When people hear the words “human trafficking,” most think of sexual exploitation as opposed to labor exploitation. However, forced labor accounts for an estimated 81% of total human trafficking cases (Human Rights First). One contributor to “forced labor” is fast fashion, which is defined as cheap, trendy clothing that transitions directly from the catwalk or celebrity culture to retail stores for consumer purchasing (Good on You). Its purpose is to get the newest styles on the market as quickly as possible so consumers will purchase them at the height of popularity (Good on You).
Human trafficking is characterized by the use of force, fraud, or coercion, and forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), is work performed involuntarily and with the threat of penalty (Dressember). Forced labor, therefore, automatically falls into the category of human trafficking because it overtly involves the force, and often coercion, of workers into poor working conditions that include unfair wages, dangerous work environments, and gender-based violence. Companies frequently cut corners and ignore safety measures to keep production and retail costs low for consumers and to increase profit margins (Dressember).
In 2016, over 4 million people worked at these sweatshop factories, with the average worker in Bangladesh earning only about $2 per day (Observer). The ILO states that many of the estimated 170 million children engaged in child labor work in textile factories helping produce fast fashion trends (Dressember). This means that not only are adults negatively affected by demands in the American fashion industry, but so are millions of vulnerable children around the world.
The increasing overproduction of cheap clothing items prompts companies to seek out cheap labor workers who often are trafficked into their positions through false promises of fair wages (Dressember). Since labor typically is cheaper in countries overseas that have lower wages, less strict labor laws, and operate under fair trade agreements, the United States outsources a significant portion of its fashion products to foreign producers (Observer). In 2015, 97% of America’s clothes were outsourced from countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India (Observer). If consumers desire cheap prices and care little about the origin of their clothes, few incentives exist for clothing companies to produce domestically (Observer), even though that makes more sense from an ethical standpoint.
While these facts are alarming, it is never too late to change consumer behavior for the benefit of those making our clothing products! One simple step we all can take to create positive changes within the fashion industry is to consider where, by whom, and under what conditions our clothes are being made. Companies selling ethically sourced products generally are very open about their methods of production (Dressember), so a quick search will provide this helpful information. Labor trafficking victims deserve to have their voices heard and rights advocated for, and we can take part in that liberating process by refusing to participate in the fast fashion industry!
Written by Sarah Berning, Professional Writing Intern