The real cost of clothes on the vulnerable

Each day Sahima* spins cotton into thread, ready for delivery to factories that churn out the latest fashion in clothes.

The 30-year-old mum in Bangladesh takes pride in her work, but it doesn’t pay enough to keep her family out of poverty. “With my earnings, I cannot manage the children’s education or proper meals,” she said.

There are also serious risks and no compensation for injuries.

“A few days ago, a girl’s wrist got sucked inside the machine,” Sahima said. “She was about 14 years old – my daughter’s age.”

There is a serious problem in the fashion industry.

Only one in ten fashion brands in Australia pay a living wage to workers in some factories across their supply chain, leaving millions like Sahima unable to earn enough to keep their families out of extreme poverty.

This finding comes from Baptist World Aid’s ninth – and most transparent and largest ever – Ethical Fashion Report, which assessed 120 companies representing 581 clothing and footwear brands.

This year’s average score was just 29 out of 100. While some brands – including RM Williams, Rip Curl, Lorna Jane, Universal Store, Kmart, and Target – improved their score from previous years, the average score shows the industry still needs to take urgent action.

Sarah Knop, Corporate Advocacy Lead at Baptist World Aid, said many of the 60 million workers who make our clothes and shoes face severe injustice: from abuse, exploitation, and unsafe working conditions to the denial of basic rights such as maternity and sick leave.

“Fast fashion has a cost, which is a life of poverty and oppression for millions of people around the world who work in the fashion industry,” Sarah said.

But God is not silent on this issue. As the one who loves justice and righteousness (Psalm 33:5), he hears the cries of workers who are exploited for profit and who bear the brunt of environmental degradation. What’s more, God calls his people to seek justice for them.

Fighting for a living wage

This year’s report highlights several areas where Christians can ‘learn to do good, seek justice, and correct oppression’ (Isaiah 1:17) for workers in the fashion industry.

One issue is payment of a living wage. This is the amount a person needs for necessities such as food, housing, clothes, and health care, as well as having a buffer in case of emergencies.

To keep costs low in an increasingly competitive market, companies often force workers to put in long hours – sometimes in dangerous situations – for a wage that is 45 per cent lower than a living wage.

No footwear company paid a living wage at any stage of their supply chain.

In this year’s report, only 12 companies (10 per cent) were able to provide evidence of paying living wages at some final-stage factories. Further down the supply chain, only 3 per cent paid a living wage at facilities such as fabric mills and tanneries. No footwear company paid a living wage at any stage of their supply chain, although 12 per cent have made a public commitment to work towards living wages at the final stage of production.

Just as James 5:4 condemns exploitative employers, “the wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you,” knowing God’s heart for justice compels us to demand change.

“When skilled, experienced workers are denied fair pay, they are denied their human dignity,” said Sarah. “The things God declares as good – times of rest, enjoying the fruits of labour, providing for your children – struggle to find their full expression under exploitation.”[MW1]

Fashion and stewarding God’s Creation

As one of the largest industries in the world, fashion is also one of the most environmentally damaging. It’s the second highest user of freshwater resources and responsible for mass land clearing, which destroys biodiversity and natural ecosystems – all to produce over 100 billion items per year.

“In Genesis 1:26, we’re called to have dominion over the earth, which means we have a responsibility to take care of creation and be good stewards of all its natural resources,” said Sarah Knop.

Making clothes and shoes out of sustainable fibres is a great place to start, as these have a better impact on the environment than conventional fibres.

In this year’s report, 86 per cent of clothing companies and 71 per cent of footwear companies were using some sustainable fibres, but only 15 per cent of companies used sustainable fibres in more than half their products, so there is progress to be made beyond token measures.

So, what can Christians do?

In Colossians 3:17, Paul calls us to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Everyday acts, even something as ordinary as making a thoughtful purchasing decision or emailing your favourite brand to ask for change, reflects God’s heart for justice.

Rather than just seeing fashion as a form of self-expression, we can speak out on behalf of others and demonstrate care for the vulnerable in what we choose to wear.

“The scores in this year’s report provoke us to act,” said Knop. “As Christians, we can use Baptist World Aid’s Speak Out to Brands tool to ask for change, have a conversation with someone about ethical fashion, shop according to our Ethical Fashion Guide, reuse what we already have, repair what’s damaged, and recirculate items we no longer need,” she added.

“Living out our faith means that our whole lives – including seemingly ordinary acts like buying clothes – can be engaged in making things better for people in the fashion industry so they can experience justice.”

Sophia Russell is a former journalist and a Communication Specialist at Baptist World Aid Australia who hopes her stories will inspire justice.