Overconsumption of Clothes -                                                                                          Impact on the workers at the other  end of the supply chain

Source: Mikkel Ostergaarci/Panos Pictures

G.M.B. Akash/PanosPictures

Because of this length that a supply chain usually has, it is very difficult for the buyer, the company and also for the consumer to know where a product has been made. „Developing countries account for almost three quarters of world clothing exports.."(1) which are 7 per cent of total world exports.(2)

The cut-make-trim stage is an inexpensive stage which involves mechanically simple technology. „This results in a `mobile´industry that is relocated to whichever area of the globe has the cheapest labour costs."(3) This leads to manufacturers competing with each other for a place in the supply chain of a retailer and puts downward pressure on labour rights and working conditions, making these the key impacts associated with garment manufacture.


Around 26.5 million people work within the clothing and textiles sector worldwide, of which 13 million are employed in manufacturing clothes. 70 per cent of which are women.(4)


The downward pressure on prices has increased, with the removal of the trade protection barriers in the textile and garment sector in January 2005.

In these globalised supply chains, it is much more difficult to control what is happening within the supplier factory. Factories are no longer in the same country as the retailer selling the items/clothes.

The shorter lead times, fast turnover and the demand for always lower prices from the consumer and the high profit margins set by the retailers have a significant impact on working conditions in the supplier factories.


Social implications are the use of child labour, the use of temporary contracts, absence of employment contracts, delayed payments and sexual harassment. Most garment workers are women, who are vulnerable as they may not know about their rights as  employees and are denied the right to form associations.

Other social implications are concerned with hazardous chemicals in cotton production, dyeing etc, fibre dust, noise associated with weaving and knitting and monotonous processes leading to injuries of sewing machinists.

Buyers are constantly challenged to develop innovative and profitable clothing ranges „..owing to the relatively short life cycle of fashion items..."(5) especially for „..retailers aiming at the more fashion conscious younger end of the market..“ where the „...whole buying cycle is usually much shorter than a year, in order to respond to trends rapidly.

This can sometimes reduce the quality of the merchandise as speed of manufacture may take priority, but being able to buy a current fashion item at a competitive price is probably more important to the target customer."(6)

Buyer’s often don´t deal with the overseas garment manufacturers directly, but with middlemen like the manufacturers representatives, agents, indirect importers or the retailers overseas sourcing office, which makes checking ethical issues in order to select a manufacturer even more difficult than dealing with the company directly.

As mentioned before clothing used to be dedicated by seasons (Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter). In the early 1990s retailers like Gap and Esprit introduced a new collection four times a year. Retailers then introduced six to eight collections.

In order to make this possible, retailers and their buyers place orders constantly and put „..pressure on the supplier to condense lead time. „Retailers and manufacturers both know what it is that allows them to survive the demands of fast fashion retail: an expendable, underpaid, and overworked labour force in poor countries."(7) Having a job in developing countries is considered fortunate. The alternatives, especially for women, are considered worse.

In China „Migrant workers can easily be exploited because they do not have full residency permits within cities – which limits their access to basic services.."(8)

Governments play an important part in what happens in the supplier factories as well. „In order to remain competitive, governments and employers feel the need to offer the cheapest, most flexible labour in the least regulated workplace."(9)

Most companies now have very good CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) departments but their buying practices may well undermine these, „...ethical codes of conduct are still not sufficiently integrated into a companies core practices...“.[10]

[1] Quote, University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, Well dressed?, P.10

(2) University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing , Well dressed?, P.8

(3) Kate Fletcher, Sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.57

(4) University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, Well dressed? P.9

(5) Quote, Helen Goworek, Fashion Buying, Oxford 2007

(6) Quote, Helen Goworek, Fashion Buying, Oxford 2007

(7)  Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.17

(8)  Quote, Matilda Lee, Eco Chic, p.20

(9) Quote, Kate Fletcher, sustainable Fashion & Textiles, p.57

[10] Quote, Leonie Barrie, How buying practices impact workers´ rights, 04.10.07, http://www.just-style.com/article.aspx?id=98709&lk=s