Fashion Brands Face Growing Pressure to Pay Debts to Garment Factories

A movement called PayUp Fashion urges brands to protect, not exploit, their vulnerable essential workers.

garment workers in Bangladesh
Garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Getty Images/Frédéric Soltan

Last March, a catastrophe hit Asia's garment-producing countries. Major fashion brands canceled orders worth more than $40 billion, citing COVID-induced store closures and a severely weakened retail market, but in the process destroying the livelihoods of millions of garment workers who already struggle to get by on poverty wages. 

Mostafiz Uddin, owner of a denim factory in Chattogram, Bangladesh, told journalist Elizabeth Cline that the mass cancellations amounted to a business crisis worse than the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka that killed 1,134 people in 2013. In Uddin's case, he was stuck with hundreds of thousands of pairs of jeans that were stacked in boxes up to the ceiling and was owed more than $10 million for labor and materials.

As ethical fashion activists, NGOs, and concerned shoppers realized what was happening, a campaign took root on social media, using the hashtag "PayUp." Its goal was to hold brands accountable and to inform the public about these egregious acts of corporate irresponsibility. In the words of Ayesha Barenblat, founder of a consumer activist group called Re/make that was among the first to use #PayUp on social media, the hashtag "made it very clear to the press and consumers that we were not asking for charity but simply good business."

This very reasonable request caused the campaign to go viral over the summer and, as of December 2020, it had pushed brands including Zara, GAP, and Next to pay at least $15 billion owed to garment factories. While these successes are worth celebrating, the job is far from over. The hashtag has since morphed into a more formal movement called PayUp Fashion, which hopes to maintain the pressure on major brands to revolutionize the fashion industry, once and for all. Cline, Barenblat, and a number of other experts, non-profits, and representatives from the garment industry are involved.

PayUp Fashion's 7 Actions

PayUp Fashion lays out seven actions that fashion brands must take in order to build a garment industry that's no longer so cruelly exploitative and unsustainable. These actions include (1) paying up immediately and in full for any outstanding orders, (2) keeping workers safe and offering severance pay, (3) improving transparency by disclosing factory details and wages of lowest-paid workers, (4) giving workers at least 50% representation in discussions about their rights, (5) signing enforceable contracts that remove risk from vulnerable workers, (6) ending starvation wages, and (7) helping to pass laws that reform the industry, rather than obstructing them.

The second action – keeping workers safe – urges brands to pay an extra ten cents per garment that would go toward building a safety net for workers. As Cline explained to Treehugger, the pandemic revealed that workers have no recourse when their jobs disappear. 

"What many people might not realize is garment worker poverty is a direct result of how little brands are paying their factories for the clothes we wear. In fact, the price that brands pay to factories has gone down year-over-year over the past 20 years and declined another 12% during the pandemic despite the fact that wages should be rising. This race to the bottom makes it so that things like unemployment insurance and severance and living wages don't get paid. It's got to change."

Keep in mind that many of the countries in which these garment workers operate do not have reliable social safety nets of their own; and with such high percentages of their populations employed by the industry, "factories not being able to pay workers would mean total societal breakdown."

Hence, the new #10centsmore campaign that's grown out of PayUp Fashion's second action. Cline is hopeful that major brands will sign up quickly, considering the year we've just had. "Companies can't afford the reputational damage of being linked to bad business practices anymore. Garment workers are essential workers, and we can all agree brands should share in the responsibility of creating a safety net for these people." She said several big names are considering the proposal. 

PayUp Fashion also maintains a Brand Tracker list of 40 major labels to see how quickly they move toward meeting the seven demands. "Starting in September, PayUp Fashion expanded the brands we are tracking beyond just those who cancelled orders, because, to be frank, agreeing to not rob your factories during a pandemic is the absolute lowest bar for social standards in the fashion industry," Cline told Treehugger. 

The list contains some surprising names, such as Everlane, Reformation, and Patagonia. When asked why companies that are generally thought of as ethical fashion leaders are on the list, Cline explained that, while they did not cancel orders, they are expected to "lead the pack" when it comes to meeting the actions. "It's important to track not only the largest and most profitable companies but the major companies who make their money by marketing themselves as sustainable and ethical," she said. "Those claims are rarely vetted by the public or a truly independent third party." 

What Can You Do to Help?

Signing the PayUp Fashion petition is as important as ever. Each signature sends an email to the executives of the 40 brands being tracked. Tagging brands on social media that have not yet promised to #payup is effective, too. You can see a full list here. Pushing all brands to promise to pay #10centsmore for greater worker security is also important. 

It's crucial to stay focused on what real transformative change means for the fashion industry. It's not about using more recycled water bottles, fabric made from mushrooms, or wearing 3D-printed clothing, as innovative as these technologies may be. Nor is it about praising brands for so-called transparency, which Cline points out is less about reforming fashion and more "a way for brands to self-report on their good behavior." Real transformation means that all human workers are paid a fair wage for a fair day's work and that factories and garment workers are equal partners in fashion. "That," Cline said, "would be a truly innovative change."