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Fast Fashion in Bangladesh

Updated: Nov 19, 2023



The reaction most shoppers have when they see a sign that says “SALE” or “DISCOUNT” is immediately going for their wallet and retrieving their credit card. They grab everything they can find off the shelves and splurge their hard-earned money so they don’t have to pay more for clothes at a later date.


Although sales are ideal for most shoppers, they cause harm to the environment and laborers in the fast fashion industry. In order to make trendy clothes so inexpensive, companies cut costs on environment-friendly clothing materials and employee wages. When you think about it, even though a price drop can be beneficial in the short run, it can cause serious damage in the long run.


 

Bangladesh Background



Bangladesh, a country South Asia, has quickly become a country that is heavily focused on clothing production. According to the International Labor Organization, 82% of Bangladesh’s export revenue is made through clothing production.


Bangladesh is a popular sourcing hub for clothing companies due to its significant supply of skilled laborers and modern technology. Additionally, Bangladeshi laborers are paid very little, making Bangladesh an area where fast fashion companies can produce high quantities of clothing at lower prices. Since minimum wage in Bangladesh is lower than minimum wages in other nearby countries such as China, Cambodia, and Vietnam, companies view Bangladesh as a perfect source of cheap labor.


Some clothing companies based largely in Bangladesh include Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and H&M. High demand for these brands in the US and Europe are increasing pressure on Bangladeshi laborers to produce more efficiently.



Ethics in Clothing Manufacturing

Employee Wages


It is said that the average amount of money a garment worker earns in a month is anywhere from $25 to $75 per month. Many workers are forced to work overtime for 18 hours per day with no additional pay or compensation.


Then why do Bangladeshi laborers work in the fashion industry? Currently, 35 million people live below the poverty line in Bangladesh. Most citizens are willing to take any job that helps support themselves and their families, no matter how meager the wages are. Many are only able to afford one meal per day and live their lives in a severe state of hunger and malnutrition.


Safety Hazards


In garment factories in Bangladesh, video evidence has been published that shows just how dangerous working conditions are for laborers in these factories. Emergency exits are locked to keep employees working and prevent them from running. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and fire blankets are scarce, leaving workers with no protection in the case of a fire.


Recently, efforts have been made through the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in 2013 to create a safer atmosphere for laborers in the Bangladesh garment industry. Retailers such as H&M and Primark have signed this agreement and begun to implement new safety measures in their workspaces throughout Bangladesh.


Child Labor


Unfortunately, child labor is still used in many countries around the world to perform tasks that are more efficiently carried out by children. A benefit that many corporations see to child labor is that they don’t have to be paid as much as adults and can therefore be exploited to produce goods more inexpensively. This practice is unethical and denies children the right to an education.


It has been reported that certain factories in Bangladesh force children to work 11 hour shifts. These children work for 11 hours straight with no breaks in their workday. This prolonged work has severe health effects on Bangladeshi children including exhaustion and malnutrition.


Rana Plaza Factory Collapse


On April 24th, 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh with thousands of workers inside. The building was poorly constructed with unsturdy materials on top of a filled-in pond. Structural cracks in the lower floors on the building caused the entire structure to collapse in on itself, killing over 1,100 people working in the factory that day. Over twice that amount, approximately 2,500 people, were injured during the incident from flying debris and rubble.


Unfortunately, this incident could have been prevented. The structural cracks in the lower floors on the building were discovered a day prior to the event. Despite this, factory owners did not close the factory down for repairs or notify employees. The thousands of deaths that occurred that day could’ve easily been avoided if factory owners were more focused on the safety of their workers and less focused on meeting production quotas.



Environmental Impact


Producing massive quantities of clothing has a huge environmental cost. Fast fashion companies generally disregard the negative impact clothing production has on the environment, just as they disregard the wellbeing of their employees.


Various accounts have emerged of toxic clothing dyes and industrial waste being dumped into bodies of water in Bangladesh. According to CNN, 1/5 of water waste comes from fashion production. Dyes have polluted the Buriganga river so extensively that it appears black for the vast majority of the year. Citizens of Bangladesh that depend on this river for drinking water or fishing have been devastated by the pollution of this major waterway.


Many factories also don’t dispose of their trash properly, causing a buildup of plastic in landfills, water sources, and even the streets of Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Department of Environment, 21,600 cubic meters of toxic waste and trash are released into the Buriganga River daily.


Clothing production is known to use a massive amount of water. The United Nations states that 7,500 liters of water are needed to produce a single pair of jeans from start to finish. 42.5% of people living in Bangladesh do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. We need to begin to ask ourselves whether the need to look trendy when leaving the house is more important than the need for safe drinking water worldwide.


Impact of Pollution on Developing Countries


Bangladesh is a developing country that is not as economically or socially advanced as developed countries. Money is almost always put towards housing and food because such a large portion of Bangladeshi citizens live in poverty without access to proper shelter and basic necessities. Because of this, Bangladesh does not have the proper funds to allocate towards environmental protection.


Developing countries tend to offer labor at cheaper prices which is taken advantage of by fast fashion companies. Because clothing production is so prominent in these countries, issues such as water pollution and carbon emissions that come along with it are even more pronounced in these countries than in developing countries. In the end, the countries that are the least equipped to handle environmental catastrophe financially are the ones that suffer the most from it.


Fast fashion companies that outsource clothing production are a huge part of this problem. Since trends are constantly changing, these companies drastically alter the kinds of clothing they produce every couple of weeks. This results in the buildup of tons upon tons of clothing in landfills and rivers as old trends are discarded and new ones emerge. As tremendous amounts of discarded clothing ends up in rivers, water levels rise and flooding becomes a more common occurrence. Flooding can destroy infrastructure, displace thousands of people, and endanger marine life.


As opposed to developing countries, developed countries are more fortunate in that they have funds to start recycling and donation projects to help protect our environment. Developed countries such as the US need to take a more active role in helping developing countries such as Bangladesh manage waste and pollution issues.


Efforts for Change


Companies are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of clothing production. For example, H&M is now trying to create more environment-friendly products by using multi-use packaging and renewable energy sources in the production of their clothes. Many companies have also set up donation drives where people can discard unwanted clothing in a safe way.


Fast fashion companies are not entirely responsible for reducing their environmental impact; consumers can make a difference too. Consumers have the power to choose where they shop and what brands they support. For example, recently many consumers have turned away from purchasing Shein products since more has been revealed to the public about its unethical labor practices and contributions to carbon emissions in China.


In addition, being conscious of wants versus needs can help to prevent clothing waste. Instead of going clothes shopping every time there’s a new trend, ask yourself the following questions:

 

Recap

Bangladesh is the second biggest clothing producer in the world. Many clothing companies outsource production to Bangladesh due to its high quantity of skilled laborers that are willing to work for low wages. This leads to unethical labor practices such as underpaying workers, unsafe factory environments, and the use of child labor. Rivers in Bangladesh have experienced extreme levels of pollution from textile dyes, industrial waste, and discarded clothing, leaving thousands of citizens without safe drinking water.


As fast fashion companies and consumers become more conscious of the environmental consequences of their choices, clothing practices will hopefully shift to become more sustainable in the long run.


Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and all of our social media platforms!




Author: Ann Catechis

Editor: Emma Mazzotta


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