A vast majority of the garment labour are people of colour and onlookers are quick to accuse Fast Fashion brands of racism, ignoring the crucial roles of capitalism and the long-term impacts of systemic racism that must be explored.
Is Fast Fashion Racist?
The issue of labour rights is one that has plagued the garment manufacturing process for years. Since the Rana Plaza Collapse of 2013, brands — particularly fast fashion brands — have been lambasted for their lack of ethics over the mistreatment of garment workers. In turn, the highly-televised Black Lives Matters (BLM) movement has triggered discourse on the issue of racism worldwide and led some to question if the issue of labour rights could be due, in part, to race.
“But how is this an issue related to race?”, you may ask. Well, oftentimes, it is people of colour who are disproportionately affected. For instance, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India are four of the largest garment exporters in the world. Other prominent countries include Turkey, Pakistan, Mexico and Cambodia. These garment workers face terrible working conditions and almost never get what they are due — they are severely mistreated, underpaid and overworked. On average, garment workers are forced to work an estimated 14 to 16 hours a day, for 7 days a week, and often for less than a living wage. Again, one need only look to the Rana Plaza Collapse of 2013 that killed over a thousand workers, or the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka that took the lives of over a hundred, to gain a visceral visual of all that is wrong with the fast fashion manufacturing process today.
Relatives congregated with pictures of their loved ones who were believed to be trapped under the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building.
Image Credit: ABC News
There is, however, reason to believe that the issue is not partial to race. We need to acknowledge that companies in general seek to hire the cheapest form of labour in a bid to maximise profit. That is, companies choose to utilise labour based on competitive pricing — an economic decision which is not driven by race but has its effects on racial disproportion. In a journal by The University of Pittsburgh, it posits that Indians and Negros in the past were not employed as labour because of the colour of the skin but simply because they were excellent workers best suited for heavy labour in the mines and plantations across the Atlantic. Over time, what started off as employment based on meritocracy quickly developed racial stereotypes that paint a prominent picture of a white man replicating the same process among people of colour.
What we are dealing with today is the residual systemic racism of those times, of which has since been further aggravated by the rise of capitalism. Therefore, these two concepts — racism and capitalism — while intertwined, are complex and cannot be directly mapped onto one another.
To then simply brand fast fashion companies as racist whilst ignoring the nuances of the situation will ultimately prove ineffective when looking to effect tangible change in brands' manufacturing processes. While there are limitations to the influence of fashion brands in the context of racial disproportion, brands still hold sufficient economic power to ensure an ethical garment labour force. Organisations like Fashion Revolution have since emboldened consumers to question brands on the ethicality of their manufacturing processes and demand for greater transparency via their social media movement #WhoMadeMyClothes. As consumers, it is within our right to pressure brands to protect the welfare and rights of these garment workers, and at the same time demand for transparency.
One should also look to effect change by pressuring the right stakeholders. Fashion brands do not have sufficient influence to eradicate racism entirely but our governmental bodies are equipped with resources to better the lives of many minorities. Forms of aid could be in terms of funding, setting new policies and laws to build a safer and more cohesive environment for at-risk communities. We must recognise the forte and role of each organisation and hold them accountable to situations that are within their jurisdiction.
With all that said, it does not mean that the fashion system is devoid of racism. It’s 2020 and yet we still see a painful lack of effort in achieving representation across the board, in both the media and the executive offices of many well-known fashion brands.
A garment worker stands in the ruins of the factory left devastated by a fire that killed 112 workers.
Image Credit: Wall Street Journal
Just earlier this month, Reformation (a brand which has prided itself on its sustainable and ethical garment manufacturing process) recently came under fire for racial discrimination in the workplace. Some fast fashion brands like Zara, Uniqlo and Forever 21 also drew criticism after expressing solidarity with the BLM movement on social media. After all, how can a brand propagate an unethical manufacturing process and neglect the rights of their garment workers whilst also championing BLM, a movement that advocates racial equality? These are issues that go beyond the manufacturing process. These are issues that speak of a deep-seated, systemic form of racism that requires time, effort and focus to be uprooted.
There is no denial that racism has no place in modern society. Virtue signaling alone on social media is not enough and probing the psyche of the privilege of other races is what John McWhorter, a critique on race relations, described as ultimately idle. At The Good In Fashion, our stance remains the same. We advocate for a sustainable and ethical garment production process which has zero tolerance against racism and this piece is far from an attempt to downplay the tragedy that unfolded. Just like the rest of the world, we stand behind George Floyd and the victims of racism. Both racism and capitalism are highly multifaceted and pertinent issues which require objective discussion and urgent measures. With time and collective action, we hope that real change will transpire in both the fashion industry and in the society at large.
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Techpacker: Top 4 Asian Countries for Garment Manufacturing
Clean Clothes Campaign: Facts on The Global Garment Industry
Sustain Your Style: Inhumane Working Conditions
The New York Times: Bangladesh Finds Gross Negligence in Factory Fire
Journal of World-Systems Research: Introduction: Globalization and Race in World Capitalism
ThoughtCo.: The Critical View on Global Capitalism
Useful videos that helped us with understanding racism: