Written by Kathryn Smith

The cost that fast fashion has on those who make our clothes, more than the wage they earn.

In the ever-changing landscape of fashion, and in particular fast fashion, it can be easy as a consumer, to become wrapped up in the hype of the newest trend or what your favourite celebrity is wearing on their latest Instagram post and obsess over how to recreate their ‘look’. However how often is it that we stop to think about where our clothes are from, who has made them for us and what materials have been used? Research has found that consumers would be happy to pay 15% more to ensure the product they are purchasing did not come from a sweatshop, however with the rate at which sweatshops are still operating across the world, it is not a surprise that many of our garments still come from these factories. So how much do we really know about our clothes?


In a recent study, eight key facts about sweatshops are highlighted that many of us are not aware of, including how a factory is defined as a sweatshop:

  • A sweat shop is defined by the US Department of Labour as a factory that violates 2 or more labour laws.
  • They have poor working conditions. Including child labour, lack of workers benefits, unreasonable long hours and unfair wages.
  • It is estimated that 168 million children aged between 5 to 14 are forced to work in sweatshops in developing countries.
  • Labour violations often ‘slip under the radar’ of the US Department of Labour. Despite America having the strongest labour laws compared to most undeveloped countries, sweatshop conditions are still terrible.
  • Research has found that consumers would be happy to pay 15% more to ensure the product they are purchasing did not come from a sweatshop. However, doubling the salary of a sweatshop worker would only increase the consumer cost of an item by just 1.8%.
  • The workers spend almost all of their pay check on food to feed their families.
  • 59% of Child labour occurs in sweatshops.
  • 85-90% of these sweatshops are made up of women. Due to this, many of these poor women as forced to take birth control as well as take routine pregnancy tests to avoid maternity leave.

There are approximately 3.5 million workers across thousands of factories in Bangladesh alone. The garment industry in Bangladesh produces a total of 80% of the country’s export revenue. Despite the wealth generated from the industry, there is no positive impact on either the working conditions or standard of living of those employed in these factories.

On average a woman would earn around 3000 taka a month, which is approximately £25. This is far below what is acceptable for a living wage. A living wage in Bangladesh would be around 5000 taka a month, still just £45, but this would enable a family to have shelter, food and even provide an education.

Garment factories are extremely unsafe, cramped and very hazardous. Inevitably these conditions lead to injury and factory fires. Devastatingly, more than 400 workers have died since 1990 and thousands have been seriously injured.

November 2012 signifies an important case study that resulted in 112 factory workers who lost their lives in a deadly factory fire, due to poorly built fire escape routes and cramped work spaces which reduced the ability to access these routes.


A few months later followed the Raza Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh which devastatingly resulted in over 1000 deaths. These two incidents and many others “exposed the brutal employment conditions in the garment industry”. These case studies highlight the dangers that the fast fashion industry pose upon their workers and the shocking conditions they are expected to earn a living in.

Following these incidents the industry has responded by improving factory standards and compensating those injured or those who lost their family. In 2013 over 200 brands also signed a safety pact that ensures the apparel companies are accountable for the safety of their staff. This pact includes the regular inspection of buildings and closures of those that are found to be unsafe and unsuitable for manufacturing in.

A recent survey conducted by the BBC posed the question of what customers consider when purchasing garments. Whilst this was a very small survey, all participants gave similar answers. The common theme was that price was not the only consideration and where the garment had been produced was also a factor considered. This proves that people are conscious of  where their clothes are produced and what materials they are made of.

So, what needs to change?