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What is fair fashion and why is it so important?

Polly Polly 10 May 2022 What is fair fashion and why is it so important?

What does fair fashion actually mean? Many of us have made the connection between fast fashion and its (detrimental) environmental impact in terms of the resources used and the waste it generates. Quite often we hear about the importance of consuming less and more sustainably. But there is another (dark) facet of fast fashion that is very much hidden. How often do we actually get an answer to our question “Who made my clothes”?

Read more about Shop Like You Give a Damn's values regarding ethics and sustainability. Here's how we ensure we're offering a collection that is fair >

Especially in today’s times, when the global pandemic shed more light on the poor conditions and unemployment of many garment workers, this conversation is much needed. So, we can learn together about the ways unethical fashion is perpetuated, how we can avoid it, and make fashion fair for once.

In this article:

What does fair fashion mean and why isn’t all fashion ethical?

Fair or ethical fashion, in short, means that the workers who engage in the production of our garments receive a living wage and/or living income, work under conditions that meet high standards of health and safety, have legal and freely chosen employment contracts, reasonable work hours, the freedom of collectivizing as well as that there is no tolerance for child labor exploitation and social discrimination.

It may seem that conditions like these should be a given. However, in the world of fast fashion where profit rules all, human beings are often treated no differently than cogs in the machine and are asked to produce as fast and as much as possible.

As clothing brands don’t generally possess their own factories, their garments are often produced by many different companies, making international supply chains very complex and non-transparent. How come?

A fashion brand usually demands unreasonably high orders from a garment factory – and these huge orders cannot be delivered on time.1 So, this garment factory asks other factories to complete a part of the order – for a cheaper price, of course, to keep it still somehow profitable for them. In turn, this factory can reach out to yet another factory, if the order is too high for them too.

The brand that initially placed the order is usually not informed about all the factories working on completing the order. Yet, this does not excuse them.

They are well aware of how unrealistic their orders are – they just do not want to know what is going on between placing and completing an order. Also, if a garment factory would demand more time for completing the order – or express how unrealistic it is – the brand would just move on to the next factory willing to cut corners. Fashion brands hold all the power. And they should be held accountable too.

The result of this (complex) process is a very cheap cost of clothing and a far too high (and hidden) cost suffered by garment workers.

What are the main ethical problems in the fast fashion industry?

1. Fast fashion thrives off and perpetuates poverty

Most of us have experienced walking down the shopping street, noticing a 70% off sale sign and quickly rushing to that store. For some stores, the sale sign is not even needed because one T-shirt can cost as little as 3 €. It's easy to view this price positively – it's very light on our wallet. (Well, it could be even lighter – if we wouldn't buy anything. 😉)

You've probably stopped and asked yourself at least once: how can a T-shirt be so (economically speaking) cheap? It's because there is a hidden cost of such a T-shirt.

Fast fashion companies cut corners wherever possible to make it as cheap so you don’t feel financially burdened by purchasing it.

There is an incentive here from all sides: you don’t want to spend too much money, but cheap clothing actually allows you to buy more – which makes cheap clothing economically viable for fashion businesses. The cheaper the clothes, the more people buy (more of) them, so, the more profit they make.

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Sales in a fashion store

Of course, when you consider the cost per wear, you’ll find that a better quality, more sustainable and durable garment is not necessarily more expensive in the long term. Not even mentioning the incredible difference in impact it has on our Mama Earth and all of her inhabitants.

Reading tip: 7 common myths about ethical & sustainable fashion, debunked

But what corners are cut? Well, the largest of all is exporting labor to other places where companies can either get away with paying garment workers lower wages due to state corruption or are legally able to pay less as there is a lack of living wage laws.2

And (not only) because of this, people within garment supply chains are treated largely as cogs in a machine, not human beings.

Let's take Bangladesh as an example. More than 80% of Bangladesh’s exports are textiles, meaning it provides massive employment opportunities to its citizens.3 Considering the living wage in the capital of Dhaka is around 255€ a month and the estimated minimum wage of garment workers is significantly lower than half of this amount, the clothing industry has exacerbated poverty throughout the region.4,5

Reading tip: What's the difference between minimum wage, living wage and living income?

Because these wages are so low, western corporations enjoy the benefits of outsourcing most labor to places like Bangladesh.

But it's not just a problem in Bangladesh. It's a problem in many Asian as well as African countries. And not only there. In fact, in 2020, online fashion giant BooHoo was exposed for paying their textile workers around 4.20 € an hour in their factory in Leicester, UK.6,7 This is 6 € less than the minimum wage for those over-25s in the UK. When anything is done to keep costs down, people have less and less agency.

Because of this low standard of pay, low-income garment workers work extra hours to try to make ends meet.8,9 On average, factory workers complete over 60 hours of work per week, with peak season resulting in up to 18-hour workdays, seven days a week. This isn’t just to keep up with demand, rather their basic wage is just way too low.

Yet, the demand is way too high which also impacts garment workers. They are required to produce 100 shirts per hour.10 However, they usually manage to produce 'only' 80 of them, falling 20 shirts behind the production quota. To compensate for this, they work two extra – and unpaid – hours.

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Clothes on sale

Also, the job of a garment worker is very unstable.11 And this is not only visible during peak seasons. The collapse of sales in European high streets due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused a backlog of products in countries where labor is outsourced.12 Their orders were simply canceled. And brands refused to pay the factory owners for the work garment workers already put in the production.

The lack of work has led to thousands of workers losing their jobs. They returned to their neighborhoods with broken infrastructure without any means of supporting themselves due to a complete lack of social security and labor unions. In combination with the pandemic, it was an appalling injustice.

2. Fast fashion means sexual and gender-based violence against women

The majority of garment workers, roughly 80% of them, are women.13,41 Actually, the vast majority of women in the Global South can only get hired as garment workers because this kind of labor is seen as 'feminine'.14

Women are thought of as not needing a good wage because they are often the secondary earners of the family – as opposed to male garment workers who usually earn 20-50% more for the same type of work. This is one of the (many) reasons why their wages are so low. So, it also makes sense for companies to hire female garment workers, as it is way more profitable. And so, the circle continues.

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Sales in a fashion store

A lot of these women experience verbal, physical and sexual violence in their workplace.10,15

Many managers believe that the way to 'motivate' garment workers to work fast is to use violence (remember the unrealistic daily production quota – 100 shirts per hour?).10 The managers who don't use violence are often labeled as 'ineffective' and 'weak' while those who are violent often get promoted.

Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – most garment workers don't report their violent experiences as there are too many and too high barriers to overcome. If they would file a report, it is very likely that it would not be anonymous.10 This means that by reporting it, they would risk being exposed to more violence from their managers or losing their job – a loss they can't afford.

Also, it is not that uncommon to perceive female garment workers as 'sex workers' or 'sexually promiscuous'. This makes their managers feel enabled to harass them – and not give it a second thought about why this behavior is actually inappropriate.15,16

All of this – experiencing and witnessing violence as well as not sharing it with others – has an impact on garment workers' wellbeing.10 Many of them feel embarrassed, anxious, depressed, and when they come home, they cry, and are unable to eat or sleep well.

3. Fast fashion factories are a health hazard

To lower the cost, corners are also cut in factories where garments are made. To pack as many people and machinery into buildings as possible, the capacity is often at a maximum or even above the limit.18 When it comes to disease and hygiene, this makes garment factories a rife breeding ground for infection.

For instance, in May 2020, Bangladeshi garment workers were forced to return to work as the garment factories reopened despite a nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.19,20 They said that their lives were put at risk because they had to work in cramped conditions, with no enforcement of measures such as wearing a facemask or keeping social distance.

The city of Leicester, where Boohoo accounts for 75-80% of garment production, was also under local lockdown in June 2020 due to a spike in COVID-19 cases explicitly linked to conditions within textile factories.6 Cramped spaces with poor ventilation alongside a lack of personal protective equipment or social distancing measures may very well have led to the spike in infection.21

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Flyer with wanted paycheck

What was the reaction from those higher up? Some reports have demonstrated that statutory sick pay was refused by bosses – and those infected or with an infected family member were ordered to keep working through illness, otherwise, they would not receive any money.

But what about the health hazards in garment factories when there isn't a global pandemic? Unfortunately, there are no 'good old times' for garment workers.

Many harsh chemicals are used to speed up the production process and are thus used excessively in an industry that thrives off fast, mass production. The workers who are exposed to them have their health put at risk – without proper protective equipment, it can be very dangerous and even fatal.22

For example, chromium (group 1 carcinogens) is used in leather tanneries to clean and soften the leather.23 Their use is so unregulated and vast that if you work there, you are 5 times more likely to develop Leukemia.24

What’s more, the long work hours mean dire eyestrain, spinal problems and long periods of time breathing in microfibers from the air. These health issues are not mitigated by appropriate lights, comfortable seating, or ventilators.25,26

4. Fast fashion operates in dangerous infrastructure

After the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, it was brought to light that protections surrounding factory safety are rampantly absent throughout the fast fashion industry.

When this 8-storey Dhaka garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1000 employees, the various factories in the building had been producing clothing for many brands such as Mango, Primark and Walmart as well as the more upmarket brands like Versace and Prada.27,28

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Infographic about Rana Plaza

Sources: Clean Clothes Campaign, ILO,

The Rana Plaza tragedy is just one of many examples of how factory safety is a neglected facet of fast fashion. The priority is pumping out products, not the livelihoods of those making them.

Cracks had been seen in the building days before its collapse but the owner Sohel Rana insisted on the work to continue.29,30 Following the disaster, it was revealed that the upper floors were built without a permit and thus structurally unsafe, and the building as a whole was designed for shops, not heavy machinery sending vibrations through the building. With a lack of health and safety laws, complicit business owners and governments, places like Rana Plaza continue to exist everywhere.31

Media and consumer attention was captured by the case of Rana Plaza. And as protestors numbered in the thousands, a new Factory and Building Safety Accord was created.32 However, many of the large fast fashion retailers have refused to sign it.

Yet, Rana Plaza isn’t an isolated incident. Poor infrastructure and safety audits are a massive problem in the fashion industry, so health hazards continue.33 With the motivation to keep costs as low as possible, broken equipment is often used, electric wiring has not been installed properly (leading to widespread factory fires) and instead of removing asbestos – it is simply left unattended. On top of this, the crowding of both people, machinery and clothing into one room results in massive amounts of smoke and dust inhalation that is rarely remedied by ventilation measures.

All of this can lead us to realize that every single day is a health risk for those employed in the fashion production chain.

5. Fast fashion works in legal loopholes: modern slavery in fashion

Legal loopholes and gaps are widespread throughout the fashion industry, and businesses don't hesitate to take advantage of them. A major example is the US constitution and a clause in the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery).34 Wherein slavery is banned “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. This makes forced labor of imprisoned people legal. Looking at the US for-profit-run prison system and disproportionate imprisonment of POC, it's easy to spot the problem.

Several southern states like Texas do not have to pay imprisoned individuals who make anything from mattresses to road signs, harvest cotton for garments that can carry a “Made in the USA” label – despite the fact that people are forced to make them without consent, pay or any bargaining power or labor protection laws.35

But forced labor isn’t merely present in the US. An investigation by a coalition of human rights groups has found that many of the world’s biggest fashion retailers are complicit in using forced labor from the enslaved Uyghur population in China.36

Cotton from these camps is found in up to 1 in 5 cotton products worldwide – it's utterly shocking.37 In many cases, although forced – this labor is technically still legal within these countries which is alarming. As essentially imprisoned workers, they have zero bargaining power or agency to affect their working conditions.

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A post shared by Fashion Revolution (@fash_rev) on

© Fashion Revolution 2020

Corruption and grey areas are friends of fast fashion. As the supply chain is so long and winding, it becomes very easy to operate within these grey areas. In order to gain a clear oversight of the supply chain, regulations would need to be checked in multiple countries across multiple continents – which in itself would be a monstrous task.

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Transparency report

With low costs of outsourcing labor in countries like Bangladesh, a lack of rigorously enforced health and safety laws, as well as a lack of opportunities to bargain and organize, keeping costs down through discriminatory yet legal practices, is very easy for fast fashion brands.

Also, countries like Bangladesh are geographically far away from the US and Europe, where many of these garments are being sold. If the problem is far away and out of sight, it seems to be, unfortunately, less pressing and affronting.

Essentially, it's easy to be (and make lots of profit as) an unethical fashion brand.

6. Fast fashion takes advantage of child labor

It’s not just within the prison system where people are taken advantage of. Children all around the world are affected too. An estimated 170 million children are at work below the minimum age requirements.38 Within the garment industry, hiring children is particularly attractive due to the work being low-skilled and often suited to smaller bodies.

Not only that, children are doubly disadvantaged within the fashion industry as they can easily fly under the radar and are often unable to receive help from working unions. Even though children are very involved in the fashion supply chain, often, they are 'not legally there' – so, they have no legal agency.

Because of this they are paid even less and have little to no benefits.

A recent report on labor in Southern India found that families send their young daughters to work in spinning mills, often convinced by the promises of regular meals, payment and schooling opportunities while in reality: “they are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern-day slavery and the worst forms of child labor”.39

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Price tag

Yet, there is more nuance when it comes to the issue of child labor. A broad ban is very likely not going to be a solution.40

It’s important to realize the complexities of child labor. In places where basic income is so low – if children do not work, there is simply not enough money to feed the whole family.

If supporting measures (such as basic income) are put in place, there will be less of a necessity for children to work. If child labor is simply made illegal, these children will likely not stop financially supporting their families. They will just work in far worse conditions. Or, they will be pushed into much more detrimental work such as prostitution or crime.

So, it is important to look at the reasons behind why children work these jobs to examine the root of the problem. At a 1997 conference on Child Labor which included both adults and young delegates – Lakshmi Basrur, a delegate from a working children’s organization in India summarised the complexities perfectly:

“It is no use to offer us quality education if you will not allow us to work. Our families cannot survive if we do not work. The day should come when children will not need to work. Until then, they should be able to have dignified work and good quality but appropriate education, as well as time for leisure.”

The bottom line is: child labor is part of a broader cycle of poverty that needs to be examined and treated as preventative, not remedial.

This video from the Fair Wear Foundation brilliantly illustrates the different facets of unfair fashion:

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© The Fair Wear Foundation 2012

So when is fashion fair?

To quote the Fair Wear Foundation: fair fashion is about fundamental rights.42 Ethical fashion implies that people are protected and a valued part of the supply chain. The fashion industry should support its workers in realizing their rights to safe, dignified and properly paid employment.

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Time for change

For our vegan, ethical and more sustainable department store, those are the kinds of fashion brands we feel proud to give a platform to. We are happy to not only support amazing ethical brands but also to help you out with making better – ethical – choices.

With every brand and seller, we look out for whether their (garment) workers' conditions meet high standards of health and safety working conditions, whether they receive a living wage, have legal and freely chosen employment contracts, reasonable work hours, freedom of collectivizing and no child labor exploitation or social discrimination is involved.

Throughout the many years our team has spent diving deep into research on fashion and cosmetics brands, we learned that the (fashion) industry is truly complex – and many issues are not so black-and-white. We are doing our best – using all the information available, our knowledge and experience in research as well as listening to our guts – to ensure that the brands we offer are credible, honest and fair. Ensuring not (yet) perfection, but progress.

5 key things to look out for when shopping fair

1. Look out for sustainable and fair fashion labels & certifications

Many of our brands use third-party certifications to verify things like a living wage, building safety, worker agency and adherence to child labor laws. These are some key certifications and organizations to keep your eyes on:43

  • Fair Wear Foundation: It does not certify brands, but offers membership to them. The member brands then strive to ensure fair working conditions in the factories by adhering to a code of conduct based on the International Labour Organization.
10 fair fashion brands that are members – and/or whose supplier(s) are members – of the Fair Wear Foundation:

3. Bleed
4. Common and Sense
5. Daily Mantra
6. Dawn
7. Filippa K
8. Kuyichi
9. Lanius
10. Mads Norgaard


  • World Fair Trade Organization: Ensures the voices of marginalized producers are heard and advocates for fair trade principles worldwide. It is based on 10 fair trade principles outlined by the International Labour Organization.
For instance, the ethical fashion brand People Tree is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization.


  • Fairtrade International: The recognizable label you know from your coffee and bananas extends to clothes as well! If this is on your clothes, fairtrade certified cotton farmers have produced the raw material for your garment.
3 slow fashion brands that offer Fairtrade-certified (fashion) goods include:

3. People Tree

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A T-shirt with four fair fashion labels

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Although primarily about environmental impact and material, social standards based on key working condition norms outlined by the International Labour Organization are also included.
20+ more sustainable clothing brands that offer GOTS-certified (fashion) goods:

2. ANNA Slow Fashion
4. Atelier Jungles
5. Bleed
6. Blonde Gone Rogue
7. Càpe Concept
8. Daily Mantra
10. Honest Basics
11. Jan 'n June
13. Kings of Indigo
15. Kuyichi
16. Lanius
18. MUD Jeans
19. People Tree
21. Thinking MU
…and many more


  • Fashion Revolution: Although not offering certifications, this non-profit runs fair fashion awareness campaigns (such as #whomademyclothes) and regularly releases a fashion transparency index assessing 250 of the world’s most popular fashion retailers. The index ranks them on how much they disclose about their social and environmental practices and policies.

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Who made my clothes logo”

© Fashion Revolution

If you'd like to learn more about these and many more certifications, their criteria and where they fall short, we have a helpful and critical guide on the 20+ most seen sustainable & ethical fashion labels and certifications.

2. Fashion brands that advocate a living and not just a minimum wage

Some brands ensure that the factories where their textiles are processed and sewn are paying their workers not a minimum wage – but a living wage – one they can actually survive on. As this differs massively by country and even region, check where your clothes are made and whether the brand is part of a social collective to allow their employees additional benefits.

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Our seller Kuyichi champions ethical production.

3. Fair fashion brands that give back

It doesn't have to stop at offering a living wage to the garment workers. Many of our brands go even further – offering schooling opportunities and explicitly connecting with labor rights collectives that operate in the country where their factories are located to protect and facilitate physical and socially safe working conditions.

Workers are encouraged to have a voice in how and why they work and are given legal agency to do so. By enabling worker organization, employees need not fear repercussions when advocating for higher wages, safety measures, and so forth.

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Bird Eyewear

Our seller Bird Eyewear distributes solar lights to families in Zambia and Malawi.

4. Ethical fashion brands that visit the garment production chain

You’ll notice in the short descriptions of many of our brands and sellers that they visit the production line of their goods in person. Instead of simply trusting an often distant garment factory on the health, safety and satisfaction of workers, the founders often take this assessment into their own hands and develop a close relationship with the factory workers.

As the distance between the levels of the production line narrows, people become people and not just faceless numbers.

5. Be critical and ask questions

Don’t be afraid to contact the brands yourself. If things seem shady, you can definitely take on the role of an investigator and find out what the brands' policies are to get the full story.

Also, we welcome you to contact us. We can help you with your questions or with interpreting the brands' answers – is any greenwashing taking place and is a certain brand truly doing their best for their employees? So, at any time, feel free to drop us a message!

Ethical & sustainable fashion is a nuanced and complex issue

Fair fashion encompasses many issues, not only fair treatment of garment workers. It is also about being fair to the environment and animals who don't deserve to be used as materials in our clothes.

We understand it can get overwhelming. That's one of the many reasons why we are trying to make fair shopping – and an ethical lifestyle – a bit easier for you.

Before a purchase, let's think of the multi-step journey each garment had undergone to get to the store. And let's encourage a connection that needs to be made on the larger public level as to how it came to be.

After all, it feels a lot better to wear ethical and more sustainable clothing as it carries good vibes of being made in a fair and safe environment. 💚


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23. 'Leather Industry.' ScienceDirect. n.d.
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25. 'Health vulnerabilities of readymade garment (RMG) workers: a systematic review.' H. Kabir, M. Maple, K. Usher & S. Islam. 2019
26. 'Unsafe workplaces.' Clean Clothes Campaign. n.d.
27. 'They Have Forgotten the Lessons of Rana Plaza.' Fashion Revolution. 2018
28. '7 years later, has Rana Plaza prepared the industry for Covid-19?' S. Preuss. 2020
29. 'Reliving the Rana Plaza factory collapse: a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 22.' T. Hoskins. 2015
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38. 'Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain.' J. Moulds. 2020
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40. ‘Is Child Labour Always a Bad Thing?’ D. Small. 2020
41. 'Composition of your T-shirt: 90% cotton, 10% polyester and a whole lot of violence.' A. Russo, A. Drábová, I. Audouy, S. Peña. [Unpublished manuscript, Gender-based Violence and Displacement course by Nazand Begikhani at Sciences Po]. 2022
42. 'Who we are.' Fair Wear Foundation. n.d.
43. 'Ethical & Sustainable Certifications, Explained.' Shop Like You Give a Damn. 2021