April 24th marked the third anniversary since the Rana Plaza building collapse tragedy (read about it here), which sparked a global movement called Fashion Revolution. The idea behind this is to raise awareness about the supply chain within the fashion industry and encourage people to become aware of the conditions under which their clothing is manufactured. Fashion Revolution aims to ‘bring everyone in the fashion chain together’ and help change the current fashion manufacturing system into one that is sustainable and fair for everyone involved.
By asking ‘who made my clothes?’ Fashion Revolution wants people to think about the true cost of their clothing in order to close the gap between the people sitting behind the sewing machine and the consumer. They are asking consumers to call for transparency in garment supply chains and develop a connection between what consumers purchase and where it came from.
So for this reason, I decided to rummage through my wardrobe and look at origin label on every single item of clothing I own. I wanted to know what country it came from, rather than what brand.
This exercise was very eye opening and I was quite surprised by the results. It was interesting to see the different origins of my clothing. It was like I had travelled the world collecting clothing, although I have never even visited the vast majority of these countries. I wasn’t expecting the variety that I found, instead I assumed that everything would come from either China (which the majority did) or Bangladesh.
So why did I make this assumption? Let’s call it an educated guess.
For decades, China has been the world’s largest exporter of ready-made garments (RMG) but is now facing intense competition from Bangladesh. Gone are the days when ‘Made in China’ appeared on every garment label. This is due to the fact that it is now ‘expensive’ to produce in China. Wages have increased considerably due to the success of its manufacturing industry, which of course increases the production costs for fashion brands. Instead of paying the higher costs, they are taking their business out of China and looking for the new cheap option. And that would be Bangladesh.
Manufacturing conditions in Bangladesh are perfect for any garment business that wants to cut costs. Cheap labour combined with approximately 4 million workers- this is a dream for most brands. In 2013, RMG’s accounted for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports. This means that 80% of what the entire country manufactures is clothing that will be shipped out to the western world. Simply enormous!
However, even though Bangladesh is the ‘in’ country for garment manufacturing, there are many other countries that also produce cheap garments for the western world. As it turns out, low wages in the textile industry are rife throughout the whole world, giving brands plenty of low cost options. Aren’t they just so lucky?
In my wardrobe, I found pieces of clothing that originated from 11 of the top 20 apparel-exporting middle and low income countries. The rest of my wardrobe consists of three pieces made in Australia and 11 pieces from an unknown origin because they were either handmade or the tag was damaged.
The chart below shows the monthly minimum wages earned by the factory workers in these countries. You’ll notice that China and Bangladesh are on the opposite ends of the scale, hence the attraction for brands. It is also important to keep in mind how many hours a week that these workers have to sit behind a sewing machine to earn this dismal wage. They work up to 18 hours a day, six or seven days a week, without the luxury of sufficient breaks. And in case you are wondering, yes, toilet breaks are considered a luxury.
The issue of wages is very important, as it directly impacts the lives of these factory workers and affects the competitiveness of the brands. Consumers demand super cheap clothing and businesses want to make huge profits, so the common solution to keep both parties happy is to to pay the factory workers a very low wage. Apparently their happiness is not so important.
So take a look in your wardrobe. Where were your clothes made? Read the label before you buy your next garment. Maybe you will learn to appreciate that there are workers literally all over the world who are making these clothes for you. Workers, who also could never actually afford to buy these clothes themselves.