The Sweatshops Behind The Sweatshirts: The Ethical Cost Of Hype

The Sweatshops Behind The Sweatshirts: The Ethical Cost Of Hype

You may have copped the latest Jordan 1's, but do you really know where your product comes from? Read on to know more about the hidden ethical cost of streetwear you might not be entirely aware of!

Fashion and street culture have always been synonymous with each other. Although they have co-existed on each other’s peripheries for a very long time, the once high-end couture culture has now transformed itself into Hoodies, Puffer-Jackets, Limited Edition releases and Sneakers in recent years.

While many claim that Streetwear is just a trend, a staggering 76% of people in the fashion and retail industry in a survey were of the thought that Streetwear will continue to grow exponentially for a considerable amount of time in the coming years.

An off-shoot of this cultural shift has also been the immense rise of what is termed as ‘Fast- Fashion’ with brands such as Zara and H&M leading the market. Even with pioneers like Virgil Abloh stating that streetwear is “definitely going to die”, the same hasn’t stopped with the pandemic either. The culture is still in full swing.

Ari Petrou
Ari PetrouInstagram

With the industry becoming omnipresent in culture and art all around young people and now to even an older audience, its exclusivity and the classist attitude that comes along with it is also a direct contributor to people moving to cheap and alternative solutions, igniting the fire of fast-fashion and even fake and counterfeit goods. Fake goods now make up for 3.3% of the entire world trade, with footwear leading even that percentage, accounting for 22% of that trade.

But whilst the ‘hype’ behind streetwear and fashion has become more prominent than ever, what are the human costs of this cultural shift in the free market? With many International brands being questioned for their approaches to their manufacturing process, it seems that the major issue of ‘sweatshops’ has become bigger than it ever was. The focal point of this conversation then, is to understand how this cultural shift has caused the degradation of labour conditions around the world, and with the immense rise of popularity - especially in India.

Ari Petrou
Ari PetrouInstagram

One of the most notable examples of this development can be seen in the case of Nike dealing with sweatshop allegations. Along with that, the larger notion of this conversation is to showcase how a materialistic populace can force labour conditions in a country to deteriorate and make laws behind the same less impactful.

Nike is one of the most popular footwear brands in the world today, but this success has come with its fair share of troubles. Throughout the 90’s, Nike was involved in the most public case in relation to sweatshops. While the lawsuit dealt more specifically on the law on Free Speech, it openly exposed to the world that the world’s biggest manufacturer of shoes was getting their products made in sweatshops on the other side of the world.


Workers were forced to work for $1.25 a day and were made to live in slums in the unhealthiest conditions. They were made to share even basic things such as sanitation and water with a large group of people. It was this first wave that also gave rise to sweatshops in India, as labour laws in India amongst other countries were quite under-powered. In its aftermath, Nike changed. It implemented strict measures in its working model that reduced this problem gravely.

They released documents in public, being the first company to share information of all their factories, going beyond and even auditing 600 of them, along with publishing a 108-page report explaining the conditions in their factories and publicly acknowledging their callousness.

Business Insider

Nike was seen as a real-world example of how consumerism can still be maintained with fair and ethical means of production. Sadly, all of that has been brought into question again as in 2017, where reports again emerged of Nike using sweatshops. In agitations that followed, people participated in protests across the world, including India, against Nike’s exploitative practices.

It turned out that in 2015, the same year in which they published their report, they stopped working with the Worker Rights Consortium, who alleged Nike’s return to the use of sweatshops. The same was reported by the International Labor Rights Forum in 2017, showcasing a step back for Nike towards their pledge to better working conditions in their operations. It is also interesting that these operations come into question right as the streetwear culture starts becoming more prominent.

Despite these events, it seems like the consumer at large still continues to live in denial, as Nike continues to be one of the most profitable footwear companies in the world, with over $30 billion in revenue every year. Another question this begs is, if such a public company like Nike continues to be nefarious in its means, what can really be expected from other companies?

Labor Rights

With the global influence of street wear and fast-fashion, these market practices and their lure has not left India alone. If we are to suspect anything from this rise, it is only that it could severely hamper India’s already ineffective Labour Laws.

Sweatshops, since the Nike debacle in the early 90’s have been a common existence in India and agitations have been as recent as in the Summer of 2020, when the workers of fast fashion brand ‘HnM’ held protests as they had been told out of the blue that they would lose all their jobs without any pay, owing to the pandemic.

Inside a sweatshop
Inside a sweatshopAdam Smith Institute

Back in 2017, the International Labour Organization undertook survey responses and found that industry practices impact working conditions and their rights of workers in many negative ways, including vague contracts devoid of legal standing, products being cheaper than the production costs itself, no incentives from buyers to achieve social standards, suppressed wage, poor health and safety conditions, irregular/excessive working hours, impossible performance targets, sexual harassment and lack of stable work.

Specifically to India, approximately 5.8 million children between the ages of 5-17 years work under horrible and unimaginable conditions. Whilst the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 is in existence, it doesn’t cover the unorganized sector, where sweatshops thrive. To make matters worse, workers in these sweatshops are paid as low as 15 paise an hour, adding to the misery they have to deal with in relation to the working environments and the conditions they live in.

A sweatshop in Bangladesh
A sweatshop in BangladeshDaily Mail

Given this situation, it doesn’t help that India is poised to be the next big sneaker and streetwear market. In an article on India’s streetwear and sneaker future by Hypebeast, it notes that India has the 5th largest retail sector, according to a study in 2017 by the India Brand Equity Foundation, along with the retail industry counting for 10% of the country’s entire Gross Domestic Product.

The sportswear market in India has also seen a consistent rise, adding to the above growth in GDP. With this growth, along with increased availability of streetwear products that were not available before, newly opened stores catering to this new need are reaping the goods. If this is any indication of how the market is going to move, it only rings alarm for the Labour sector, along with Labour Laws in the country.

Global Citizen

In a time when the culture of fashion is becoming the most sought-after product in the free market, existing Labour Laws need to be enacted in a stricter manner and further, fresh set of Labour Laws need to be tabled in order to meet with the challenges of today’s world – a world that see’s India’s economy growing, but forgets to see the grim picture behind the shiny curtains.

Inevitably, the growing culture of ‘hype’ and fast fashion showcases a sense of alienation of the masses to the plight of workers and from the reality of how their products came to be. With the most recent call for relaxation of Labour Laws during the current COVID-19 situation in India, this fear of even weaker Labour laws and lesser avenues to fight for worker’s rights makes the situation direr.

So the next time you decide to cop that big release, just remember that there is a lot more than meets the eye.

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