Great Britain

How the cost of our clothes can be measured in human lives lost

The site of Rana Plaza, which collapsed in 2013, killing 1,134 people

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Doreen Fiedler/DPA/PA Images

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

Brexit has brought much interest in how tariffs may mean the cost of clothes in the UK will rise. But the human cost of clothes we buy on the high street can still be measured in lives lost – an appalling reality rooted in a system that generates profit for some of the biggest fashion brands by undermining wages and working conditions for some of the world’s most exploited workers.

Three garment workers died last weekend in a factory fire in India, bringing the total number of Indian workers who have lost their lives making our clothes to 53 in less than three months.

While garment production in India is for both domestic and international markets, in the two most recent factory fires, production appears to have been for export. But as usual, high street brands have been quick to deny ever having bought from the factories.

Fashion brands have created a $2.5 trillion industry based on an intentionally tangled web of impermanent sourcing relationships with factories all over the world. This allows brands to maximise profits by pitting factories against each other on prices – leading to workers’ wages and factory safety standards being sacrificed in order to compete. This opaque network of global supply chains also provides plausible deniability of links to factories where things go very wrong.

Think of the infamous 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 workers making clothes for brands like Primark and Matalan. Or when the Tazreen factory fire killed 117 workers the year before. Then, like now – like always – it’s a blind scramble to identify who was buying from the factory.

For the families of those that die, they are often left destitute, without adequate compensation. And for workers who are injured and left unable to work, there is no safety net or recourse.

Lotus Industries owns the factory that went up in flames over the weekend, killing three. Ironically, its workers stitched brand labels onto clothes for fashion brands we now have no way of identifying, despite knowing that up to 60% of their production was for export. Predictably, fashion brands have failed to step forward themselves.

The Nandan Denim factory fire from two weeks ago killed 10 people. The Nandan Denim website states it is the biggest denim producer in India, exporting jeans to more than 20 countries for high street brands including Primark, Ralph Lauren, H&M and Walmart.

Nandan Denim’s annual reports listing the brands buying its jeans have now been removed from its website. But it’s likely that some of the world’s best known brands source from the factory. Following news of the fire, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, said Nandan Denim produced jeans for another of its brands, Lefties. Wrangler Jeans said it also bought from Nandan Denim in 2014. Most other brands listed in the annual reports, like Primark, C&A and VF Corp, have denied a relationship with the factory.

But import data shows shipments entering the United States from the factory in January 2020. Those jeans have now likely been sold and the profits pocketed. But no fashion brands have stepped up to claim a current relationship with the factory – because they can get away with silence.

In the profoundly unbalanced relationships between factories (mostly based in the global South) and powerful brands (usually based in the global North), it’s brands that say how much they’ll pay for the clothes, how fast they need them, and exactly what they should look like.

It’s an open secret that brands pay so little per garment as to barely cover textile costs, let alone enough for workers to live on. The cut-throat, rock-bottom prices paid by brands come, ultimately, at the expense of workers. Factories, desperate to make money themselves, cut corners at the expense of their workers’ safety: they pay poverty wages, provide unsafe working conditions and expect high production targets and long working days. Garment workers like those at Nandan Denim were paid just 35 cents an hour.

But it is fashion brands that ultimately profit from the cost-cutting measures of factories. Just like the thousands of other garment factories in India and around the world, Lotus Industries and Nandan Denim violated multiple safety regulations. Lotus Industries workers’ died from asphyxiation because they were in a room with no windows or ventilation. Workers had to scramble up a ladder to a single door to escape the fire at Nandan Denim – indeed, lack of fire doors is so common as to be a defining feature of garment factories worldwide.

For the highly mobile fashion industry that can easily move contracts on to new factories or new countries in the endless search for the lowest costs, this is a lucrative, risk-free set up. Put simply, why wouldn’t they? For factories, the threat of losing business pushes them to take on contracts that barely cover costs, let alone leaving extra for critical investments into factory safety. It’s this competition to win favour with brands that drives the race to the bottom on wages and conditions.

After decades of workers being trapped in poverty, seriously injuring themselves or even dying in factories, there’s still no way to hold brands to account for a business model that depends on exploitation – let alone to pinpoint their relationship with a factory when tragedy strikes.

When a fire breaks out, or a factory collapses, it’s the local factory owners who are held to account. In the case of Rana Plaza, 41 Bangladeshis were charged with murder. After the Nandan Denim factory fire, the local owners have been charged. Of course those factory-owners should be held to account, but the root cause of the exploitation isn’t them.

The lion’s share of profit and the power is with fashion brands which are among some of the richest companies in the world, with owners littered throughout the Forbes Rich List: the owner of Inditex, which in turn owns Zara and Lefties, is the 6th richest man in the world with a personal fortune of nearly $70 billion.

When tragedies like this take place, they are treated as isolated incidents. Brands repeatedly wash their hands of responsibility, taking the bulk of the profits without any of the liability.

This rigged system won’t change with shopping habits or self-regulation by brands. Paying more at the checkout won’t mean higher wages for workers’ wages or safer workplaces. What we urgently need is a way to for governments – in particular the home states of the biggest companies - to step up and ensure fashion brands are held to account for the way that they do business, so that the price of our clothes can never be measured by lost lives.