World Day Against Child Labor: How Fast Fashion Fuels a Hidden Problem

Children working in a fast fashion factory
Imagine a child, no older than 10, hunched over a sewing machine for 12 hours each day, stitching clothes destined for trendy stores worldwide. This is the harsh reality for millions of children trapped in the fast fashion industry. Every year on World Day Against Child Labor, we raise awareness about this hidden epidemic. Today, we'll delve into the dark connection between fast fashion's relentless pursuit of cheap clothes and the exploitation of children.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) launched the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to focus attention on the global extent of child labor and the action and efforts needed to eliminate it.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the ratification of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182. Despite the worldwide effort to end child labor, approximately 150 million children, some as young as five years old, continue to work. That’s almost 1 in 10 children around the world. They’re denied proper nutrition, education, and the chance to play and grow as children. More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of child labor such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, drug trafficking, prostitution, and armed conflict.
Each year on June 12, the World Day Against Child Labor brings together governments, employers and workers organizations, civil society, and millions of people from around the world to highlight the plight of child laborers and what can be done to help them.
The ILO saw improvement in child labor over the last two decades, but the pandemic – with schools closed, supply chain failures, and economic hardships – reversed much of the progress and highlighted a need for renewed commitment to the issue. This year, the Passion Lilie team is focusing on the often unseen connection between fast fashion and child labor.
A busy fast fashion factory

The Fast Fashion Cycle and it’s Dark Underside

Fast fashion is known for trendy clothes and rock-bottom prices. The fast fashion giants churn out hundreds of new styles every week, escalating our need for newer, quicker clothing. Fast fashion chains turn runway styles into cheap dupes at breakneck speed, giving consumers a chance to buy them for next to nothing, wear them a few times, and then discard them after a few wears.

This turns into a toxic cycle of overproduction and waste. The relentless pursuit of profit severely affects our environment, animals, and vulnerable humans. Brands in developing countries rely on unregulated supply chains rife with exploitative practices, including child labor.

A small child works in the cotton fieldsHere’s how the fast fashion model creates conditions ripe for child labor:

  • Pressure on costs: the constant demand for lower prices incentivizes manufacturers to reduce production costs through any means possible. Often, this means decreasing wages for adult workers, forcing families into desperate situations where children are sent to work to supplement income.
  • Subcontracting: many major brands outsource production to subcontractors in developing countries with weaker labor regulations. The subcontractors may subcontract even further, creating a chain of obscurity where child labor can go undetected. This hands-off approach to personnel management gives brands plausible deniability regarding who’s making their clothes.
  • Cheap Labor: Children are easy targets for exploitation. With no one to advocate for them, little voices are silenced by people in power. Many fast fashion production stages involve low-skilled tasks that employers can hand off to children. Some employers even prefer child workers for jobs like cotton picking and sewing because their smaller fingers are more adept. They’re considered more obedient and responsive to false promises offered by employers, and they’re forced to work for well below the minimum wage.

The consequences of child labor in the fast fashion industry are devastating. Children are robbed of their childhood, denied education, and exposed to hazardous working conditions with risks of injuries, exposure to toxic chemicals, and even death. Child labor is a direct result of extreme poverty. Families living far below the poverty line are forced to send their children to work, perpetuating the cycle by limiting the means and opportunities to escape.

A little boy works in a fast fashion factoryFast Fashion’s Disguises

Many fast fashion brands claim to have ethical sourcing practices, but they lack transparency and accountability. Here’s how the industry can obscure its connection to child labor:

  • Greenwashing: Many fast fashion brands claim to be more sustainable or ethical than they actually are. We call this Greenwashing: a marketing tactic to sell products by making environmental claims like “ethically sourced,” “eco-friendly,” or “carbon neutral” without any evidence to support these claims. Greenwashing is a tactic that distracts consumers from the company’s less-than-ethical pursuits, like their use of child labor.
  • Limited audits: Independent audits of factories are often announced before they’re conducted, allowing them to temporarily remove child workers from the production floor.
  • Shifting blame: Brands point fingers at suppliers and subcontractors, denying any responsibility for or awareness of child labor practices within their supply chains.

We Can Make a Difference

As consumers, we hold the power to influence change in the fast fashion industry. Here are some ways we can combat child labor through our fashion choices:

  • Learn more: Research the brands you support before you buy. Look for certifications and memberships like Fair Trade or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) that prioritize fair labor practices.
  • Invest in quality, not quantity: Prioritize buying fewer, well-made clothes that will last longer. Consider buying second-hand clothes or supporting sustainable brands with transparent supply chains.
  • Focus on slow fashion: Move away from trendy clothes and focus on clothes that fit your personal style. If you love your clothes, you’ll wear them for years to come.
  • Ask questions: Engage with brands directly! At Passion Lilie, we welcome questions about our ethical sourcing practices and sustainable production. Any ethical brand will be proud to share this information with you and appreciate the accountability.
  • Support Advocacy Initiatives: Donate or volunteer with organizations working to eradicate child labor in the fashion industry.

Happy children dressed for schoolWorking Together for a Child-Free Fashion Future 

The fight against child labor requires a multi-pronged approach. Governments must strengthen labor laws and enforce stricter regulations on global supply chains. Brands need to prioritize ethical production and invest in transparent sourcing practices.

However, the most significant impact can come from consumers. By educating ourselves, demanding change, and making conscious choices, we can dismantle the fast fashion model that feeds child labor. Let's transform World Day Against Child Labor from a call to action into a permanent reality. Together, we can create a fashion industry that celebrates creativity, and sustainability, and above all, respects the fundamental rights of every child.

This blog post provides a foundational understanding of the link between fast fashion and child labor. Here are some additional resources you can explore to take further action:

  • The International Labour Organization (ILO): https://www.ilo.org/offers resources and information on child labor and initiatives to combat it.
  • Fashion Revolution: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/is a global movement raising awareness about the social and environmental impact of fashion.
  • Clean Clothes Campaign: https://cleanclothes.org/advocates for labor rights in the garment industry.

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