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Who Made Your Clothes?

“It is appalling obvious our technology exceeds our humanity.”   Albert Einstein

You can only assume that, by this statement, Albert Einstein was referring to the state of the planet due to progress and innovation making its mark on the environment, as well as, the social and ethical welfare of its people.

The growing, worldwide concern for ecological and ethical practices in the modern world has not escaped the fashion industry and broad range of concerns affect business. These concerns were highlighted by the events leading up to, and inclusive of, the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. 2019 marks the 6th anniversary of the incident, which kill 1138 people and injured many more on 24th April 2013.

Since the tragedy, the people of the world have been using the anniversary to ask Who Made Your Clothes This article explores events leading up to the incident, not only in Bangladesh but also throughout the world wide textile labour industry, which has been ever expanding since the evolution of mass production. Then asks, 

Can western retailers make a difference to the lives of workers in third world textile industry and what new design practises are applicable to this fast fashion format?

For many, the issues surround mass production, could be easy to blamed on big industry. The documentary China Blue (Teddy Bear Films, 2008) explores this fact, however it takes a deeper view of the problems through supply chain right back to the consumer. With the development of more “human centric and effective designs, tools, devices and programs, which has stimulating a thematic change in the way business is done, using the internet, cost cutting and efficiency.” Fashion as a Communication Medium to Raise Environmental Awareness and Sustainable Practice, (Monika and Foth, Marcus and Ferrero-Regis, Tiziana Holgar, 2009. para 11), purchasing garments when they are immediately on trend has never been easier. The film also highlights large retail corporations putting the squeeze on garment factories to deliver cheaper and faster every order. It is not the ideal formula for ethical working conditions, where labour forces are large and minimum wage is exploited.  However, the article ‘The International Value Chain of Ethical Fashion’ The International Trade Forum magazine, (McAspurn, 2009), notes that the October 2008 study by TNS Worldpanel highlights British consumer concern for ethical and sustainable products is up from 57% in 2007, to 72%.

While consumer awareness and brand transparency, combined with innovation and design is important, Large retailers such as H&M (Is H&M the new home of ethical fashion? Siegle, 2012), and Katherine Hammnet (The Fashion Debate, V&A Museum, 2014) for Tesco, believe it is time to step away from asking the consumer to change, to be aware and to buy more ethically and has begun to examine the fast fashion formula with an ethical approach.

To fully answer the question, can western retailers make a difference to the lives of workers in third world textile industry and what new design practises are applicable to this fast fashion format? A greater understanding of the issues must first be analysed and this is not just because the issues of unsustainable and unethical design are so varied but because they can also come at the cost of human lives. 

While many Australians and other western cultures are aware and see value of sustainable and ethical design, Allanna (McAspurn, 2009), writes that consumers are rarely prepared to pay more for a product that is green or ethical and that since these issues remain largely out of sight out of mind, nothing seems to be changing fast.

The documentary Toxic River (Ward, 2014), screened on SBS’s dateline shows a snapshot of just how broad and cohesive the ethical and sustainable conversation is.

The documentary is centred on a small village just outside of the Majalaya, part of Indonesia’s booming textile industry. The area has seen a population explosion, of 300% in 30 years, due to peasant farmers moving to the area, in order to find work. With little government services a boom in population has created tremendous amount of human waste, including untreated sewage, litter and other household waste, which is discarded into the Citarum River. The river runs alongside the villages surrounding the textile factories they work in. In the past 40 years local fishermen have seen 60% of the fish species wiped out. Further up the river hundreds of textile factories dump untreated effluent wastewater and chemicals into the river. This is against environmental law 32 of 2009 but due to a lack of monitoring, and enforcement, law 32 is rarely adhered to. The Association of textile Manufactures assure that their 200 members treat their waste but there are hundreds more factories that are not members and dumping which happens frequently during the night to avoid the attention of residents, is still apparent the following day. The river remains marked with steaming pungent streams of indigo, and other variations, of coloured chemical waste.

For the purposes of the documentary Dr Sunardi of nearby Padjardjaran University tests three samples: one taken from the river; one from the water, which is channelled through the villages, via the river; and the third from drinking wells, which are supplied from natural underground springs. The results from the tested drinking water, were the most disturbing of all, coming back from the laboratory with four times the recommend levels of mercury, it is unsafe to drink. The longer the government ignore the lack of services, illegal dumping and contaminated drinking water, the greater the ecological disaster.

This seasons colours

Above, this seasons colours. Tullahan River Philippines - Image by Gigie Cruz-Sy/Greenpeace. While below, (European Press Photo Agency) in another section of the river rubbish flows where water should be. The Citarum River is reportedly the second most polluted river in the world. Residence use the water to bath, cook, drink and fish in.

toxic river, fashion revolution, Citarum River, indonesia,


The documentary China Blue (Teddy BearFilms, 2008) describes statics and conditions for the 130 million Chinese peasants, most who are women, that have left their villages in search of work in this globalised economy. It is the largest pool of cheap labour available to the western world and the largest supplier of clothes to western consumers including Australia. Many workers here work seven-day weeks for months on end, at less then the minimum wage required by law. Underpaying workers, is a common, abuse in export factories. But the cost of living is great that many workers buy fake identification cards, so they can work at an age much lower then the law allows.

Retailers have been aware of such mistreatment for many years and respond by sending in inspectors. However, according to Dr Liu Kamiming from the Institute of Contemporary Observation Shenzhen China, investigating labour issues in more the 100 factories violations are rarely found. This is because they receive notice before the inspectors arrive and supervisors coach the workers to lie. Supervisors also supply phony documents, listing fewer work hours; when in actual fact many workers often work through the night, without overtime pay. Dr Liu Kamiming believes international retailers want only to reassure the consumers, not actually improve conditions.

According to the episode, Fashion Victims, (Brill, 2013) on SBS’s Dateline the story is much the same in Cambodia. However unlike China where workers feel hopeless against the factory bosses, Cambodia’s 400,00 workers are battling over pay conditions with protest blockages, supported by unions. Many say that they “..would rather be kicked and beaten then not speak up”.  The Phnom Pehn Post (Kunthear, 2013), writes that protesters are asking for a minimum monthly wage rise of $61 up to $150, a meal allowance and an end to armed guards inside factories. Although many factory owners insist the workers are not treated badly.

Ken Loo, Secretary General of Garment Manufacturing Association reiterates the hard line “we don’t come to Cambodia to help you, we come to make [a] profit.” And that if the “textile industry doesn’t make a profit, if foreign investors start losing money, we leave” (Brill, 2013), meaning they will go to other countries with abundant numbers off cheap labour.

The lives of the workers are of little value to factories owners in a market with a surplus supply of cheap labour and an industry that is driven by “Price, price, price. Price and profit.” Holger Fisher Fashion Victims (Ferguson, 2013), emphatically states.

Holger is from Euro Centra one of Europe’s largest trading companies and is featured in a second documentary called Fashion Victims however this documentary is centred on the collapse of Rana Plaza, Savar Bangladesh where labels such as Gap, Zara, Benetton and Mango are made.

At the time of the collapse there were no Australian manufacturers recorded as working from Rana Plaza but many retailers such as Kmart, Cotton On, Target and Rivers purchase from factories nearby.

“The minimum wage in Bangladesh only increased in November 2010 to 3,000 taka ($40) per month, after 10 years at 1,660 taka ($21).” (Minney, 2011). It is no wonder that the documentary, Fashion Victim, (Ferguson, 2013) estimates a 1500% increase of Australian manufacturing in Bangladesh. This rush to Bangladesh has made it necessary for the building of thousands of factories, or buildings converted, to accommodate the rush for cheap labour. Converted building often have 3 or 4 levels added to already strained supporting infrastructure, it is then in turn expected to support the heavy sewing equipment and thousands of textile workers.

In Bangladesh there has been 43 factory fires in the past 18 months alone. Many of these saw casualties because it is common practise to lock workers into the factories and force them into overtime without pay compensation. With bars on the windows, there is no way to escape.

Lock-ins are not isolate to the infrastructure of Bangladesh. Fashion Victim (Brill, 2013) notes that in Cambodia, where similar practises of locking workers in at night have seen 120 workers perish in a garment factory fire. While 30 more died in separate fires at shoes factories.

On many levels the plight of the textile worker in Bangladesh and Cambodia appear to be the same. Bangladesh has only recently had large corporations forced into signing a new fire and safety code of practice since workers safely issues, across the industry, were highlighted in the Rana Plaza collapse.

How Cambodia differs is that, there seems to be some progression with unions able to inspire workers to take a stand, as well as the Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) initiatives.

The BFC, is funded by Cambodian Union Confederations; Garments Manufactures Association of Cambodia (12%); Royal Government of Cambodia (12%) and the Australian Government/AusAID (4%). The USA makes the largest donation of 33%, while Korea is listed as a donated but the amount is not disclosed. (Better Factories Cambodia, 2014)

5% of the BFC income is self funded from paid services such as OH&S training (e.g.: fire safety), advisory services and from the sale of factory assessment reports.

Transparency reports in the form of databases on all factories are readily available online, as well as the to unions, “Information about unions, including strikes and their compliance with legal requirements, is disclosed for those factories included in each report. ”

“low compliance” or the “few factories which after being measured against 52 legal requirements” fell below the mean for compliance but are still eligible for this second level of public disclosure; Critical Issues, where companies who have failed two or more assessments. Before listing companies, they are able to request one more BFC visit to confirm improvements before public disclosure of their noncompliance. Results are published quarterly and factories are able to post information about their performance, furthering the lines of open communication, transparency and enable the improvement of social behaviours.

The BFC, (2014) is a not for profit company, works to open a social dialog with the workers, about their conditions through strategies such as ‘Kamako Chhnoeum’ (Outstanding Worker). Workers are able to call toll free, they receive a series of labour law focused questions in a quiz designed to enrich their knowledge on labour rights, OH&S as well as personal health. These reports also assist in analysing information about individual factories, rather then relying on unreliable audits.

BFC programs such as Kamako Chhnoeum are partially funded by donations from “BFC Buyers”, (2014). These companies are buyer subscription donations making up 24% of the over all funding. Some of these companies include Coles Supermarkets LTD Australia, Gap Inc, Inditex (AKA Zara) and Target, all of which are also currently operating in Bangladesh.

Although only some of these companies are directly involved with the building collapse in Rana Plaza, others are accused of withdrawing from the Bangladesh industry (Ferguson, 2013) without giving back to the workers who have risked their lives to manufacture for foreign profit.

Even though, BFC is a perfect example of using technology to assist humanity, this is merely a sample of what is required for what the International Trade Forum (McAspurn, 2009) estimates is a £132 billion (US$222 billion) annual, export industry, (textile exports make up for 53% of Sri Lanka’s economy, 80% of Cambodia’s’ and 73% of Bangladeshis).

Meanwhile Lucy (Siegle, 2012) in the article, Is H&M the new home of ethical fashion? Featured in the Guardian, reports that H&M, a member of the BFC (2014) buyers a giant in the fast fashion industry. It is second only to Inditex, as the world’s largest clothing retailer, are trying to remake itself as a green, more ethical option.

Siegle (2012), writes that H&M have invested in a work force of 100 CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) employees, 75 of which are auditors tasked with accessing social and some environmental conditions in the factories supplying their garments.

In 2011 “nearly 2.5 million pairs of shoes were made last year using lower-impact water-based solvents; all building contractors have signed a code of conduct to ensure "good" working conditions; recycled polyester equivalent to 9.2 million plastic bottles has been used, and H&M uses more organic cotton in production than any other group. This year I am told 7.6% of its cotton was organic (an industry insider estimates H&M's overall cotton use to be around 200,000 tonnes a year). By 2020 100% will be sustainably sourced cotton.” writes Lucy (Siegle, 2012).

Siegle (2012) goes on to discuss that a supply succession that favours 30 to 50 trend-driven fashion seasons a year, with 2500 H&M stores worldwide and a statistic that estimates  “5 - 10 kilograms of textile waste is produced by each person a year” (LiseSkov) para 4 it is fare to say that one of the largest ethical and sustainable issues faced by H&M is textile waste. So they have begun asking themselves how to close the loop on fibre and can waste be viewed as a resource. By having asked these questions they are now able to supply products made from eco fibres, fibres from recycled plastics and the cellulose based fibre, Tencel. While still offering all people the possibility to dress well and sustainably, for less money rather then a brand associated with mass production.

H&M sustainable fashion, fashion revolution, ethical fashion

Above: H&M's exclusive conscious collection has been made from sustainable materials. (Siegle, 2012)


Allanna, (McAspurn, 2009), if luxury brands were to become engaged in the debate of ethical and social responsibility, it is possible that more companies like H&M may follow, sooner. She attributes this train of thought to be due to the impact of luxury markets influence on mainstream trends, the media and consumer buying habits.

H&M are not the first mass production retailer to sell inexpensive ethical and environmentally friendly fashions. In the Ethical Fashion Debate (Museum, 2014) designer Katharine Hamnett, discusses her Tesco model. By looking at the whole of the fairtrade and environment she realised that this was no longer a niche market. Estimating some four hundred million workers in the cotton industry, that would likely only be able to pay their way out of poverty if they were able to grow organic cotton, therefore a niche product shouldn’t exist. Her idea was to target mainstream direct retail.

Her research also showed that consumers would happily buy organic and fairtrade products, if they were the same price. This would be difficult for designers to achieve due to mark-ups on garments every time they exchanged hands from the designer, to the buyer, to the retail store. Where as a direct retailer model, such as Tesco, cuts out many of the middleman and is able to mark up prices from 50 – 75 % on landed costs. Her ethical and environmental collection was born from this model enabling Tesco to sell high quality denim jeans for £16, organic cotton fairtrade polo’s for £8. She also understood that the ideas had to be well-designed first, price second and they would sell.

Everybody always says, 'why don't designers design ethical fashion?' In fact, designing ethical fashion is no different to designing non-ethical fashion.… The problem is the manufacturers” Katherine Hamnett, The Ethical Fashion Debate (Museum, 2014)

It is fair to say that the mistreatment of labour, noxious chemical usage, the exploitation of resources, waste and its management, long supply chains from the high demand of western materialism, remain largely unchanged despite greater consumer awareness.

Fast fashion does wear much of the blame for these unethical and unsustainable industry practises. They create pressure on their supply chains and in turn, its workers, to fill rapid seasonal supply. A business model that they have created to increase their customers demand for the vast quantities they provide. The cheaper nature of the product enables the item to be highly disposable, as is the cost to human life creating the garment and the vast devastation on the welfare of the planet remains hidden.

However these symptoms are merely side effects of what is stimulating the lack of change, and that is highly profits and a price competitive market.

With a history of apparent transparency being exposed as simple manipulations of statistics and workers rights, it is hard to say if the new initiatives such as BFC do actually work, however giving workers an anonymous voice to express concerns without fear of reprisal is something that has previously not been seen before.

With mass production turning to greener practises, it is only a more conscientious way to enable the on going trend of mass consumption, (low prices and high profits). However this model is offers greater consideration to the multifaceted issues when combating non-ethical and unsustainable business models.

This composition shows that even with many of the mass-market textile workers are still unable to demand their rights, however progress is being made, sometimes at leaps and bounds, whether by self initiated programs or forced.


AGENCY, E. P. P. Citarum River, Indonesia.

Fashion Victims, 2013. Directed by BRILL, D.

CAMBODIA, B. F. 2014. Better Factories Cambodia [Online]. Available: [Accessed 17 May 2014.

Fashion Victim, 2013. Directed by FERGUSON, S.

FILMS, T. B. 2008. China Blue. USA.

HOLGAR, M. A. F., MARCUS AND FERRERO-REGIS, TIZIANA 2009. Fashion as a Communication Medium to Raise Environmental Awareness and Sustainable Practice. Australian and New Zealand Communication Association Conference. Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland.

KUNTHEAR, M. 2013. CCU Threatens Mass Strike. The Phnom Penh Post, 31 Decemeber 2012.

LISESKOV Ethics and Industry, London, England, 'The Berg Fashion Library'.


MINNEY, S. 2011. Naked Fashion : The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution, Oxford, UK, New Internationalist.

MUSEUM, V. A. A. 2014. Ethical Fashion [Online]. Victoria and Albert Museum. Available: [Accessed 20 April 2014].

SIEGLE, L. 2012.

Is H&M the new home of ethical fashion? The Guardian, 8 April 2012.

Toxic River, 2014. Directed by WARD, H.


NB: this article was originally written as part of my Honours degree in 2014. Very little has changed in mass production. By 2020, I aim to follow up on large corporations when me mark the 7th year of Who Made Your Clothes.

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