by Gregor Kokal
2018 is slowly coming to an end. If we compare it to 2001 or 2008 it wasn’t such a bad year in the new millennium. Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang brought hope for an end of tensions with North Korea over its nuclear missile program, the end of February also brought the end of of the Castro era to Cuba, Putin has been elected to serve the top of the state for the fourth term, Iraq held legislative and provincial elections, the first since the defeat of the Islamic State in the country, H&M provided fair living wages for all of their workers…Over all it wasn’t so bad…But in reality 4 of 5 of these things have actually happened. H&M actually promised to provide fair living wages for all of their workers, but since people in garment factories in Bulgaria still earn only 10% of the living wage there and it’s already October, H&M probably won’t give them the 13th salary in the beginning of December.
But in order to understand why the situation is not improving let’s first look for factors that are responsible for such exploitation. It is not only H&M’s fault, it’s also ours since we have decided to accept the ideology of ”shopping is so cool”.
This article is meant to cover the era of exploitation in the fashion industry, how people that make watermelon logo t-shirts are exploited on almost every level of production, and look into the history to find the origin of such exploitation.
The ’80s was a decade of bold style, colors, and silhouettes, with trends spanning ripped tights and leather to polished oversized blazers, and style icons ranging from Joan Jett to Brooke Shields…At that time people in the USA bought 25 pieces of clothing on average per year.
Fast-forwarding a decade ahead, the time of ‘90s. The ’90s weren’t revolutionary for fashion only because of denim overalls, Adidas slides, or spaghetti-strap crop tops… They were also revolutionary because of the reinvention of the way big corporations nowadays look at the global fashion market and their customers. Cheap chic (eng. fast fashion) got its start under a really important factor: under the pressure to increase the revenue. The idea was to create as many trends as possible. But if you want people to buy more clothes for the same amount of money they earn, you have to decrease the prices. That’s where cheap manufacturing houses from Asia step into the game…Fast fashion didn’t come to be ”a one hit wonder” it has been here for more than 20 years, and with its worth of almost 1,2 trillion US dollars now, it’s planning to stay, if we don’t do something about it. 1,2 trillion US dollars sounds fantastic, but it eventually comes at a ”true cost”: not only for the people producing the clothes, we wear on average only 7 times before we throw them away and the environment, that is highly affected by the production of 80 billion pieces of clothing we globally consume every year, but also for humankind’s own search for a true happiness.
Let’s start at the beginning of production of our watermelon logo t-shirt. We firstly need raw material. This constitutes materials that are then turned into fabrics. Cotton, wool, jersey, polyester (which is literally coal and petroleum, and it’s usually combined with cotton, so clothes don’t have such high quality), linen… These are all materials that we use to make fabrics, but today let’s say our watermelon t-shirt is going to be made out of cotton. Cotton is grown on cotton farms, most of it comes from the US, Uzbekistan, China and India. Let’s consider our cotton is grown in India.
Cotton is an important cash crop in India. It is grown on 12 million hectares, making India the second largest producer of cotton in the world, after China. Insect-resistant Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop currently grown in India. It was introduced in India by Monsanto in 2002, under the trade name Bollgard, in a joint venture with the Indian seed company Mahyco. When Monstanto entered Indian market, more than 10 years ago, they promised:
1.Reduce the amount of pesticides farmers need to buy to control pests.
2.Increase harvests and farm income by reducing crop losses due to pest attacks.
1.Secondary pests emerged, forcing increased pesticide use (these new pesticides highly increase the potential of cancer and physical disabilities for the people working on the cotton fields and living around them).
2.The price of cotton seed rose.
3.Farmers lost the option to buy non-GM cotton seeds.
Not to mention that people on these cotton fields do not earn the living wage and work long hour shifts. More than 17.000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves in the last 15 years due to debt they have accumulated through buying genetically modified cotton seeds to keep up with demand.
Our next step will be turning our raw material into fabric. This involves spinning, knitting, waving etc. So our cotton now become yarn. This is ”hella” complicated and involves a lot of skills. This process is usually done by workers, not machines in the developing countries. Factories where fabrics are produced are called mills. In a lot of countries before they banned child labour, mills usually employed children, because only they could fit their hands into certain machines. Since in most countries child labour is banned (even though 168 million children (11 % of world’s population) are involved in labour globally), women are being utilised. Because working places in the developing countries are not the safest, people working in mills a lot of times loose limbs in machinery, they go deaf from noise exposure, they can contract respiratory problems form the inhalation of fibres.
After we have our fabric, it’s time for bleaching/dying. So let’s consider we want our t-shirt to be baby pink colour. First step is bleaching. There is really not much to explain. Bleach is a highly basic chemical, used all around the world. It is fatal if we inject it and most of bleaching chemicals are not meant to touch the skin, because they are so toxic. When bleach touches our skin, our pores absorb the chemical, which can be dangerous if we deal with a bleaching product that is not meant to touch our body. This is a huge problem for workers that work in unsafe work places and do not have the right equipment to protect the bleach from touching their skin, therefore a lot of people leave the work with chemical burns. Bleach and other disinfectant fumes are also harmful to our lungs, precisely because they’re good at disinfecting.
When our fabric is bleached, it’s time to colour our t-shirt baby pink colour. It’s reported that 10-15% of the dyes used in a dying process, do not actually bond to fabrics, and so they often end up in the waste water stream. Farmers and people that use this water and live close to garment factories can predict the colour of a season by seeing the colour of the water ways and rivers nearby.
The next step is obviously production. Factories in third world countries (countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan etc.) that produce clothes are usually called sweatshops. This word applies to a workplace that has very poor, socially unacceptable working conditions. The work may be difficult, dangerous, climatically challenged or underpaid. Because we want our t-shirts to be competitive on the market, we have to make them really cheap, since everyone is putting out watermelon logo t-shirts. Let’s say, we want our t-shirt to cost 3 $, so we can then sell it for 9 $. Because we are such a big and famous corporation we want our t-shirts to be made at a factory, we don’t actually own, so we won’t have to take the responsibility, if anything goes wrong. We reach the factory and offer them a deal. We clearly say we want our t-shirt for 3 $, but they say they can’t make it that cheap, so they offer us a 5 $ deal. We decline them, and tell them the only deal we are searching for is 3 $. Because the factory knows, that we can get that deal next door, they have to accept our offer, otherwise they won’t be able to pay the workers at the end of the month. We now have a deal. The factory’s owners know that our t-shirts can not lack on quality. In order to finish the work for such a cheap price, managers have to make workers work longer hours, reduce their pay, squash unions and strike with violence. Even using the toilet during 10 hours shifts in a garment factory can cause a major uproar from managers. For instance, in Bangladesh the median salary is around 340$, the average clothes maker, however, is paid just 64$ per month. The most concerning thing owners can do is not keeping factories up to date. The most well-known catastrophe, because of such lack of care and power to do something is Rana Plaza collapse. It occurred in Bangladesh and it is the largest clothing-related accident in the world. Some 1,134 people died and another 2,500 were injured after the building collapsed in 2013. The building’s owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building after cracks had appeared the day before. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day, and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour. Yes, 1200 died, so 15 years old girls can make Primark hauls.
We have succeeded, our watermelon t-shirts are ready to ship out. They are ready to travel across the oceans and then enter the big malls, where people will buy them and put even more money into the pockets of Stefan Pesson (the owner of H&M), and the richest European, Amanico Ortega (the owner of ZARA, Bershka, Oyshko etc.). Their net worth more than 110 billion US dollars, meanwhile they can’t pay their workers enough money, so they could feed their children.
Rivers have now been polluted, people have been exploited and humiliated, Monsanto has bought the cotton fields, every sixth human being on this planet, has been affected by our watermelon logo t-shirt. Bravo!Part II. is comming soon…