Are Clothes Made in Bangladesh Ethical? (Don’t Boycott Them!)

Melissa Wijngaarden

Are Clothes Made in Bangladesh Ethical? (Don’t Boycott Them!)

Sweatshops, the dreadful Rana Plaza disaster, “made in Bangladesh” labels on fast fashion brands… 

Surely, if a garment was produced there, it means it’s low-quality, bad for the environment, and made by exploited workers, right?

I can see why you’d think that. After all, that is the reality sometimes… but not always!

So, I’ll show you why some clothes made in Bangladesh are ethical and some aren’t (and most importantly, how you can support fair trade brands that don’t use sweatshops).

The reality of (un)ethical made-in-Bangladesh clothing

Street view of Bangladesh

Why so many clothes are made in Bangladesh 

  • Fast growth – This country’s ready-made garment industry only started in the 1980s, and yet it now accounts for a whopping 84% of its exports. In fact, Bangladesh is currently one of the world's largest exporters of apparel, second only to China. Why? Since it has particularly low living costs, it’s cheaper for fashion brands from high-income countries to outsource their clothing production to factories in Bangladesh
  • Subcontracting – To keep up with the unsustainable demands from big fast fashion brands, many factories in Bangladesh outsource to different ones, and these are often sweatshops. The lack of regulation around this, especially in the past, turned it into a common practice 
  • The Rana Plaza disaster – In 2013, consumers all over the world had to start opening their eyes to the dreadful reality of fast fashion: this sweatshop building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 garment workers and injurying +2,500

More ethical clothes production in Bangladesh after Rana Plaza

Luckily, there have been some positive changes. For example:

  • Labour Act – Bangladesh amended its Labour Act in 2013 and a few times after that. The biggest change concerned how workers supplied by contracting agencies were to be treated as “normal” workers from the same company
  • The Accord – In 2013, several organisations, brands, and big retailers signed the Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh accord. Now, for the sake of transparency, its website logs all the factories that have been audited 
  • Sustainability – Bangladesh has the highest number of green garment factories in the whole world and the second-highest when it comes to GOTS-certified ones (using ethically sourced cotton). It’s also part of the Circular Fashion Partnership, which supports the development of the textile recycling industry to reduce fashion waste

A lot of made-in-Bangladesh clothing is still unethical, though

I believe the biggest problems plaguing the garment industry in Bangladesh are:

  • A low minimum wage – This is set on an industry basis, and garment factories only have to pay a minimum wage, but that’s 3 times lower than the living wage needed to lead a decent life!
  • Unsupervised subcontracting – Despite those new regulations, it’s hard to police it. No wonder there are still 4,500 sweatshops in Bangladesh… that we know of! 

And what’s the reality behind the doors of the sweatshops in Bangladesh?

  • Inhumane shifts – Garment workers are often forced to withstand 14 or even 16-hour shifts, sometimes 7 days a week and with no additional pay for overtime
  • Low pay – The legal minimum wage is already too low. So, can you imagine what happens in illegal and unsupervised factories?
  • Child labour – Sadly, that’s also still a thing
  • Unsafe working conditions – Dangerous buildings without emergency exits, fire extinguishers, or proper ventilation. Chemical hazards. Noise-induced hearing loss. Lack of protection. Millions of Bangladeshi workers are paying the high human cost behind cheap fast fashion clothes!
  • Exploited women workers – This accounts for the majority of garment workers in Bangladesh. They’re often hired on a temporary basis without legal benefits, dismissed without notice (especially if they get married), denied their right to maternity leave, and even abused. I recommend watching the film Made in Bangladesh, inspired by a true story 

Unfortunately, with over 35 million people living below the poverty line in Bangladesh, many have no choice.

And when garment workers do try to change their situation, it doesn’t usually end well. In 2023, 4 people were killed by the police and many were fired just for protesting.

Why you shouldn’t boycott brands and clothes just because they’re made in Bangladesh

Made in Bangladesh tag

Photo credit: The Daily Star

A “made in Bangladesh” tag doesn’t automatically mean that your garment is low-quality or made in a sweatshop!

So, I want to encourage you to NOT boycott them. This is because:

  • There are plenty of ethical factories in Bangladesh that treat their workers right and make their clothes sustainably 
  • Some ethical fashion brands have to outsource their clothing production to Bangladesh or other developing countries because… they literally wouldn’t be able to stay in business otherwise (infact, sustainable brands have much higher costs than fast fashion companies)!
  • Some of these factories help their workers (especially women) get out of poverty. So, by supporting brands that rely on them, you’re making a positive impact on their lives, too

But of course, you don’t want to run the risk of supporting sweatshops in Bangladesh. So, here are some tips.

How to support ethical made-in-Bangladesh clothes

Woman in Bangladesh smiling at the camera

  • Choose slow fashion brands – This already means that, unlike huge fast fashion brands that rely on overproduction, they won’t put pressure on those factories in Bangladesh (= less likely to subcontract illegally)
  • Look for transparency, especially on their websites – Ok, this brand makes their clothes in Bangladesh, but are they talking about their supply factory? Who makes those clothes? Does this brand rely on direct trade, and if not, do they check their factories regularly or partner with someone who does?
  • Can they prove it? – Fast fashion brands often rely on greenwashing to make you think they’re ethical and sustainable. So, for extra peace of mind, see if they have any certificates, like Fair Trade International, Fair Wear Foundation, and SA8000
  • Start right here on Project Cece – We know it’s difficult to look into all this for different online stores. So, we brought hundreds of fair trade brands in one place and included filters to simplify your choices 

As you now know, sweatshops are still a problem, but there are plenty of ethical clothes made in Bangladesh. So, don’t boycott them: look beyond that label.

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