Image Credit: THOR (2009). Wikimedia Commons / CC-20.

Fashion in mainstream parlance is often reduced solely to the seasonal trends in clothing set by brands, designers, and fashion media based in New York, London, Milan, and Paris. But when fashion is demystified, one can see the exploitation that forms the basis of the industrial production of garments. 

The problem with fashion, as Tansy E. Hoskins puts it, is the capitalist way of producing it. The capitalist production of fashion broadly rests on the division of the world economy into a production zone characterized by poor wages and a consumption zone characterized by a higher purchasing power. Commodities produced in the former get branded as fashion in the latter. This is made possible because of the market power enjoyed by brands in both the production and consumption zone.

In export-oriented garment production organized in global garment supply chains, brands keep the suppliers and garment workers subordinate to their terms of production. Export-orientation or production for the world market is moreover encouraged by the neoliberal state apparatus to appease capital and discipline labor. 

Brands take advantage of this situation as garment production is conventionally seen as a stepping stone to further industrialization because of its low barriers to entry and labor-intensive nature of production. As a recent book argues, brands are subsidized by the Global South as workers are underpaid and the environment is defiled.

The initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic made matters worse. Brands initially reneged on their commitments without paying suppliers for the work that was already done, which precipitated a massive wage theft. Garment workers found it difficult to feed their families and incurred more debt while brands continued to make profits.

At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic renewed calls for sustainable and ethical production of garments, which was increasingly becoming popular as a solution for addressing the industry’s impact on climate. 

Profit-oriented fashion brands have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon even as activists and scholars have shown these mostly result in greenwashing without any clear legal definition or brand accountability. 

For instance, the Higg index of sustainability has been called out for its ties with fast fashion brands and its bias towards synthetic fibers. The index collects data on polyester production from Europe and conveniently ignores the fact that 93 percent of polyester production happens in Asia. Moreover, research shows that brands profit from the discourse of sustainability but transfer the costs of technical upgradations to suppliers without any substantial financial support—further squeezing suppliers in supply chains.

Even as brands are criticized for their ecological footprint, we must not lose sight of the labor question—the adverse consequences of the non-payment of a living wage to workers. 

The sustainability discourse in its current form focuses primarily on recycling commodities, even as the production model relies on the disposable bodies of women. Women workers often work for a few years in the industry for extremely low wages, experience various forms of gender-based violence, and are so depleted of their physical and mental strength that they are unable to gainful employment after they leave the garment production circuit. 

As researchers have pointed out, this highlights the need for reconceptualizing health and safety in the industry, which is currently restricted to technical or infrastructural solutions alone. Yet, the fact that the health and safety goals of fashion brands are restricted to prevent buildings from collapsing shows how low the standards really are, and this stems from how certain gendered and racialized bodies in the global south are devalued to suit the business model of fashion brands.

Instead of empty commitments to sustainability that at best result in greenwashing, there needs to be urgent structural transformations in the global garment industry. 

This involves first and foremost a commitment by brands to the payment of a living wage that ensures that workers and their families have the right to a dignified life. But this should not be left to the volition of individual suppliers or government regulation of wage levels. Brands currently present themselves as ”buyers” of garments when they have outsourced the responsibility of managing the production to suppliers even while setting the parameters within which production takes place. 

Brands must be held jointly liable in garment production networks, and the garment industry must move towards recognizing this legally. This is an urgent step required in supply chain regulation in the context of the pandemic.

The payment of a living wage must be secured by a bottom-up struggle by workers and their unions through transnational campaigns like the Wage Forward campaign. Such struggles secure institutional safeguards for workers which are absent in top-down interventions by brands and the state. Union-led struggles are not just critical for improving wages, but also enhance the dignity of workers and when unions tackle multiple forms of social injustice (gender, race, caste, regional identity), they can also serve as drivers of broader progressive and democratic change in society. 

Unions are increasingly becoming active in community-based struggles beyond the workplace and related to the environment, housing, water access, and access to health and education services. These provide a fertile ground for conceptualizing and struggling for a labor-centered notion of sustainability.

Even though trade unions are repressed by both state and capital, and though neoliberal globalization has fragmented production, transnational organizing across the different nodes of a production chain is never impossible. 

In fact, such organizing strategies that bind the raw material producer with the retail worker are necessary. The possibility of labor’s resistance that matches the scale of capital’s globalization is not impossible, but it is the need of the hour. Transnational organizing based on the principle of social movement unionism is the way forward to win a better world for workers in garment production networks. 

Aabid Firdausi is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Johns Hopkins University. 

Nandita Shivakumar is the Campaigns and Communications Co-ordinator at Asia Floor Wage Alliance.