10 surprising facts woven into the fabric of your clothing

by Cassandra De Freitas | September 8, 2021

10 surprising facts woven into the fabric of your clothing

by Cassandra De Freitas | September 8, 2021

The fashion industry can inspire a number of thoughts – glamour, beautiful clothing, beautiful people and wealth – but it’s also complex with a lot of facts that aren’t so glamorous.

For me, the jump from just buying fashion to awareness came when, in 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster happened – killing thousands of garment workers and highlighting factory working conditions. Many people in Canada buying clothes from these brands, including myself, were not really aware of what the women who make our clothes faced every day.

I was inspired to learn more, and as I dug in, it became clear that there is a lot to uncover about how our clothing is made.

Learn More: Check out our What She Makes campaign

Here are 10 facts about the fashion industry and how your clothes are made that you may find surprising:

1. Women make up the majority of the clothing production workforce. Globally it is 80% women workers with the majority being between the ages of 18 and 24.

The garment industry employs far more women than men. In China, 70% of the industry is women, in Bangladesh, it is 80%, and in Cambodia, it is as high as 90%. Many who began working as children are lacking education. For single women in these societies, they are facing further levels of discrimination and marginalization, which makes holding onto their basic human rights that much harder.

2. 9 out of 10 workers in Bangladesh don’t make enough money to afford enough food for themselves and their families and run out of money before the end of the month.

Bangladeshi garment workers make on average $5 a day. These wages push workers and families into debt and cause young women to sleep on concrete floors because mattresses are an out-of-reach luxury.

3. Due to poor wages and lack of availability of work, the women who make our clothes are often left with no choice but to leave their families to go live in slum accommodations.

The women making our clothes are often from rural low-income families and to be able to work and support their families, they need to move to cities where factories are located and work long hours. These women are separated from their children and loved ones – and due to the cost of travel are left with very few opportunities to see them. With wages being so low, the women will often live in shared living accommodations where, in many cases, there is limited to no access to running water.

4. On average, only 3% of the cost of a standard t-shirt goes to the women who make our clothes.

This means that with a $10 t-shirt sale, only $0.30 goes to the women who made the shirt. Meanwhile, the top executives at fashion companies are earning on average just over $18,000 a day! The breakdown of who profits from fashion is deeply unequal and unjust.

5. On average, minimum wages are 2 to 5 times less than a living wage in garment-producing countries.

A living wage and the minimum wage aren’t the same. A living wage is the amount required to cover food, utilities, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, transportation and putting away little savings for unexpected events. The exact amount varies depending on where you live and the cost of living in your area. The minimum wage is the legally lowest amount someone can be paid for work in a country. In Bangladesh, the minimum wage is only 46% of the living wage. That means many people are paid not even half of what they need to get by.

6. A living wage is actually a fundamental human right.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the payment of a living wage as a human right. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights go further, clearly stating businesses’ role in and responsibilities to respect the human right to fair wages. Even if states fail to pass minimum wage legislation at a rate that protects workers and ensures they can live with dignity, brands have a duty to ensure workers receive a living wage.

7. Canada is the fifth leading country importing garments (2019) totalling $1.8 billion from Bangladesh and $1.4 billion from Vietnam.

In order to maximize profit, the Canadian fashion industry relies on countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam to produce the clothes they sell in Canadian stores. In the next five years, retail sale values could reach $37.20 billion. Yet, women are still making poverty wages.

8. In Bangladesh, an ILO survey indicated that 52% of the responding Bangladeshi suppliers reported selling their products to brands below cost, and that they did so under pressure from their buyers.

Production costs are rising day by day, however, companies are still negotiating hard for low prices to keep their profits high. Factories take on contracts even if they do not cover their costs in fear that someone else would take on the order. Brands know this and use this as leverage to fulfill their orders at the lowest price possible. Brands should be using their purchasing power for the better.

9. Historically, when the women who make our clothes try to form a union or ask for a raise, their jobs are put at risk.

Factories have consistently obstructed women’s efforts to organize and form a union. Workers are targeted for their involvement in union activities with owners then citing other reasons for dismissal in order to protect themselves. Factory owners rely on the ability of women not being able to organize a union as their collective bargaining power would call for higher wages, better safety standards and overtime pay – all things that factories currently have sole authority to dictate.

10. When there is significant public and private pressure on Canadian brands to change their practices, we see them take notice and get on board.

Oxfam has long challenged big brands around the world to change the way they do business. With Behind the Brands, we rallied public pressure to influence big food brands like PepsiCo to change their sourcing practices and take steps towards ensuring the sugar they sourced did not cause land evictions. Now we are turning our attention to the fashion industry and the women who make our clothes. In all of these supply chains, big companies have the potential to do right by people living in poverty that their business affects.

The women who make our clothes deserve to live a decent life. Right now, Canadian brands are leaving women behind by allowing them to work, on average, 12-hour days, six days a week and still not be able to afford life’s necessities. The women who make our clothes are trapped in poverty. But there is a simple answer: ensure what she makes is a living wage.

Sign the pledge today calling on Canadian fashion brands to ensure that workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage so that you can be sure there is no more poverty woven into the fabric of your clothes.

Cassandra De Freitas (she/her) is a Campaigns & Outreach Assistant working on the What She Makes campaign at Oxfam Canada.