Women, The Fashion Industry, and Global Development
With increased investment in supply chain ethics and women workers, the fashion industry can set not only clothing trends, but also lead the way for industries in CSR
The fashion industry is a USD1.2 trillion industry that employs approximately 60 - 75 million people worldwide. The industry is global, with supply and value chains spread across many countries and continents and is often characterized as a ‘stepping stone to development’. It is a buyer-driven value chain, meaning multinational retailers, often headquartered in Europe and North America, set the market and prices, while the manufacturing labor is outsourced to less developed and developing countries. Not only are women the primary consumers of fashion, but also comprise the majority of garment workers.
Both women and the fashion industry have immense potential for encouraging sustainable global development. Research has shown that investment in women’s empowerment is vital to economic growth, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that the countries with the largest gender gaps in the labor force incur income losses of up to 30% of GDP per capita. Businesses are key to bridging these gaps; not only do they stand to benefit from increased economic growth in sourcing markets, but they also have a responsibility to contribute to the Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly SDG 8 on Gender Equality. Given its role in the global economy and its predominantly female labor force, the fashion industry should become a model for investment in women’s empowerment in favor of the sustainable development.
Although the fashion industry consists mainly of women, it frequently engages in unethical practices that inhibit gender equality. The majority of garment workers are low-paid, informal laborers in countries where societal gender discrimination bleeds into the workspace. As a result, female garment manufacturers often bear the price of increasingly complex global supply chains and the emergence of fast, cheap fashion. The main issues that are perpetrated by and ultimately hinder industry success are insufficient living wage, workplace abuse, and exploitation through overworking in unsafe conditions.
Insufficient Living Wage
The Global Living Wage Coalition defines a living wage as the compensation received by a worker for a standard workweek that adequately affords a decent standard of living for the worker and their family. A decent standard of living includes access to food, water, housing, education, healthcare, transport, and other necessities. Most workers in the global garment industry do not earn more than $2 per day, and are often paid less than the national poverty levels established by governments and organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank. Frequently, the minimum wage rates instituted by governments in developing areas are calculated in a competitive context and are based on a desire to attract trade. Research even indicates that many suppliers do not pay workers the legal minimum. These offenses are protected by limited job security for workers and strict anti-unionism. Women are often especially impacted by these exploitations, as they already face a gender wage disparity and cultural barriers that prevent them from speaking out against their predominantly male supervisors.
Physical and sexual violence is another major issue women garment workers face, given their power dynamic with predominantly male factory supervisors and the insecure nature of their manufacturing jobs. Female apparel workers may find it difficult to escape these aggressions, as they do not have the financial security to quit or resist speaking out in fear of the social stigma of experiencing abuse. Women in India are especially vulnerable to workplace abuse, as demonstrated in a 2015 report by international NGO Sisters for Change. The study of 400,000 female garment workers in Karnataka, India’s textile capital, found that 1 in 14 women experienced physical abuse at work, while 1 in 7 had been raped or sexually assaulted in the workplace.
Exploitation Through Overworking in Unsafe Conditions
In 2013, one of the deadliest disasters in garment industry history occurred when the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed. More than 1,100 people were killed, and many were garment manufacturers that supplied goods to major retailers in Europe and the United States. Since the incident, there have been motions to create safer workspaces for apparel laborers, but the reality is that most garment workers toil in hazardous conditions for unrealistic stretches of time. Extremely long work days resulting from pressure to meet production quotas cause a variety of health issues that often go untreated. As deadlines approach, factory managers may force unpaid overtime, lock doors, and prevent workers from taking bathroom breaks. Unjustly long hours especially negatively impact women, as many face pressures to not only work, but also to uphold household duties when their workday ends.
These offenses are not only harmful to employees, but to businesses themselves. For an average item of clothing, only between 0.5-3% of the cost goes to the worker who made it. This statistic indicates that there is a lot more potential to reallocate investment in manufacturers’ wages and safety, which is proven to be a profitable endeavor. Research suggests that companies and laborers alike benefit from the institution of living wages, because successful businesses invest in their employees as strategic assets. Businesses have a responsibility to keep their workers safe and investing in employee salaries and protection means investing in productivity and risk management.
Despite these issues, the garment industry presents a promising opportunity for setting a CSR example in bettering the lives of women. “In the apparel sector, 80% of supply chain workers are women. So, it just makes better business sense to engage in women’s empowerment and really understand what the needs of these supply chain workers are and how can we not only help benefit them but benefit their communities.” Says a CSR professional at one of the world’s largest apparel companies. With increased investment in supply chain ethics and women workers, the fashion industry can set not only clothing and beauty trends, but also lead the way for industries in CSR.