For a lot of us, being a student means living on a budget: maintenance loans, part-time jobs, student discounts, even buying the cheaper own-brand groceries—so the next time you get a bit overzealous on a night out you don’t end up short on two weeks’ worth of food money. As such, when it comes clothes shopping, high street stores that offer fast fashion at affordable prices seem almost too good to be true. And that’s because, in a sense, they are.
The majority of popular clothing retailers in the UK—from a price spectrum of Primark to Nike— have been criticized at some point for the human rights violations in their sweatshops. These include terrible wages, physical conditions, and safety protocols. One well-known example is the Bangladesh textile factory fire in 2012, which killed over a hundred workers who were unable to escape through the building’s narrow exits. Many such factories which supply European clothing companies also employ child workers as young as five. The ILO estimates that almost 170 million children are in child labour worldwide, the majority of these being in the fashion industry.
In light of this information, many of us who are concerned about ethical shopping are looking for a solution. Some anti-sweatshop groups advocate boycotting sweatshop clothing as a means of combating the situation. However, economic studies have found evidence that boycotting may do more harm than good for those living in developing countries. Data collected on third world living standards suggests that sweatshop work is often the lesser of other evils in poor countries, with sweatshop wages exceeding average income in at least eight out of ten countries surveyed.
In Bangladesh, garment factories contribute 75% of its exports, making them a foundation of its economy. Getting factories shut down will only lead to workers going from a poor job to no job at all, or toward more dangerous working conditions. According to Oxfam, when Bangladeshi factories were forced to fire 30,000 child workers in the 1990s, those children simply ended up living on the streets or going into worse jobs, such as prostitution.
Consequently, getting rid of sweatshops won’t improve the quality of life for anyone—it simply shifts the suffering elsewhere, without addressing the root of the problem: workplace standards. It would surely be better in the long term to keep the beneficial aspects of sweatshops (such as reducing poverty by providing higher wages and creating affordable clothing) while trying to solve the less favourable ones. Organisations such as Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery International and the Fair Wear Foundation have people working on the ground in various countries to permanently improve those standards, which will allow workers to keep their jobs but lose the hazards that come with it.
As such, if you are looking for a way to help, keep buying from those cheaper clothing stores, and use the extra money to donate to those charities. Even if you can’t afford to donate, raising awareness can still have a big impact. Share the information with your friends and family, and let the companies you shop from know your concerns. If you would rather avoid unethical clothing brands all the same, try looking at Fairtrade brands such as People Tree that still use artisans in the developing world, but with fair wages and conditions. These also tend to have the added plus of being more environmentally sustainable. While ethical stores like this may be in much lower supply and demand, they are becoming increasingly popular increasingly quickly.
While changes might not happen all at once, a safer, fairer universal working environment is definitely possible to achieve in the future.