colonialism in fashion

Brands Are Today’s Colonial Masters

“I see the Western world stocking up on food while garment workers are going hungry. Where are the brands who claimed to be sustainable now? I will never forget how they’ve treated us during COVID-19,” a labor organizer in Bangladesh shared with us. 

“You see how sustainability goes out the window? For all the fancy talking in Copenhagen and New York these so called brand partners are not paying for orders we have already made. How will I pay my workers and survive?” a garment supplier in Pakistan shared. 

“The workers are stuck in boarding houses with no work since the country shut down. They have no access to money and even basic food. From time to time we rely on individuals helping, but we don’t have anything” shared a frontline garment worker organizer in Sri Lanka. 

Over the last month, Remake has been working tirelessly to get brands to #PayUp. With shuttered retail stores and a loss of online sales, brands have been scrambling to protect their own bottom line. Unfortunately it has been at the expense of their supply chain partners, refusing to take billions of dollars worth of goods for which suppliers have already fronted the material and labor costs. 

After decades of profiting from the labor of garment makers, they have turned their backs on these black and brown women when they need them most, leaving millions without severance, medical care, or food security. 

“Why,” a reporter recently asked, “do brands treat the workforce that makes their products like this?”

Colonialism is the answer.

Garment workers sewing jeans in Cambodia.

Colonialism is often seen as a distant abstraction of the past — yet, colonial mentalities and practices continue to reign supreme in how business operates today. Systems are often predicated on seeing the extraction and exploitation of resources, from raw materials to labor, as the means for infinite growth and success. And most of these resources are extracted precisely in nations destabilized from colonial violence. 

The relics of a violent past and present are embedded throughout our modern world. As South Asian women coming from a culture colonized by the British Raj for two centuries, we often think about the jewelry the Queen of England still adorns, stolen from our part of the world, never to be returned.

Looking at the history of commodities, and later manufacturing, for the fashion industry, it is clear to see that it is built on a core truth — the oppression of black and brown bodies based on an institutional form of racism inherited from a colonial past. 

If we look at fast fashion from a macro perspective, it is clear that supply chains for most major clothing brands have the same trade routes from 150 years ago — during the height of European colonial exploitation. That’s to say, the fast fashion industry continues to exploit systems in countries still reeling from impacts of colonization.

The colonizers today, much like the British Raj, are the brands themselves. American and European brands who have refused to #PayUp for orders during the pandemic include C&A, Gap, Urban Outfitters and Walmart. Their business model has always been to head to the cheapest and poorest parts of the world to plunder. When China became too expensive as wages went up, they fled to places like Cambodia, Myanmar and now Ethiopia — why is this? Not because of infrastructure or better factories. Simply because they are the cheapest frontiers left to exploit black and brown bodies. 

The image of a poor garment worker has largely become part of the public consciousness, yet it’s one that we seem numb to. But the creation of this docile workforce is an intentional act, all tied to the fashion industry’s global race to the bottom. 

colonialism in fashion
A female garment works at an informal factory in Old Dhaka.

In today’s neoliberal deregulated global economy, developing countries are competing to produce for brands as much as they can, as cheap they can and as fast as they can. This is why fast fashion is predicated upon a vulnerable workforce and lack of environmental standards — from the chaos we have seen unleashed by coronavirus on suddenly shuttered factories, leaving out of work women without access to social protections in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia, to the not so distant past death of seven workers in a denim factory in India, to the continuing impact of factory run-off contaminating water sources in Bangladesh

At Remake, we have sat and met makers over the years telling us how they don’t drink water or tea so that they don’t have to use to the bathroom, how they skip meals to work harder and faster. It is clear that garment jobs is a form of modern day slavery — with the white masters benefiting from the blood and sweat of people of color. 

We know that the entire factory audit system is broken – and it is because it focuses on symptoms rather than root causes. For example, for decades brands have benefitted from bonded and child labor. Simply, the locations shift when public outrage or press interest grows. In the 1990s, it was bonded children sewing for Nike in Pakistan. Today it’s stories of those same brands benefitting from the Uigurs in concentration camps in China.

To understand how brands today are the real colonizers, we must understand how pricing and production schedules are set. Sourcing and supply chain executives hold all the power, squeezing suppliers down to their last cents, pushing for razor-thin margins. Further exasperating the issue is our culture of immediacy, as the world’s Amazon Prime’s next day deliveries demand ever shorter and shorter lead times — which workers ultimately pay the price for.

And on the other hand, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and social compliance teams within these same brands warn factories about not paying wages properly when the brands themselves hold invoices hostage for up to 60 to 90 days and squeeze suppliers on price all the time. These CSR and social compliance teams know that their clothes are always made with excessive overtime, a constant violation of their codes of conduct, because of their own demands to ship products faster and faster. 

Garment makers ride shoulder-to-shoulder on their way to a factory.

The entire facade of auditing allows colonizing brands to absolve themselves of responsibility. Not so different from slave masters who held people in bondage with terms that made it impossible to ever buy your freedom. 

The industry’s power dynamics are structured in a way that allow brands to ultimately benefit from all the issues they cause: from overproduction, poor forecasting and planning, lowering of prices and then pointing figures at the suppliers and local governments for the health, safety, human rights violations and environmental destruction.

To see the colonial mindset one just has to walk into a brand visit of a supplier factory — we’ve cringed watching white executives being garlanded in India, danced and serenaded in Haiti — black and brown bodies tokenized as a form of entertainment. 

None of these sourcing or compliance executives spend much time in maker communities, let alone much time talking to the makers of their clothes. Most will do a quick walkthrough look at makers like zoo animals. Then they sit like masters in air-conditioned rooms with bottled waters, while a few coached hapless makers are brought in front of them to ask a checklist of questions. And one wonders why most brands don’t find the most egregious conditions? It’s not because the makers are coached, or that audits don’t work — it’s because it’s of no benefit to colonizing brands to “find” any of these violations that directly benefit their bottom line. 

colonialism in fashion
A garment worker’s hands.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, the colonial system within the fashion industry has cracked wide open. We are seeing the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black and brown bodies. Colonizing brands have turned their backs on the very women who have kept them profitable for decades, refusing to #PayUp for produced or in production orders, and offering no support to these garment communities during the pandemic. Instead, the focus has been to retain the value of their own brands and stock prices. 

Coronavirus is a time for a reset. To break past these colonial power structures and hold brands truly accountable. As one of our supplier friends shared “how can any of these brands go back to sitting on sustainability stages after what they have done to us?” 

Want to hold brands accountable? SIGN REMAKE’s #PayUp PETITION

Images: Claudio Montesano Casillas

Join the Conversation

  1. This is a wonderful article. Do Ayesha and/or Aditi have recommendations for more books and articles on the subject of colonialism and the garment industry in Bangladesh and alternatives to the colonialism model that highlight garment makers and workers in Bangladesh?

    1. I’d also love some recommendations for more books on this topic as I am writing a disseration on it, did you happen to find any? Thanks

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