid of what we have by donating it to the needy enables and encourages the idea of buying excessively and for cheap. Not all donated clothing actually reaches the needy, and much of it is ending up in consignment shops or landfills. Take a good, hard look at your clothing and see if it’s worth keeping.



The Atlantic “All Your Clothes Are Made With Exploited Labor” 

EcoWatch “Fast Fashion is the Dirtiest Industry in the World Next to Big Oil”

Fashionista “What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations” 

Bust “The True Price of Fast Fashion”

Wikipedia “Sustainable Fashion”


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