The textile industry's impact on people

The textile industry damages the environment. But it also hurts people. Especially those who work in or live near the factories. In this article, we explain how the production of clothing affects all living things around it.

That the fashion industry damages nature is pretty well-known. Apart from the fact that huge amounts of water are required to manufacture clothes, the water is rarely purified afterward, which leads to polluted lakes and lands - and during transport large amounts of carbon dioxide releases into the air. Around 60% of all clothing is made from polyester - a fossil fuel-based material - and when it comes to the actual production of clothing, polyester garments have the biggest environmental impact, bigger than transport. But it is not only nature that is damaged, but also people who work in and live near the factories. A lot of the chemicals released from textile factories and tanneries* enter ecosystems and food chains. They poison - and in the worst case, kill - animals that live off and graze around the watercourses. The toxins contaminate the drinking water, which is also used to irrigate vegetables and grains that people feed on. In some places, it is so bad that it is not possible to grow at all. Even local fishermen lose their income when the fish disappear due to water pollution.

Health hazards, poor pay, and lousy working conditions
Although some claim that the textile industry has brought something good, in the form of more job opportunities,
it is a risky job with many health hazards, poor pay, and lousy working conditions. In some factories, the employees work without any protective clothing when being exposed to dangerous chemicals that can cause both internal and external body damage, including various types of skin corrosion, hormonal disorders, and cancer. The work in the textile factories is characterized by far too long working days under poor conditions. Fainting, even death is not uncommon due to inadequate ventilation in the premises.

The fight for a living wage
The work in the textile factories is characterized by low wages and short contracts. Many workers are forced to live on minimum wage, which is the lowest wage an employer can pay by law. It's an amount that for many is barely enough for food and housing. Many textile workers also save parts of their wages to be able to send to relatives in the countryside who are too old or sick to work themselves. The minimum wage should not be confused with a living wage, something that is often heard in conjunction with protests and demonstrations to get paid "living wages". It is exactly as the name suggests, a living wage that covers all the essentials of life. But in many developing countries, the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage is too wide, and governments or businesses have no interest in raising the minimum wage to close that gap, as it would make them less competitive and reduce business. The low minimum wages are thus a strategic choice by companies and governments, which affects the workers and prevents the living standard in the country from being raised.

What is a sweatshop?
Some of the factories go by the name sweatshops. A sweatshop is, in practice, a low-wage factory where the pay, working conditions, and working environment fall far below the requirements for what is considered reasonable and legal - something that is admittedly in line with most textile factories. Child labor is not uncommon in these places, as are employees bringing their newborns to work because they have no one to look after them, or can afford to send them to preschool and school. These children have no other choice but to spend time in the dangerous environment their parents face on a daily basis.

Transparency and responsibility
The textile industry's wretched conditions and devastating consequences for people and nature put into perspective the importance of transparency and responsibility in fashion companies. They should be aware of the factories they work with and their supply chains, and they should ensure that at least all factories are registered and following minimum law requirements. If brands become more transparent with their customers, and it turns out that there are clear flaws, risks, and/or problems with production (for example, working conditions in the factories), the chance of them being called out for it and forced to be held accountable increases – which is exactly what is needed.

*Tanning is a process in which animal skins are converted into leather and is a form of preservation that aims to make the leather soft and durable.