Number Crunch

Major Apparel Brands Owe Billions to Their Suppliers in Low-Income Countries

When it comes to paying low-wage laborers, fast fashion is taking it slow

$22 billion: That’s how much major apparel brands owe their supplier factories, according to Workers Rights Consortium findings cited by Vox. The impact of this shortfall has trickled down to some of the world’s most vulnerable workers, employed by such factories throughout the developing world, who lost jobs overnight, often with no severance.

The underlying problem goes back to the early days of the pandemic, when a shuttered retail sector caused major apparel makers to retrench, canceling or delaying orders as supply chains practically froze in place. And to be sure, the garment industry — which employs an estimated 40 million workers worldwide, Vox notes — is a while from full recovery.

But some brands have bounced back, profiting off all those sweatpants you ordered up online to refresh your remote-work “wardrobe.” And an activist outcry led companies such as H&M and Inditex (owner of Zara) to pay for completed orders. Still, the Workers Rights Consortium calls out brands from American Eagle to Kohl’s to Oscar de la Renta as having announced no plans to make good on orders canceled in production.

Online sales aside, it’s going to take a while for the apparel industry to get back to full strength. But in the meantime, perhaps a side effect of the pandemic will be a fresh look at how the different players in these global supply chains work — and how their workers are treated.

Eventually, we’ll all have to get back to buying garments other than masks.

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