The Clothing Industry: Modern day attitudes akin to those of historical slavery

clothing factory
Image of small clothing factory in Delhi courtesy of Paul Prescott /
In the wake of the Bangladesh factory collapse Sarah Compson implores us all as consumers to take responsibility for what we wear and not to turn a blind eye.
we have a sense something isn’t quite right about the system, but we carry on anyway

News of the Bangladesh textile factory collapse last month (April 2013) was shocking to say the least. As well as sadness, sympathy and compassion for the victims, something else also welled up inside me – horror. It wasn’t just horror at the unnecessary deaths of over 1000 innocent people, but horror caused by a realisation that the disaster highlights the dark side of the way we think about and consume fashion.

It immediately made me think of 18th and 19th Century attitudes to slavery - not because the Bangladeshi factory workers were enslaved like African-American slaves - but rather because our collective attitudes to these workers and the clothing industry they’re part of seem comparable to the attitudes of the majority of people who consumed the products of slavery in England during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Namely that we have a sense something isn’t quite right about the system, but we carry on anyway, believing that if it was that bad, governments, society, or God wouldn’t let it happen.

The Bangladesh disaster highlights the fact that the clothing industry really is that bad in some cases. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. The ‘race to the bottom’ for the cheapest clothes means that corners are commonly cut, mostly affecting the vulnerable communities in developing countries where most of our clothes are made. Organisations like Labour Behind the Label (to name just one), often highlight the terrible realities behind our clothes.

However, whilst human rights abuse and worker safety issues are common problems in the textile industry, the reality isn’t completely bleak. Some brands and retailers are trying to tackle these issues in their supply chains. It’s not an easy job, partly because supply chains tend to be complex and large, and partly because improving social conditions adds costs, which companies think their customers won’t pay. But it is possible to improve things and some companies are willing to take the necessary steps.

Organisations like Textile Exchange are doing a brilliant job working with brands and retailers in order to address these issues and find workable solutions. Certification schemes like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) mean that we as consumers can choose to buy clothes that have been produced by people working in safe and humane conditions. Last month, my colleague George went to India and saw for herself that conditions in factories can be excellent when social and environmental issues are prioritised – making a huge difference for workers.

we have a sense something isn’t quite right about the system, but we carry on anyway

I recently learnt that almost to the day, 150 years ago, representatives from the Lancashire mill towns wrote to Abraham Lincoln to declare their support for the Northern States’ anti-slavery blockade of trade from the Confederate States. This was despite the fact that the trade blockade was directly causing desperate hardship in the numerous Lancashire mill towns which relied on imports of Southern cotton picked by slaves.  

This astonishing act of altruism led Lincoln to respond by writing:

“I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom ...”

Is it really too much to hope for a modern-day repeat of this altruism?!

In a rush to apportion blame for the Bangladesh factory collapse, we shouldn’t miss the fact that it might also be a wake-up call - an opportunity to take action. Action doesn’t necessarily mean boycott (in fact boycotting businesses can ironically be more damaging to those at the bottom of the supply chain than those at the top).

Action means making a decision to buy my clothes from companies that care about these issues as much as I do and are doing something meaningful to improve them.

Action means buying less but spending more where I know the extra cost is to pay for better social and environmental conditions along the supply chain.

Action is about telling my favourite brands and retailers that I don’t want them to produce a £3 t-shirt for me if it means someone might die as a result of the cost-cutting required to sell it at that price.

At the very least, action for me means thinking about the costs beyond the price tag and putting my money where my morals are.

Have you cottoned on yet?

Sarah Compson works on the Cottoned On campaign at the Soil Association. The campaign seeks to highlight the proven benefits of organic cotton for people and the environment and asks consumers to consider the impact of their clothes.

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