Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 16:02 UK

Fast fashion nation

By Vivienne Perry
BBC Radio 1

With the explosion in the popularity of clothing from high street shops and supermarkets, 'Fast Fashion' is now worth some 6.3bn every year.

For budget retailers, low prices are crucial in a tough market

Women's clothing prices have fallen by 35% in the last 10 years and this is enticing shoppers to buy more and more.

Every week, millions of women are buying ultra-cheap and fashionable clothes, plus replica designer gear.

But how are businesses fulfilling this demand for quick turn-around, limited season stock and at such low prices?

Speed to market

Increasingly global markets have resulted in a general trend to outsource production to countries with cheaper labour forces and attractive tax policies.

Fashion retailers have long taken advantage of cheap production in developing countries.

But lately, firms have led the way in revolutionising the business by improving the speed-to-market of new trends.

The key is a state-of-the-art headquarters with designers, factories and distribution centres all on site in the producing country.

The result?

Designers are at the ready to get clothes into production almost immediately. There is a streamlined process that means factories could be far more reactive to consumer demand.

Now all the major British retailers operate according to this model.

Tight margins

So far, so cheap and trendy.

Developing countries have benefited enormously from this source of trade.

For example, almost 80% of Bangladesh's foreign earnings are derived from the garment industry.

Garment workers go on strike in April 2008
I can be told 'if you cannot reach your target then you will have to work for free'
Garment worker Sufia

Other nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Thailand and, notably, China have also profited.

But then there are the issues of child labour and low wages.

Two garment workers living in Bangladesh's capital city Dhaka, both of whom produce clothes that end up in Britain, say they earn less than the minimum wage of some 1600 taka ($26; 13). To make ends meet, they work about 50 hours overtime a month.

Bristi is just 14 years old. "I like the job I do, but it is not enough to live on," she says.

She is one of many workers feeling the squeeze passed down by British retailers to Bangladeshi factory owners and on to wages.

Sufia, who has been making clothes for more than 13 years, feels that the pressure to produce to such uncompromising deadlines has greatly impacted on her working life.

"In the beginning the whole environment was much better," she says.

"But now things are very bad. We get told off if someone talks. Sometimes they are kept standing as punishment.

"I can be told 'if you cannot reach your target then you will have to work for free'."

Tough conditions

Campaigning groups question whether the reason why clothes are cheap is really a revolutionised business model.

Bangladeshi garment workers hurl bricks at police during a demonstration in Dhaka, 22 September 2007
Riots have broken out in the past as garment workers protest poor pay

Non-governmental campaigning groups, such as Labour Behind the Label and War on Want, have been reporting on questionable work and pay conditions for garment workers making 'fast fashion'.

Bangladesh, in particular, has come under international pressure to address the use of child labour. However many families claim they financially have no choice but to send their children to work.

"The competition is getting [more] severe every day," laments Anisul Haq, who owns several factories in Dhaka and is a former president of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Consequently, profit margins for manufacturers exporting to Europe and North America are squeezed to less than 4%, which makes it hard to pay proper wages, he explains.

Over 15,000 Bangladesh garment factory workers went on strike on 15 April to call for higher wages as food prices soared in the nation.

Making improvements

A number of retailers were asked to comment on what practices they have in place to ensure good working conditions and proper pay and conditions in their suppliers' factories.

UK clothing importers usually have ethical policies in place.

And where specific incidents of unethical practises in developing countries have come to light, they have been quicky to respond.

Many declined to provide a comment for Radio 1's Surgery, although some were more forthcoming.

We are just hoping that with all this publicity about the garment workers that people and companies will actually put into action some of the things they have been talking about
Simon McRae
War on Want

Campaigners, including Simon McRae from War on Want, believe the British retail industry still has a long way to go.

"I don't think there is anyone that at the moment you could hold up as a role model," he says.

"Although a lot of them are talking about changing the conditions and the wage and working hours, we are not seeing the changes on the ground.

"We are just hoping that with all this publicity about the garment workers that people and companies will actually put into action some of the things they have been talking about."

Fast Fashion Nation will be broadcast on Radio 1's Surgery on Sunday 20 April from 2200 BST.

Made in China
14 Apr 08 |  Magazine
India child garment workers found
01 Nov 07 |  South Asia
Labouring for chocolate
27 Apr 07 |  Business
Bangladesh 'child labour' probe
11 Oct 06 |  South Asia


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