The challenges dealing with child labour in the fast fashion or “McFashion” garment industry

“Why do I feel so strongly that fashion is a pivotal industry to get right? Firstly because it is a full spectrum industry. It extends from the farmers that grow cotton to the women beading in ateliers, it encompasses millions of people from agriculture to the creative marketing and selling. It is also dependent on the animal kingdom and some of the most fragile ecosystems on Earth . . .”–Livia Firth in Huffington Post article “Why Fashion Should Be on the Climate Change Agenda”

“Play is the work of the child.” Maria Montessori

I recently watched a 17 minute clip from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” that was published on Apr 26, 2015 – Trendy clothes are cheaper than ever. It pointed out that the cheaper clothes sound great for the people who buy them, but it’s horrible for the people who make them (The link is below… warning it is HBO so mature content notice!).

It reminded me of a curious series of discussions we had at the UN Global Compact (UNGC) 10th Principle Anniversary Summit at the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel a couple years ago along with the GPM Global executive team, after I had just completed the SAI SA8000 Auditor training program.  “SA8000 is an auditable certification standard that encourages organizations to develop, maintain, and apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace” (Wikipedia).

During the UNGC summit we had several bizarre conversations with young professionals advocating for the fast fashion or McFashion garment industry.  They were arguing that the garment fashion industry had adopted aggressive Codes of Conduct (CoC) that proactively committed the organizations to preventing slave and child labour in their supply chains, and that they invested heavily in audits to ensure compliance and transparency.

Our experience at GPM, and the multitude of ongoing articles and exposes, raised a number of challenges around the garment fashion industry passionately arguing that their supply chain is unequivocally protected from the crimes of exploiting slave and child labour.

Fast Fashion or McFashion

Fast fashion


The garment industry has largely transitioned to a “fast fashion”, often referred to as McFashion, model that provides cheap, rapidly changing, accessible and disposable clothing.

Though we perceive that the garment industry has accepted that child and slave labour may be an issue and have committed to some investments to deal with this, the reality is that the garment industries supply chain’s are conveniently exceptionally complicated and difficult to transparently monitor.



Explosion of the McFashion Market

The following comes from the Ethical Fashion Forum.

Around ten years ago we started buying around 40% of all our clothes at value retailers, but we only used about 17% of our clothing budget.

A Cambridge University study reports that in 2006, people were buying a third more clothes than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980. Women are also getting rid of similar amounts each year.

Brands began competing against each other for market share by introducing more lines per year at lower costs, culminating in a situation where ‘fashion houses now offer up to 18 collections a year’ and the low cost, so called ‘value end’ is ‘booming; doubling in size in just 5 years.‘

Retailers must respond to quickly changing fashion trends, which now change in weeks instead of months – thanks in part to instant coverage of fashion weeks and street style online. It used to take about six months for a product to get to market, and this has now been slashed down to three week cycles.

This naturally has led to pressure on the supply chain. “Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.” (Oxfam report, 2004)

Fast fashion has driven a race to the bottom, driving companies to find ever-cheaper sources of labour.

Or so we think.

Costing Model of the McFashion Market

Check this image and quote from the Canadian Maclean’s article from 2013:

“According to a 2011 report by the consulting firm O’Rourke Group Partners, a generic $14 polo shirt sold in Canada and made in Bangladesh actually costs a retailer only $5.67.

To get prices that low, workers see just 12 cents a shirt, or two per cent of the wholesale cost. That’s one of the lowest rates in the world—about half of what a worker in a Chinese factory might make—and a major reason for the explosion of Bangladesh’s garment industry, worth $19 billion last year, up from $380 million in 1985.

The country’s 5,400 factories employ four million people, mostly women, who cut and stitch shirts and pants that make up 80 per cent of the country’s total exports.

For that $14 shirt, the factory owners can expect to earn 58 cents, almost five times a worker’s wage.

Agents who help retailers find factories to make their wares also get a cut, and it costs about $1 per shirt to cover shipping and duties.

Fabric and trimmings make up the largest costs—65 per cent of the wholesale price.”

The main point though… is that the McFashion brand makes 60% markup.


Child Labour

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates around 260 million children are in employment around the world. Of them, the ILO estimates that 168 million are engaged in child labour, defined by the UN as “work for which the child is either too young – work done below the required minimum age – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited”. Or,

“work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development” (ILO).

Contrary to popular belief, these are not teenagers doing light work or after-school jobs: they work in dangerous and dirty jobs that deprive them of a childhood and their education. Some 73 million of these child labourers are between five and 11 years old.  The ILO estimates that at least 6 million children are in forced labour, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and elsewhere.

Though child labour is forbidden by law in most countries, it continues unabated in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Despite improvements over the past decade, there are still an estimated 11% of the world’s children are in situations that deprive them of their right to go to school without interference from work.

This does not mean that children should not be allowed to do chores around the house or on the family farm, for instance. It does mean, however, that (Hymann, 2016);

  1. children should not be put into situations that might be harmful to their health or general well being
  2. asked to perform tasks that are physically arduous or
  3. have their rights (including the right to an education) compromised

Though things have gotten better, it is still not far enough.

The number of children in child labour has declined by one-third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children. More than half of them (85 million) are in hazardous work (down from 171 million in 2000). This was particularly the case for girls engaged in child labour, the rate of which fell by 40% since 2000, compared to 25% for boys (Hymann, 2016).


The McFashion Blind Spot

Research reported in the The World Financial Review “involving young fast fashion devotees in Hong Kong and Canada revealed that despite the importance young consumers place on sustainability, they have a blind spot when it comes to fashion.

They may care deeply about eating organic foods, but fast fashion consumption is exempt from such moral decisions. This approach can in part be explained by the fact that youthful consumers may fail to fully grasp issues of sustainability, in particular the disastrous future environmental risks associated with unsustainable production.

Consumers thus make of sustainability what they will, and allow marketers to define sustainability as they wish. Both the fast fashion consumer and the fast fashion retailer have greatly benefited from this arrangement: for the former, an endless stream of affordable clothing defining and reflecting their ever-changing identities, and for the latter, very high profit margins.


Five + One Truths the McFashion Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

The following was borrowed from the Huffington Post (Whitehead, 2014):

1) The fashion industry is designed to make you feel “out of trend” after one week.

With designers creating new looks on a weekly basis, the fashion calendar for these companies is set up to deliberately make the customer feel off-trend after the first wear.

2) “Discounts” aren’t really discounts.

An article featured on Jezebel confirms: “The jig is up: Big brands like J. Crew, Gap and Saks’ Off 5th aren’t selling you discounted or out of season merchandise at their outlet locations. You’re just buying lower quality cardigans and patterned pants.”

3) There is lead and hazardous chemicals on your clothing.

4) Clothing is designed to fall apart.

So why should we care? Because the average American throws away over 68 pounds of textiles per year. We’re not talking about clothing being donated to charity shops or sold to consignment stores, that 68 pounds of clothing is going directly into landfills. Because most of our clothing today is made with synthetic, petroleum-based fibers, it will take decades for these garments to decompose.

5) Beading and sequins are an indication of child labor.

While there are machines that can apply sequins and beading that look like handiwork, they are very expensive and must be purchased by the garment factory. According to Siegle, it’s highly unlikely that an overseas factory would invest in the equipment, particularly if the clothing being made is for a value-driven fast-fashion label.

6) That $8 Shirt actually costs a lot more (borrowed from Martinko, 2016)

“That shirt didn’t cost you very much at all, but it cost the planet quite a bit – to the tune of 1,320 gallons of water and approximately 9 lbs of carbon dioxide in its production and transportation alone… That’s a lot of resources for one sh*tty shirt.”


A Common McFashion Industry Supply Chain Exploiting Child Labour

Apparel travels through various regions of the world and many hands before showing up at retail stores as outlined below (Nimbalker, G., Mawson, J. , & Harris, C., 2016).

Garment Industry Production Phases

It is probably best to start with the overall garment industry supply chain from a visual perspective as outlined below.  It is not just Bangladesh… there are known and ongoing issues throughout the supply chain from cotton seed production, to cotton harvesting, to yarn spinning mills ending up in the Bangladesh garment creation.

Garment Industry Child Supply Chain Three

One interesting question is where do the Bangladesh garment factories get their yarn and cloth?  Do the clothing producers (in this day and age) “know” or even “care” to know where the components of the products they market and sell are coming from and their supply chain lineage?

Many of the major fashion houses can exercise some control over the first tier garment manufacturing factories such as in Bangladesh where the cutting, sewing, printing, embroidery, ironing and packing happens.  Though this is not always the case due to outsourcing (Yhrurd, 2015).

Where it starts to get interesting from a supply chain perspective is control over the fabric suppliers, control over the supplies where spinning and weaving happens and finally from the cotton fields where cotton is grown and harvested or even the cotton seeds production? This last paragraph provides challenging areas for both the fashion industry and consumers.

Maybe the brands know their first supplier and ensure their Codes of Conduct (CoC) are in place, but further down the chain in the lower tiers it is very difficult to understand where the cotton, yarn and cloth comes from.

“Let’s say that the brands even succeed at mapping their whole supply chain (some brands have done that) tackling child labor is still complicated. Because child labor is not the major problem but it is only a symptom of a larger problem which is illiteracy in turn a symptom of the fore most problem called ‘poverty’.

Even though the brands cannot eradicate child labor as a whole they are investing a lot in ensuring that their supply chain doesn’t use children. Through regular audits they ensure their products are ethically sourced; they also ensure that they educate workers on their rights and create awareness on labor legislation’s.

So the short answer is, no brand deliberately uses child labor. But they are aware that children might get involved in their production, so they are rigorously working to ensure ethical sourcing.” (Ashraf, 2016)


Cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop’; it is responsible for the release of more than $2 billion of chemical pesticides each year, of which at least $819 million are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization. In parts of Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Turkey and India, children apply pesticides to the crop, while in many cotton-producing countries, children regularly come into contact with pesticides, or work in the cotton fields during, or following, the spraying season, when residue levels are high’ (EJF, 2007).

Production of Cotton Seeds

The following was sourced from The Children behind Our Cotton, EJF (2007).

Children aged between six and 17 migrate to the main cotton-producing region in Benin earning about US$105 for a season’s work, suffering harsh conditions, and working on average 10 hours a day, without adequate nourishment.

Children are recruited, at the expense of their schooling, for numerous exacting, dangerous and tedious tasks, from hybrid cottonseed production to pesticide application and pest control. Children are also involved in the harvest; since the crop can be hand-picked by underpaid or free labour, there is little incentive for mechanization of the industry.

The conditions child labourers endure in helping to produce the cotton products sold on international markets are often brutal. They may be subjected to beatings, threats of violence and overwork.

Cotton Harvesting and Ginning

Child labour is particularly evident with the production of cotton.  In the cotton industry, children are often used to cross-pollinate the cotton plants and to harvest the crop in Uzbekistan and India.  For cotton harvesting or picking, employers prefer to hire children for their small fingers, which do not damage the crop (Hymann, 2016).

In Uzbekistan, “government workers force children to spend the summer months picking cotton, and even threaten them with expulsion from school if they do not comply.

In cotton mills in Southern India, poor girls are often enticed to work in circumstances that are virtually bonded labour where factory managers may even have hormones put in their food to stop them menstruating, as women are seen to be less productive during their menstrual period.


For two months every year, the Uzbek government forces 1.5 to 2 million schoolchildren as young as nine years old to miss school and help with the cotton harvest. The workers work every day from early morning until evening.  Children live in filthy conditions (in unheated, non-insulated field barracks). They often contract illnesses and receive little to no pay. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat strokes are common. Schoolchildren can be given harvest quotas as large as fifty kilos of cotton per day and are beaten or threatened with bad grades or expulsion if they fail to meet their quota or pick low quality cotton (Overeem, & Theuws, 2014).

Yarn Spinning, weaving and dyeing

Child labour is very common in the Indian yarn and textile spinning mills in the state of Tamil Nadu in India.

Young Dalit girls are recruited from impoverished rural areas or come as migrant workers from distant states. They are hired on three to five year contracts, lured by the promise of a decent wage and an end-of-contract bonus that they can use to pay for their dowry.

This employment scheme is known as the ‘Sumangali scheme’ – ‘Sumangali’ means ‘happily married bride’ in Tamil. In reality, these girls are overworked and live in pitiful conditions, often in factory-owned hostels where they enjoy very limited freedom of movement.

The girls cannot leave the hostel unaccompanied nor receive visitors at the hostel. They often cannot even make private phone calls to family or friends. A survey among 1,638 spinning mill workers found that eighteen per cent were younger than fifteen when they entered the factory. Sixty per cent of the workers were aged between fifteen and eighteen when they started working (Overeem & Theuws, 2014).

Completing Garments

More than four million people work in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which now accounts for about 80 per cent of the country’s foreign trade. It has the potential to lift the nation out of poverty in the same way manufacturing transformed the lives of tens of millions of migrant workers in China in the 1980s and 90s. But the relentless demand for ever-cheaper clothes from high-street stores and supermarket chains in the West is keeping workers’ wages at levels as low as US$68 a month – an amount that pressure groups, unions and even some employers admit is barely enough to support the people whose sweat and hard work the industry relies on (Parry, 2016).

I could go on, but it is common knowledge child labour is exploited in Bangladesh, hidden from inspectors, trying to help their families make ends meet.


Some basic challenges with Social Responsibility “Auditing” in Areas like Bangladesh

Lets go back though to the “we are doing everything possible” and conducting “extensive audits” perspective.  First, garment brands have no idea who the garment factories outsource to due to unauthorised / off the books subcontracting by manufacturers, and they operate in the grey zone (Yhrurd, 2015).

To meet tight deadlines or to be able to complete unanticipated orders, ready-made garment manufacturers may subcontract certain production processes or even shift complete orders to other factories and workplaces without informing the buying company. Particular production processes that require hand work – such as embroidery -may also be outsourced. The subcontracted factories, stitching centres, small workshops, or home-based workshops operating in the informal sector are not protected by labour regulations. To make matters worse, as they are seldom part of the buyer’s supply chain, corporate inspections do not take place there. The lack of legal protection and the prevalence of casual and temporary contracts mean that workers in the industry are routinely subject to labour rights violations. They are often paid below minimum wages and are forced to work in poor conditions with little consideration for health and safety. In home-based workshops, it’s not uncommon for entire families, including young children, to work long hours to complete orders from garment factories.

Second, many of these factories know how to work the system, and hide or lie about child labour.

Because child labour is illegal, employers who have children among their workforce do everything in their power to hide such practices. Company-driven social compliance audits generally fail to detect child labour. Even in the formal sector, illegal workers and child workers are hidden away when auditors visit the plant. Many workers do not have identity papers, and have no official proof of their age. Bone or dental maturity studies are presented to verify children’s age. Driven by the need to find employment, children may lie about their age. Agents who recruit workers for spinning mills or garment factories have been reported to provide factory management with falsified records about their recruits.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg from the challenges with conducting audits.
First the families do not earn what is called a livable wage, even working excessive overtime hours, to pay for basic needs.  Basic needs by the way do not include education, self improvement or even a foundational life in this part of the world.  The challenge for corporations that have these Social Responsibility audits conducted though poses basic challenges.  Lets start with things that we in the West take for granted… they need to work excessive hours to live, they can’t read or write, and they have no comprehension of arithmetic… because they have not been educated.  So when the auditor asks:

QuestionRealityWhat is Said
How have you been treated?They don’t want to be fired or the factory shut down for Contractual or Codes of Conduct (CoC) violations.We are treated very well.
Have you been treated well according to your contract?·       They can’t read so they don’t know what is on the contract or what the employer’s obligations are.

·       They don’t want to be fired or the factory shut down for Contractual or Codes of Conduct (CoC) violations.

We are treated very well.
How many hours a week do you work?·       They don’t really know.

·       They are probably coached because they don’t know arithmetic or what 40 hours means.

·       They need to work excessive ours because they make so little.

Less than 40 hours a week
Have your paychecks been penalized for any errors or issues?·       They wouldn’t know because again they don’t know any arithmetic.

·       They don’t want to be fired or the factory shut down for Contractual or Codes of Conduct (CoC) violations.

No, we are paid very well.
Have you ever seen children working?·       Here it gets even more challenging.

·       Education is not well established and culturally there are issues.

·       There is also the fact that if not working children could be dragged into the drug or prostitution trade.

·       They also see this as apprentice work for children so they can get work later on.

·       Many children lie about their age to help out their starving families.



Another perspective… What about Boycotting or Mechanization?

This challenging paragraph was acquired from the Wikipedia Post on Child Labour:

Concerns have often been raised over the buying public’s moral complicity in purchasing products assembled or otherwise manufactured in developing countries with child labour. However, others have raised concerns that boycotting products manufactured through child labour may force these children to turn to more dangerous or strenuous professions, such as prostitution or agriculture.

For example, a UNICEF study found that after the Child Labour Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as “stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution”, jobs that are “more hazardous and exploitative than garment production”.

The study suggests that boycotts are “blunt instruments with long-term consequences, that can actually harm rather than help the children involved.”

The same could be said of replacing the poor workers in the third world with mechanization.


What this discussion has raised though is a question of our values, morals and more importantly priorities based on the current marketplace demand.




So… what can we do?  The first question is do we care, and can we afford clothing not built on child or slave labour?  Or to pay a reasonable price for the clothing with the brands paying a livable wage to its labour and possibly making a few dollars less in profit?  One solution is to not be manipulated by the McFashion industry and purchase less cheap, disposable and “fashionable” clothing that exploits child and slave labour and purchase quality.

1. Tell businesses to end child labour
If you can’t find products that are free from child labour, leave a card in store asking retailers to start stocking more ethical alternatives. Card available from the Don’t Trade Lives advocacy campaign website at:

2. Tell others that they can help #EndChildLabour
Post a photo of your ethical purchases on social media with the hashtag #EndChildLabour and help others to start taking ethical actions against child labour.

3. Look for brands that have signed up for ethical sustainable practices and are assessed by reputable supply chain associations:

Fair Wear Foundation      Fairtrade Label Organisation (focusing on cotton)

GOTS     Home


4. Look for alternative ways to investigate if your brand of choice is ethical:

The Good on You app is another option that highlights trusted ethical ratings in the palm of your hand…






Shop Ethical! is available on the App Store

Shop Ethical! is available at Google Play


Be aware.  Ask questions.  Make a choice.  Collectively we can force the McFashion industry to do the right thing.



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Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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