The purpose of this week’s article is to shine a light on what exactly a clothing supply chain is and how it is a detrimental aspect of modern slavery.
Next time you are out shopping and decide on a shirt to buy from a big brand clothing store, take a moment to ask yourself the following things; how old were the people who made this shirt? What conditions were they working in? Were they being payed for their work? Did any innocent people have to suffer in the process of making this shirt?
You might think these questions about a single shirt are a bit dramatic, right? Wrong.
These are factors that consumers should be considering before purchasing pieces of clothing – especially if they are sold by big brands. In order to have a better grasp on how slavery is present and active in clothing brand supply chains, let’s first delve into what exactly a supply chain is and how it works.
The ‘chain’ of a supply chain consists of; the creation of raw materials, the materials being made into clothing at factories and the last stage being the distribution process.
If we as a society of consumers start investigating and showing more interest in big brand supply chains, fashion labels will feel more pressure to make their supply chains more transparent.
First of all, there are many different types of fabrics and they are all made in different ways during the first stage of material production. Cotton for example is picked either by hand or by a machine from cotton plants and is then later processed. Polyester on the other hand is made from chemicals that derive from alcohols. The raw material is then spun into fibre, weaved into fabric and then dyed different colours.
The next stage of the chain is clothing production. The process of sewing and putting together clothing is predominantly generated in various developing Asian countries. Big branded products that we see on the racks in stores, are usually created and finalised in these factories.
Lastly, we have the distribution stage in the supply chain. Finished products are transported by shipment or vehicle to retail stores and consumers. Garments and other items are then put on sale and sold to consumers all around the world.
Now that we have a better understanding about supply chains, I can now begin to explain how modern slavery plays a part in the process. The production of clothing was outsourced to developing Asian countries decades ago because of the low costs. People in power take advantage of the opportunity and in many cases use children for labour and pay them little to nothing for their full-time work.
Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world and it’s government controls the industry and also relies on it for revenue. In consequence to this, child and forced labour is used in the country for handpicking cotton.
Child labour was officially made illegal in Uzbekistan in 2009, but it has been reported that it still occurs. With less children working, more adults are forced by employers to take time off work and labour in the cotton fields. It is common for citizens to have their job security threatened if they don’t oblige. People work long days in the fields and hand pick cotton from cotton plants, all day, for little to no pay.
Already in the first stage of the supply chain we can identify slavery, affecting both adults and children. With this said, there has been some major progress in this department with big brand companies boycotting cotton from Uzbekistan, in the past few years.
I am only discussing a couple instances of slavery in the fashion supply chain, but it is important to note that modern slavery occurs in every step and link of these stages. Starting from the production of the cotton seeds, seeping all the way through to the distribution process.
Slavery in the clothing production process is a lot more commonly spoken about and reported on, than slavery in the other stages of the supply chain. Child and forced labour that occurs in sweat shops and factories, is definitely one of the most popular types of slavery that people are actively aware of. Bangladesh, India and China are just a few of many countries that are known to have sweat shops and factories that are in very poor condition.
Children are most of the time forced to work long days in terrible environments, barely get payed for their work and have to sacrifice their education. It is horrendous to think about the fact that some of these workers do not get payed to sew and make our clothing, but then once the fashion hits the stores, it can be sold for ridiculous amounts of money.
I have only mentioned a couple instances of slavery being hidden in fashion supply chains, but do remember that there are definitely many more case that have not even been discovered yet by the public eye.
If we as a society of consumers start investigating and showing more interest in big brand supply chains, fashion labels will feel more pressure to make their supply chains more transparent. This can eventually lead to more companies being proactive about eliminating potential slavery-run businesses in their chains. Many leading brands have already taken the leap of publicly boycotting certain materials and changing sources in their chains. This amazing effort will hopefully continue to create a ripple effect and subsequently force terrible slavery-run businesses, to close down.