The Fashion Industry, as it stands

The Fashion Industry, as it stands

(from our 2021 Impact Report)

From colonialism, extraction of resources, and widespread workers' struggles, the fashion industry, as it stands, is in direct conflict with our planetary and ethical boundaries. 

Most brands operate in factories with little union representation, overtime, and poor COVID disease control, keeping women in the global south in poor health and poverty. This year in particular has drawn attention to bad industry practices, with many brands cancelling orders that have already been made during the pandemic, leaving millions of garment workers destitute.


“Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes – to which women are often obliged to adhere – that portrays women as passive and flexible....Gender discrimination runs deep throughout all of the countries in which garments are currently produced. Women are frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment.” [1]

1 in 5 of global cotton products are made with forced labour. [2]



From child labourers in Uzbekistan, to the Xinjiang region of China, cotton harvesting is often farmed in conditions akin to modern slavery. Most farming of cotton is now linked to the genocide of Uighur people in China. This cotton is used widely throughout the fashion industry. [1]


It’s no surprise that the fashion industry relies on exploited labour from women of colour in the global south. Many Western brands are deliberately based in ex colonies, as an extension of colonial violence. These suppliers may have autonomy in principle, but we’re still trading along the same European colonial trade routes, for a fraction of the pay that would be expected of workers in the brands’ native countries. [3]


80% of garment workers are women. And yet, 80% of the richest people working in fashion are men. Nine of "The Top 10 Billionaires in Fashion” listed for 2020 were men, with 8/10 of them being white. 

Poverty wages

Despite an ongoing commitment to “sustainability” from huge fashion corporations, we believe that our planet is not sustainable without providing sustainable livelihoods to the people who need it most. 

93% of brands don’t pay a living wage in their supply chain. The average worker in Bangladesh earns the spending power equivalent of just 69p an hour, for 60 hours a week. [4] 

What is a Living Wage?

The Living Wage is an hourly rate, calculated according to cost of living in the UK. The London Living Wage is currently £10.85 per hour for 2021 and should be enough for essentials, emergencies, and for workers to provide for their families. This is not to be confused with the ‘national living wage’ of £8.72 which is the new minimum wage. [5]

Modern slavery in the UK

In 2015, a study by the Ethical Trading Initiative discovered that an estimated 10,000 garment workers in Leicester, England, were being paid £3 per hour. Fast forward to 2020, and not much has changed, with many brands coming under fire for paying domestic garment workers £3.50 per hour and offering no coronavirus protections. [6]

“At this moment, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the BAME groups and on South Asians in particular is well known. Increased exposure in small factories is particularly dangerous...In Leicester’s garment factories however, Labour Behind the Label has received reports that workers have been told to come into work – even when they showed symptoms of COVID-19 – otherwise they would lose their job.”


More clothes are being produced annually than we can ever wear, at poor quality levels so that they deliberately wear out.

Globally, 20 billion garments are made a year. Of these, H&M create 3 billion garments a year, and are sitting on $4 billion dollars of inventory that they haven't sold. [7]

13 million items of clothing end up in UK landfills every week. The average garment is worn only an estimated ten times before disposal. Half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year. [8] 

Carbon intensive by design

The fashion industry is responsible for 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions every year. That’s 6-10% of total global emissions. This is equivalent to the combined annual GHG emissions of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, or the entirety of shipping and international travel industries. [9] [10]

20 billion garments are manufactured around the world every year. Half of fast fashion produced is disposed of in under a year.

While this all might sound bleak, brands like birdsong exists to inspire and implement change in the fashion industry. This is the fast fashion landscape we are operating counter to, and it is important to not shy away from the bleak reality of the fashion industry; so we can remember the stakes, and what we’re existing in protest against.



[1] Labour Behind The Label, Gender
[2] BBC, China's 'tainted cotton', (2020)
[3] Celine Semaan for The Cut, Understanding Sustainability Means Talking About Colonialism, (2018)
[4] Our Founder, Sophie Slater for i-D, Brand Celebrate International Women’s Day But They’re Still Oppressing Women Workers, (2018)
[5] Living Wage Foundation
[6] Labour Behind The Label, Boohoo & COVID-19, (2020)
[7] New York Times, H&M's Different Kind of Clickbait, (2019)
[8] Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the fashion industry (2018), p.59
[9] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, (2017)
[10] McKinsey, Fashion On Climate, (2020)

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