The garment and textile industry is one of the leading industries in the world, employing millions of people and generating trillions of dollars across the planet.
However, the fast-growing industry is a product of low wages and poor working conditions that heavily exploit workers.
This article analyzes the effects of the clothing industry on its workers, and the effects it has on the global environment.
The garment industry is one of the most prominent and fastest-growing industries in the world. The industry as a whole is valued at more than $2.5 trillion. Across the planet, the industry employs over 75 million people, including retail workers, designers, and most prominently, factory workers. The majority of ready-made clothing is produced in developing countries, including:
These nations have significantly more lenient labor regulations in comparison to developed countries. Many countries offer very little for minimum wage, with workers earning an average of $0.18 for the production of every $30 t-shirt. Many multinational clothing corporations exploit these low wages for cheap manufacturing, including:
- Disney apparel
- Forever 21
- Urban Outfitters
- Victoria’s Secret
These companies focus their production in developing countries to produce inexpensive, ready-made fashion to be sold at higher costs in more developed affluent nations.
While factory conditions vary across countries, the majority of developing nations lack substantial workers’ rights and safety regulations to provide their employees with safe, equitable environments. Factory workers in the garment industry are disproportionately women, and with many factories being unregulated for minimum wage and gender equality, this leads to higher discrepancies in the gender pay gap. In Bangladesh, where over 85% of garment industry employees are female, some earn as little as $0.15 per hour, less than half of what their male coworkers earn.
Read more: Working Conditions in Bangladesh
These low wages force factory workers into long shifts to meet the cost of living, sometimes lasting 10-14 hours per day with minimal breaks or rest days. In the most extreme circumstances, particularly during holiday seasons when demand for ready-made clothing is the highest, workers can be on shift for up to 18-hours at a time. While most developing countries have regulations in place to prevent employers from forcing or coercing their workers into overtime, many factory workers report employers threatening unemployment or pay deductions if overtime is refused.
These long hours can lead to significant health concerns, including:
- Back and repetitive stress injuries
- Fainting and dizzy spells
- Stress injuries
- High blood pressure
In addition to long hours and low wages, many factories in developing nations struggle with unsafe infrastructure. In 2013, a Bangladeshi factory collapsed and took the lives of over 1,110 workers, due primarily to a lack of infrastructural integrity and safety precautions, including fire escapes and disability accessibility. While Bangladesh has worked to improve the infrastructure of its garment industry, many other developing nations still lack suitable safety regulations, thereby putting their workers at risk of:
- Work-related accidents
- Respiratory conditions from poor ventilation
- Factory fires
Studies show that the worldwide garment industry faces an average of 1.4 million injuries in factories per year. Extreme situations include fatal accidents, limb amputation, and lifelong disabilities, which can impede a person’s ability to provide labor. As many of the fashion industry’s workers lack proper health care and social security benefits, these kinds of injuries can lead to unemployment and lifelong poverty.
Millions across the world suffer from these poor working conditions, as many areas in developing nations lack substantial employment opportunities, and hazardous working conditions are often the only option available.
The ready-made fashion industry is not only a significant driver of poor working conditions in factories across the world, but is also a primary contributor to global pollution and climate change. The garment industry impacts the environment primarily through:
- Water consumption
- Climate change
The industry garment industry is one of the largest consumers of water resources in the world, second only to the agricultural industry. Approximately 19% of all water consumption on the planet is directed towards industrial usage, the vast majority of which is used for garment production, which uses an average of 259 billion cubic feet of water every year. Water in the ready-made clothing industry is primarily directed to growing cotton, developing dyes, chemicals, and machine processes.
This extreme consumption can result in water deserts, where the heavy usage of freshwater limits the availability of drinking water. In 2020, 6% of the world’s population lacked access to clean drinking water, due largely to industrial water consumption.
While this water consumption is heavily localized to areas near factories, the number of people who lack drinking water is growing annually, creating a worldwide water scarcity crisis. Approximately 2.7 billion people face water scarcity for at least one month of the year. This is heavily accentuated by the growing garment industry, where the increasing production of clothes further drives the need to water consumption.
The garment industry is a major contributor to global pollution. In addition to water consumption, the chemical waste from clothing manufacturing leads to significant amounts of water pollution. Many of the countries where ready-made clothes are produced lack substantial wastewater treatment facilities, and high amounts of industrial waste are disposed of in waterways as a means of inexpensive waste removal. In developing nations, 90% of wastewater is disposed of in rivers without treatment. This leads to waters contaminated with mercury, arsenic, and microfibers from fabrics and dyes, and further worsens water scarcity.
Microfibers from ready-made fashion are a significant oceanic polluter. The majority of mass-produced clothing is made with synthetic materials that break down into micro-fibers and non-degradable plastics with every machine washing. When clothes are disposed of in landfills, the fabrics break down into dyes, microfibers, and synthetic material, which can leak into waterways and soils. Synthetic clothing accounts for approximately 35% of the microplastics in the ocean. This pollution is expected to increase as more people across the planet increase their consumption of ready-made clothing.
The extreme mass-production of ready-made clothing also contributes heavily to solid waste. An estimated 92 million tonnes of solid waste are produced annually by the fashion industry. These fabrics and plastics end up in landfills and incinerators, leading to high carbon and methane emissions. And, in developing countries that lack proper waste facilities, these can congest waterways with solid waste that break down into harmful substances.
Read more: Pollution of Shared Resources
In addition to pollution and water consumption, the garment industry is also a significant contributor to climate change. Greenhouse gases are heavily emitted in the clothing industry through:
- Powering clothing factories with coal
- Extracting oils for synthetic clothing (polyester, rayon, spandex, etc.)
- Distributing products across the planet
- Waste disposal through incineration and landfills
Emissions from the international garment industry account for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. The effects on climate change are further exacerbated through the environmental degradation that occurs from material production. Deforestation is a major factor in climate change, and forests around the world are cleared at increasing rates for cotton, cashmere, and leather production.
Read more: Industrial Contributions to Climate Change
The exponential growth of the international fashion industry is a primary cause of poor working conditions and environmental degradation across the world. Garment production occurs primarily in developing nations where a lack of workers’ rights and safety policies result in inexpensive production. Individuals can contribute to improved working conditions and limited impacts on the environment through conscious consumerism. This includes:
- Limiting purchases of ready-made fashion
- Supporting ethical and sustainable clothing companies
- Donating clothes when possible