More and more people are paying attention: where is my clothing made? Because of course we don't want child labor and exploitation of the workers on our conscience. Made in Asia sounds negative, while Made in Europe must be good. But is that true? And how do you find out? If you dive deeper into the world of clothing factories, you will find out that labeling factories as 'good' or 'bad' is not that simple.
When we see “Made in India” on a clothing label, it is often have prejudice. Not unjustly: child labour, collapsed factories and sexual harassment still occur. Nevertheless, especially in China, for example, hard work is being done to improve working conditions and sustainability.
Rana Plaza, the biggest disaster ever in a textile factory
As consumers, we can quickly have certain prejudices about clothing factories in low-wage countries. The first thing that comes to mind is the poor working conditions and child labour. The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh brought these abuses to light.
On April 24, 2013, in Savar, a sub-district of Bangladesh, an eight-storey building called Rana Plaza collapsed. The collapse killed 1,134 people and injured about 2,500 people. The collapse is considered the deadliest ever at a textile factory and the deadliest engineering disaster in modern history.
The day before, work had been halted due to fear of collapse, thousands of people were at the door. They were afraid, there were big cracks in the wall and huge cracks in the pillars. The complex was ready to burst. However, the owner denied that the construction was dangerous, that it was just plaster that had fallen off the walls. So the clothing factories reopened as normal. Workers who refused to go to work faced dismissal.
And then it happens. Shortly after nine o'clock, the eight-story building collapses.
Working conditions could be better
For many textile workers, the collapse was the last straw, as the disaster was the latest in a series of accidents and incidents in Bangladesh's textile factories. Construction and fire safety were not a priority. Not with the Bangladeshi government, not with the factory owners and not with the fashion brands we love so much, such as Benneton, C&A, Primark and Mango. In the years before, hundreds of textile workers in Bangladesh died in factory fires. It had to go catastrophically wrong at some point…
Two days after the disaster, workers took to the streets en masse to protest against the unsafe working conditions in the factories. There was also international criticism of the working conditions in the Bangladeshi factories. In June 2015, 41 people who were in any way involved in the conditions at the complex were simultaneously charged with murder. It concerned civil servants, owners of the clothing factories and the owners of the building. A turning point in the fashion industry, although it is only recovering slowly.
Supply and demand
Factory owners are not always heartless people who want to make as much money as possible on the backs of their employees. Clothing production and respect for people and the environment can indeed go well together.
What you often see is that they are trapped in a system and are extremely dependent on buyers. They deliver what the buyers (in other words: us) ask for.
In addition, they often do not even do it on purpose, it is usually a lack of education and not knowing how to do it differently. Sustainability is a long process.
Then don't buy?
Not buying is also not an option, this became painfully clear when major fashion companies withdrew their orders en masse due to the COVID pandemic. Simultaneously factory workers were thrown out on the street, and a video of a distraught employer in tears over being unable to pay their workers went viral. Removing clothing factories from developing countries will not solve the problem.
People who live in poverty have no choice, they have to support a family, so they often have to choose between two evils. Do you choose safety or an income. Taking work away from them worsens their financial situation and that of their children.
The hot topic: child labour
Child labor is a difficult subject that is the subject of much discussion. According to UNICEF, 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 worldwide work as child labourers. Child labor deprives children of their childhood and their right to education. In addition, it is harmful to their physical and mental health. There are various causes of child labour, such as poverty, lack of knowledge, lack of proper education and poor compliance with laws that protect children.
The clothing industry is one of the high-risk sectors when it comes to child labour. In the large factories that supply directly to international clothing companies, child labor is rare. Much has been improved in that area. The risk is mainly in the situation where manufacturers outsource orders to smaller factories and workshops, where little or no checks take place.
How can it be better?
Clothing brands and their buyers can be keen on certain criteria by which they assess a factory before committing to it. For example, it is important to see whether the staff receives a living wage. Do they get paid for overtime, do they not work more hours than legally allowed and do they have an employment contract? If all this is missing, an employee has no freedom at all and they are trapped in their situation.
It is very difficult to say which employer is good and which is bad. Some clothing factories help their employees in other ways, such as medical care and/or childcare. Others pay more than minimum wage and do not offer these perks. You often see that women in particular are oppressed, so if you see a woman in a high position at a company, that is a good sign.
Our clothes come from all over the world
T-shirts and jeans from our wardrobes come from all over the world. The vast majority of clothing is nowadays made in developing countries. China, Bangladesh, India and Turkey alone account for 75% of the trade in textiles and clothing. That hasn't always been the case. In Europe, including the Netherlands, a lot of clothing was produced before it was outsourced to low-wage countries in the 20th century. Myanmar is emerging as a clothing-producing country.
Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world: a quarter of the inhabitants live below the poverty line. Garment workers structurally earn too little to support their families and sometimes work 20 hours overtime per week. Many workers do not feel safe at work. 90% of Myanmar's garment workers are women and they face harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. The garment industry in Bangladesh is notorious for its unsafe factories. In recent years, many factories have been hit by fires and a number of buildings have collapsed. The difference between the minimum wage and the living wage is large in India. In addition, the payment of the minimum wage is not enforced. Child labor is legal and common. Although slavery and forced labor are prohibited by law, there is unfortunately a lot of forced and bonded labor in practice.
China is by far the largest exporter of clothing in the world. The clothing industry is an important pillar of the economy. The growth of the textile industry in China has also led to higher wages. The regulations are quite good on paper, but in reality it just doesn't happen. We still see appalling working conditions and exploitation of the workforce. This needs to be stopped but as long as people keep buying clothes from Aliexpress or Shein, it won't happen anytime soon.
Europe must be better, right?
After China and Bangladesh, Turkey is the world's largest clothing exporting country. Turkish labor law regulates things such as working hours and safety regulations, but compliance with the law proves difficult in the Turkish garment industry. Companies do not register their employees and prefer to outsource production to informal workshops. By outsourcing to these workshops, inspections are avoided
In Turkey, the risk of child labor in garment factories has increased due to the arrival of Syrian refugees. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, and in particular due to the EU-Turkey deal, an estimated three million Syrian refugees have been trapped in the country. Some of them work in Turkish clothing factories. Many refugees do not have a legal work permit but have to provide for their own living and often that of their families. Many Syrian children are stranded in Turkey. They do not go to school but have to work to survive. The boys in particular work 12-hour days and work 6 days a week in textile and leather factories.
Made in Italy...
In Prato, a medium-sized city in Tuscany, about 50,000 Chinese work in the clothing industry. They make what is here called 'pronto moda'. Here they produce 'Made in Italy' for Chinese prices, partly thanks to undeclared work and tax evasion.
The Chinese have managed to set up their own industry here. The six hundred wholesalers mainly import their fabrics from China; the sewing of the clothes is outsourced to more than two thousand sewing workshops in the city. Thousands of illegal compatriots work there sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. The winter coats, sweaters and skirts do go out with the prestigious 'Made in Italy' label sewn into them.
Fortunately, not everything is doom and gloom
It doesn't sound all that good, a lot can go wrong. So 'made in...' doesn't say much, and in itself does not give any guarantee. It's not necessarily good or bad. If you really want to know, you can check with the clothing brand. How transparent is the brand? How reliable does it feel? Ethical production (slow fashion) is on the rise. Fortunately, the concept of ethical fashion is becoming broader. Moreover, there are of course also workers who do have a safe workplace and fair wages. Especially the (smaller) sewing workshops that are open about their business operations inspire a lot of confidence. That is much nicer. Our first collection for New Anegls is made fairly in China, and our second collection is made in the Netherlands. We write about this in our blogs, how it's made and a look behind the scenes.
'Made in Bangladesh or India' no longer necessarily means that the clothing was made under poor conditions. After all, there are also good factories in Bangladesh or India. And luckily this is now getting through to textile factories and clothing buyers, and more and more are coming.
Take a look at the 'Who made My Clothes' movement, which emerged after the disaster at Rana Plaza. Just Google 'Who made my/your clothes' or 'I made your clothes' and the images are full of photos of people in sewing workshops and textile factories, all happy people. Fair clothing brands proudly show who makes their clothes. This initiative has definitely been the start of a safe workplace, good working conditions and fair wages. It makes the buyer more aware of what is going on.
Here you can pay attention to whether your clothing has been put together fairly
How do you know if clothing has been produced fairly? There is no clear rule to check 'fairness'. The basis of how to judge a brand starts with common sense. If you see a mega chain (H&M, Zara, Primark, etc.) that only follows the latest trends, offers bargain prices, does huge sales and shares little about sustainability and working conditions at all, then all alarm bells should go off. A quality mark is not always decisive in this, because for many (small) companies a quality mark is simply too expensive, while they do work according to all conditions. But the consumer has no way of knowing this. It's complicated, right? You can read who makes the clothes for New Angels in our blogs, we love to show you how we make our fair fashion.
If it concerns a somewhat smaller brand that produces in small batches, makes more timeless items, works a lot with sustainable fabrics and indicates which companies they work with, then it is already a lot more reliable. It is also a good sign when brands publish their manufacturers. After all, that says that they want to come out for their cooperation with their suppliers. Many big brands don't share anything about their factories, so it remains a guess what happens there. Transparency is important for good faith. So it starts with common sense and 'gut feeling'.
Thank you for reading this mega long blog, with important information. Because it's nice to know Who Made Your Clothes.
Lots of love,