The fashion industry is often associated with human rights violations, particularly in countries in the global south where most of our garments are produced; what isn’t often highlighted is how these abuses disproportionately affect women. 

For International Women’s day, we wanted to shine a light on the conditions of women in fashion supply chains and offer brands solutions to ensure no one is harmed whilst making their clothes. We had a conversation on Instagram with Rachel Castillo, human rights consultant for fashion brands, read on to learn what she had to say. 

It’s estimated that 80% of garment workers are women and whilst they produce garments for some of the most profitable companies in the world, they are often working in unsafe conditions and paid poverty wages. They are known to be working long hours, denied breaks and often face violence. We wanted to learn more about what happens in fashion supply chains and have insights into potential solutions for brands to ensure that their clothes are made ethically so last week for International Women’s Day we spoke to Rachel Castillo, a human rights consultant who helps improve working conditions in fashion brands’ business operations and supply chains.

She started her journey in ethical fashion during her studies when she went to India for an internship at an NGO. During that trip she was intrigued with how women were treated so after completing a master’s program in human rights, she started supporting brands in ensuring all humans involved in fashion brands’ operations are treated and paid fairly. She now works as a freelancer with fashion companies that want to take responsibility for the working conditions in their supply chain.

Workers exploitation in supply chains: how, why and where.

She explains that the main challenges she’s witnessed in fashion supply chains are child labour, excessive and unpaid overtime, gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination, as well as the lack of a living wage and the gender pay gap. She explains the importance, as well as focusing on what happens in the supply chain, to look critically at the culture inside a company’s headquarters. It’s important to ensure that internal practices are not reinforcing harmful stereotypes. 

She believes a lot of these human rights violations stem from an unbalanced distribution of power and wealth. What we do see happening in the fashion industry is that most of the profits go to brands’ margins and a small amount of money goes to the suppliers. 

What she found to be the most effective to create more awareness of the human rights violations in garment factories is Women’s Empowerment programs. 

These long-term projects involve teaching women what their rights are, training them to take up different roles and teaching them different skills for their career development so they can become more confident and speak up when something isn’t right. Another very important measure that can foster a safe and open work environment is setting up a grievance mechanism that allows workers to raise issues safely, as well as having a remediation plan to help solve the conflict.

Power of brands.

For brands, having gender equality, Rachel explained, isn’t only desirable from a moral perspective, but it’s also financially beneficial as it leads to an increase in productivity, creativity and innovation.

When it comes to making changes in supply chains, big brands have more leverage over suppliers, meaning they have more power to enforce certain rules, but since it’s common for different brands to work at the same factory, it’s necessary for them to be aligned to create change. This can be hard when some brands don’t prioritise human rights. Rachel notes how big fashion brands have a more traditional business model which means they aim to produce as much as possible, as fast as possible whilst smaller brands are more intrinsically motivated to make a change, yet they have less power. This is also true when it comes to sustainability compliance as small brands often don’t know where to start and might be lacking the budget, the expertise and the time. 

Rachel thinks it’s crucial for brands to learn about people in their supply chains, build relationships with suppliers, visit factories and get to know the workers, ensuring that they are safe and treated equally.