Colonialism’s got a new look, courtesy of the fashion industry.
With the emergence of ethical fashion and consumer demands for sustainability, the industry has admittedly made strides in the right direction. However, fashion at its core still carries a colonial legacy—one that’s stitched into its supply chain at the expense of East and Southeast Asian communities.
At every stage of the fashion cycle, harm is placed on non-white communities in the Global South.
Colonialism is deeply entrenched in the structures and systems that prop up the fashion industry as it appears today. The industry as we know it still adheres to colonial precepts of old, reinforces eurocentric standards with no regard for other peoples, and reeks of exploitation at every stage of the fashion cycle.
During production, garment workers are dealt poverty-level wages and deadly working conditions as ethics is foregone for profit. Cultural appropriation and lack of representation run rampant in fashion shows and marketing campaigns, staining people of color’s sense of self and overall perception of racial and cultural groups. At the end of a garment’s lifecycle, cargos of discarded clothes are even shipped back to the Global South, exacerbating waste disposal issues and curtailing local fashion growth.
At every stage of the fashion cycle, harm is placed on non-white communities in the Global South.
Labor Rights Torn At The Seams
Colonial influence is sewn into garment factories, eerily reminiscent of slavery and sweatshops.
More than 80% of countries in [Asia] violated garment worker’s right to strike and participate in the act of collective bargaining, impeded the registration of unions and arrested workers
When colonizers were unable to find cheap labor, a system of slavery was erected to obtain a profit. They stripped individuals of their human rights and ordered them to toil day in and day out under horrid working conditions for meager pay. This was no isolated incident as many, if not all, colonies had enslaved natives. Meanwhile, sweatshop factories were coined later on in the late 1800s. People from Europe to China fled famine and financial crisis by migrating to the USA which was perceived to bring economic prosperity. In reality, they ended up working in sweatshops known for low wages, long hours, and unsanitary conditions.
The industry as we know it still adheres to colonial precepts of old, reinforces eurocentric standards with no regard for other peoples
Today, the fashion industry follows a similar formula to turn a profit. With rising costs in their own lands, it’s become an ongoing trend for transnational brands to outsource garment production, taking advantage of countries with cheap wages and poor labor practices. Globalization also shifted control from manufacturer to retailer, consequently forcing the former to rely on low-cost labor to stay afloat, causing the reemergence of sweatshop-like factories in the south. Major retailers such as Forever 21, Gap, H&M, Uniqlo, and Zara still use sweatshops. These aren’t one-off mistakes from individual factories, but rather an industry practice of scrambling for the cheapest prices and fastest turnaround times.
[During] the COVID-19 pandemic, countless brands canceled on, refused to pay, and even haggled for 90% discounts for orders worth billions
Consequently, Asia – dubbed the ‘garment factory of the world’ – accounts for approximately 55% of clothing exports and textiles according to the International Labor Organization. And yet, the Asia-Pacific is also one of the worst regions for workers’ rights. More than 80% of countries in the region violated the rights of garment workers to strike and participate in the act of collective bargaining, impeded the registration of unions and arrested workers.
Transnational retailers only exacerbate this situation. When retail sales plummeted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless brands canceled orders, refused to pay, and even haggled for 90% discounts for orders worth billions of dollars, including those already completed and in production. The immediate lack of funding this caused led to a surge of layoffs leaving many garment workers without severance pay. Popular retailers accrued billions of dollars worth of profit, while garment worker wages fell by 21%, Remake reports.
However, despite the perpetuation of inequality seen by these events, many argue that the fashion sector is beneficial since it generates income for the Global South. While this may be true, are we going to negate the rights of garment workers for the benefit of profit? To put things in perspective, thousands of garment workers don’t make a living wage. In the case of India and Bangladesh, wages paid on average are 2-5 times less than the amount a worker and her family needs for food, clothing, housing, and other utilities.
And it’s not just pay that’s the problem, but inhumane working conditions contribute to the substandard living conditions many garment workers face. Just recently, Chinese nationals in a Shaoxing factory were ordered to work 14-hour shifts to produce British flags just 90 minutes after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. They churned out 500,000 in a week.
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Garment workers in Myanmar reported experiencing routine pregnancy tests prior to employment, presumably as the factory’s attempt to shirk from paying maternity leave and facing a potential for delayed production. While factory reps deny this, Jacob Clere from decent employment nonprofit SMART Myanmar admits that pregnancy testing is a regional problem and a labor practice imported by foreign-owned factories. Sexual harassment is also fairly common in and around the workplace.
Even communities near factories are needlessly placed at risk. Asian rivers are turning a murky black due to the sludge and sewage dumped there by textile dyeing factories. Contaminated waters of this degree threaten the health status, water supply, and livelihoods of those in riverside neighborhoods.
[During the pandemic] popular retailers accrued millions to billions of dollars worth of profit, while garment worker wages fell by 21%
“The kids get sick if they stay here,” said a Bangladeshi resident to CNN. The resident added that “because of the water” his two children and grandson are unable to live with him.
Health hazards, human rights violations, and unjust labor practices abound. Evidently, underlying the manufacturing processes of the industry is a colonial belief—that vulnerable, disadvantaged populations in the south are of lesser importance, and a free pass for exploitation.
Colonialism and Fashion go Hand in Hand
As if labor violations aren’t enough, fashion’s brand of colonialism burrows its way into psyche and culture, shaking up East and Southeast Asian garment workers long after they leave the factory.
To POC women and girls, it can be disorienting to find that they’re essentially excluded in the pop culture and media images marketed to the global public.
“Many Asian Americans and other people of color often struggle with their racial and ethnic identity development—with many citing how a lack of media representation negatively impacts their self-esteem and overall views of their racial or cultural groups,” professor and author Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Ph.D. shared in a reflective article.
After manufacturing, finished garments are marked up and marketed to consumers worldwide. Fashion shows and marketing campaigns fill every crevice of one’s life from unwelcome ads to glaring billboards en route work. Many of these campaigns are fronted by slim, white, picture-perfect figures and just the occasional person of color. To POC women and girls, it can be disorienting to find that they’re essentially excluded in the pop culture and media images marketed to the global public.
The fashion sector may seem to have grown more diverse as of late, but everything is not as it seems. In part, this can be credited to tokenism; this is the act of doing something in order to appear more attractive and inclusive. In other words, it’s a superficial and performative gesture to rake in favor with consumers or ROI. For example, Boohoo positions itself as an advocate for women empowerment and collaborates extensively with POC content creators, yet it is also the very same brand caught in a 2020 labor scandal. Its garment factories in Leicester, UK paid workers less than minimum wage and forced them to work amid COVID-19 lockdowns. Pakistan factories were found to have similar conditions as workers admitted to working 24-hour shifts for below-minimum wage. While Boohoo seems inclusive on its website and social media pages, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
High-income nations exercise their privilege and power to attain their goals while undermining the rights of low-income communities to a clean and safe living condition
Settling for tokenism also makes way for cultural appropriation. Simply put, this is the inappropriate usage of cultural customs and concepts by another, typically more advantaged group. In 2015, the Met Gala’s theme of China: Through the Looking Glass was decided on to “reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery.” Almost all the A-list celebrities adorned themselves in stereotypically Chinese clothing and aesthetic, without bothering to consult designers from the said country. The failure to do so is a failure to ascertain whether the wearable art is respectful of the culture it borrows from and claims to celebrate.
On the other side of the world, the Global South is selling clothing they don’t necessarily need. It’s not surprising to find thick, winter-ready clothes lining the retail stores in tropical countries like the Philippines come December. Whether fashion designers are aware or not, there’s an implicit bias that bleeds into their work, creating the end output of eurocentric garments and fashion trends.
Such cases point towards a diversity and inclusion deficit not just on camera, but off-screen as well. With more POC executives, designers, and professionals, the state of fashion is primed to become more dynamic, considerate, and respectful of other cultures and communities. However, DE&I experts suggest that work has only just begun when it comes to fostering racial and ethnic diversity in the fashion sector. Almost 80% of hires for the CEO role alone are men according to a 2022 Nextail report, and a good chunk of them are white.
Demand for cheap, trendy clothes is fueled by used textiles from overseas, thus discouraging investment in local garments
While people in the Global South are independent on paper, they aren’t completely liberated from the north’s grasp. Coercion and force that served as trademark tactics in colonial history are traded for soft powers, i.e., the veiled ability to persuade formerly colonized nations to do one’s bidding by way of shaping preferences and weaving influence. Culture becomes another commodity to exploit, fashion another vehicle to enforce superiority and control.
Worn And Torn ‘Til The End
Economy, culture, and even politics are impacted by colonial powers dominating the fashion industry—this is made all the more apparent towards the end of a garment’s lifecycle. More than 92 million tonnes of textiles are discarded every year with the majority sent back to the Global South, adding to existing waste problems and curtailing local fashion growth.
“The way most people encounter the secondhand clothing trade is their High Street second-hand store. I think there is a common presumption amongst the general public that if they give something to charity it’s most likely to be sold in one of these shops… And while many garments are sold in these shops, the demand is relatively low compared to the supply, and far more get exported overseas,” Dr Andrew Brooks, author of Clothing Poverty and lecturer in development geography said. The top exporters of used clothing as of 2020 are the United States, China, United Kingdom, Germany, and South Korea, while the biggest importers consisted of Ghana, Ukraine, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Of the 15 million used garments that make their way into Ghana every week, 40% or 6 million are declared worthless upon arrival
The influx of used garments contributes to the waste problem that countries in East and Southeast Asia already face. As it turns out, a vast quantity of these clothes end up as waste because they have little to no market value. These textiles are either unfit for local climate, are poor in quality, or are so overworn they’re one thread away from falling apart. Of the 15 million used garments that make their way into Ghana every week, 40%, or 6 million, are declared worthless upon arrival. These are dumped along rivers or settlement borders and even burned openly; dumpsites are filled and unable to account for the added waste that enters their shores. Furthermore, decomposing clothes can contain dangerous chemicals, microplastic fibers, and release greenhouse gasses, putting the health and wellbeing of local communities at risk. Textile waste is essentially packaged as secondhand clothing and exported to the Global South as a cheap way to dispose of them and circumvent responsibility.
38% of the Philippines’ working population are employed in the secondhand garment sector
Textile waste exports are “tied to historical colonizing practices, where high-income nations exercise their privilege and power to attain their goals while undermining the rights of low-income communities to a clean and safe living condition,” a Remake article on waste colonization reports.
Admittedly, used textiles fuel the economy and generate jobs for millions of people. 38% of the Philippines’ working population are employed in the secondhand garment sector, based on a 2018 Labor Force Survey. It also contributed P5 trillion, which is a third of the total, in the country’s GDP in 2016. Unfortunately, the exponential growth of the secondhand clothing industry has pushed local producers to the margins. Demand for cheap, trendy clothes is fueled by used textiles from overseas, thus discouraging investment in local garments. Consequently, economies in the south end up relying on the used clothing trade powered by the Global North.
Second-hand clothing exports [presents itself] as a way to help low-income countries rather than a convenient way to offload the problems of overproduction and overconsumption onto the Global South
For this reason, the East African Community (EAC) agreed to execute a total ban on used clothes imports by 2019. The USA disputed this and called it a blockage of free trade, even going so far as to threaten possible trade penalties and loss of eligibility for duty-free clothing exports. Interestingly, this exchange holds a trace of colonial past. In the 1980s, the European and American-led International Monetary Fund and World Bank offered to lend money to poor countries upon the condition that they uphold free trade, among others. These structural adjustments led to increased imports of used garments, as well as the decline of Africa’s textile industry.
Greenpeace writes, “Colonialism is not only a force for shaping geopolitics, but its influence can be detected in the fashion industry over the decades, through the positioning of second-hand clothing exports as a way to help low-income countries rather than a convenient way to offload the problems of overproduction and overconsumption onto the Global South, along with the risks and the consequences of environmental pollution and damage to human health.”
The Global South effectively becomes not only the overworked manufacturer of fashion, but also the dumping grounds of the north. Again, East and Southeast Asian communities, the very backbone of the clothing sector, are trampled on. A legacy of exploitation and waste colonialism is woven into the very fabric of fashion. And with practices that have remained unchanged for over 50 years now, it is clear that the industry has a lot of decolonizing to do.