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Fast Fashion in Vietnam

Updated: Nov 19, 2023



We all know that feeling, a mixture of relief and satisfaction when you’re shopping in the mall and come across an article of clothing you really like that happens to be flashing its “50% off!” sticker. You’re relieved that you can buy a new pair of pants without breaking your bank account — and your heart. It’s great, and beneficial for everyone, right? Unfortunately, no good thing comes without a hefty price, even if we aren’t the ones paying it.


 

The Production Problem


Vietnam, a Southeast Asian country located in Indochina, is widely known for its delicious pho and unique egg coffee. What isn’t widely known is that Vietnam is the world’s third-most garment exporting country, right behind China and Bangladesh, housing factories for some of the most popular fast fashion brands such as Zara and H&M.


Vietnam has over 6,000 sweatshop factories that employ over 3 million people, people who work their hands raw just to barely provide their families with food and shelter. It’s the unfortunate truth that almost every clothing item sold in mass production at your local mall is likely made at the expense of the hard labor of a mother, working herself to death to provide for her children.


This doesn’t even factor in the copious amounts of hazardous waste, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions caused by those very same sweatshops and factories. Fast fashion is incredibly detrimental to both the people of Vietnam and the future of the environment.


Ethics in the Garment Industry


Many, if not most, companies, specifically those originating from wealthy first-world countries, often outsource their work to countries where labor laws aren’t put in place, or at least aren’t strictly followed, such as in Vietnam. One such company is Nike, which hired 10,000 workers in the Tae Kwang Vina factory in 1995. An audit conducted by Ernst & Young found that 107 of these workers were under the age of 18. Not only that, they were also working with adhesive cleaning chemicals that were extremely dangerous to workers and the environment. Now, Nike has supposedly made changes to become a “zero waste” company, benefiting both the environment and Vietnamese workers.


However, to nobody’s surprise, there are still plenty of ethical and environmental problems that exist in Vietnam sweatshops, even though one corporate company has “changed” its ways.


Even though Vietnam garment workers make above the minimum wage in Vietnam, with them making $248 and the minimum wage being $125–180, employees still need to work overtime just to survive. They may make nearly double the minimum wage in Vietnam, but minimum wage is different from livable wage.


Livable wage is the standard amount of income needed to afford basic necessities to live, such as food, clothing, housing, education, and healthcare. Just because someone makes minimum wage doesn’t mean that they’re able to support themselves and their family.


It’s common for workers to work over 50 hours of overtime a month, according to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and many are still going to bed hungry because they can’t afford dinner. These corporate companies pressure factory owners to keep the workers' salaries below livable wage in order to keep clothing prices low once they’re exported and sold in our local malls. The president of the FLA, Sharon Waxman, asked Vietnam’s labor ministry via email to raise the wages of the workers, but she was ignored completely. Basically, these companies use the Vietnam workforce as “modern slavery,” working them to the bone while reaping all the benefits.


Women in Factories


You may already have known or heard about the instances of abuse that workers suffer at the hands of corporate companies. However, most people are ignorant of the abhorrent treatment women receive in these factories specifically.


These abuses range from verbal to physical depending on the severity of the situation. Dr. Jane Phillinger, a gender-based expert, interviewed some of the women working in these factories. A heartbreaking percentage of women, close to 50%, experienced violence in the workplace, and possibly even more since many refused to answer the questions for fear of punishment from their employers or husbands. Younger, better-educated women tended to experience worse forms of treatment.


Of the 2 million people working in garment production, 80% are women. Among them, 49.5% of women from the 763 interviewed reported having experienced violence or harassment just commuting to and from their homes to work. 87.7% of the women who experienced harassment in the workplace described receiving inappropriate comments about their bodies or sexual innuendos and jokes while working. 34.3% of them claimed to have been physically harassed. 28.9% reported non-verbal harassment, including gawking, obscene sounds or gestures, offensive emails or texts, and being followed home.


Additionally, they have to work overtime on top of their 12–13 hour workdays, ranging from 60–90 hours of overtime. A lot of women reported that their overtime went unpaid. In all those hours of strenuous work, not even a break to the restroom was permitted without repercussions. One worker stated that if the workers use the toilet too often, it is considered an absence and their pay is docked.


Even with the #MeToo movement spreading on social media, many women in this industry are still afraid of speaking up.


Environmental Issues


Vietnamese sweatshops don’t just harm the employees working in them, but also the environment. In fact, the people of Vietnam have made attempts to protest against the textile companies’ negative environmental impact. The Vietnamese villagers of Hai Duong set up barricades in 2017 in an attempt to shut down the Pacific Crystal textiles mill, which had been spilling toxic waste from the water discharged from the factory.


The villagers started to notice a foul smell that they couldn’t place. The smell was investigated, and it was found that the cause was the water expelled from the factory, which had breached the limits for acidity and alkalinity balance. They then set up a blockade on April 12, with the intention of shutting down the Pacific Crystal textiles company. Despite making their motives clear, the head of the company’s social responsibility, Eugine Cheng, stated that “We did not understand the reason or motive behind them to shut down the factory as some of the villagers’ relatives are also working for our factory.”


Vietnamese companies have become more cautious in regards to factories and their impact on increasing pollution in Vietnam, but it’s still far from perfect. Factories still use absurd amounts of water, produce huge amounts of greenhouse gasses, create toxic waste, and throw out thousands upon thousands of tons of discarded clothing items.


Efforts for Change


Lately, factories have been trying to go greener, using sustainable fibers and biodegradable materials, recycling plastics and fabrics to make textiles, and using natural sources to dye their fabrics. Companies like H&M and Zara began to collect recycled clothes to repurpose, in exchange for in-store discounts.


Companies have also started putting more regulations on their labor practices, but since everything is mostly confidential, they may not make too much of an effort to improve. Obviously, these factories are still far from perfect, and while improvements have been made over the years, it’s not enough for them to deserve a standing ovation.


It’s hard, because the reason consumers are able to find such affordable clothing is because of the low wages that factory owners give their employees. And even so, some of the clothing prices can still be a little ridiculous. So, spending even more money on ethical, environmentally friendly alternatives can be challenging. What other options do we have?


Alternatives

One popular alternative is thrift stores. Thrift stores often sell clothes at much cheaper prices, and with great variety. Learning to make or alter your own clothes can be helpful as well. It can be hard to find your size in thrift stores, so being able to alter your clothes can really come in handy. You can also donate your own unwanted clothes to thrift stores instead of throwing them away.


Additionally, there are online platforms such as Etsy or Depop that allow consumers to buy, trade, and sell clothes at lower prices than in stores.


It’s also important to note that not all fashion brands are unethical. Brands like Kotn, Boden, and Tentree are all environmentally friendly and sustainable fashion brands.


 

Recap


Vietnam is often exploited by fast fashion companies for cheap labor. Although garment workers in Vietnam typically do make minimum wage, they often don’t make a livable wage, leading them to work many hours overtime. Women in Vietnamese factories often suffer both physical and verbal abuse from factory owners and supervisors. Vietnamese clothing factories are responsible for the production of toxic waste, release of greenhouse gases, and pollution of waterways. One example of this is the Pacific Crystal textile mills that were found to have been releasing toxic waste into nearby water sources.


Although some companies have been making attempts to become more sustainable, consumers can help too. Shopping at thrift stores can be a great way to save money, as can reselling online on stores such as Etsy or Depop. If sustainable or environmentally friendly brands are your priority, brands such as Kotn, Boden, and Tentree are good options.


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





Author: Ina Sabarre

Editor: Charlotte Wang


References


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