Part 1: Living Wages in The Fashion Industry



While we are thankfully starting to see a lot of talk about the serious ways that the fashion industry is failing our planet, the impact the industry is having on people has taken a dangerous back seat. We don’t believe these have to be mutually exclusive, and the time is now to shed further light on the serious social injustices going on within the industry.


It is estimated that less than 2% of the people who make the clothes on our bodies earn a living wage (Source: The True Cost). This means an estimated 98% of workers in the fashion industry are likely being held in systemic poverty and cannot meet their most basic needs. And, 75% of these workers are women between the ages of 18 and 24 (Source: Fashion Revolution, 2017).


This is not a small problem. In fact, the fashion industry employs 75 Million factory workers around the world (that’s a higher number than the population of over 220 different countries) (Source: Fashion United, 2017). Factoring in that many workers have children, the number of people this problem affects quickly becomes as large as the population of the United States, the 3rd largest country in the world.

Our industry’s negligence to provide a living wage is especially concerning when considering that the United Nations has declared it a basic human right.

“Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity...”

(Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23.)


Unfortunately, all of this means that the products we enjoy most–your favorite pair of jeans, your go-to pair of shoes, that first outfit worn when the laundry is done–were likely made by people who are unable to meet the basic needs of themselves and their children.


5 ways brands are actively dodging responsibility for living wages


All of this might be a surprise to you, but it may not be a surprise to the vast majority of brands that made the clothes you’re wearing right now. Many have known about insufficient wages (and the generational poverty that stems from these wages) for decades and are still doing very little about it. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, 85% of large fast fashion brands surveyed in a 2014 study said that wages should be enough to meet workers’ basic needs. In 2019, however, none of these brands could demonstrate that any workers outside of their corporate headquarter countries were being paid a living wage (Source: Clean Clothes Campaign, 2019). There were also zero clear, time-bound plans for how a living wage would eventually be paid in supplier networks. Sadly, inaction by brands continually holds true throughout most of the fashion industry.


Rather than sharing in the responsibility of living wages within their supply chains, here are five ways that major fashion brands are actively dodging responsibility today:


  1. Brands dodge responsibility by saying they pay “the legal minimum wage.” However, minimum wages in many manufacturing countries within the fashion industry are only half of what would be considered a living wage (Source: Global Fashion Agenda, 2017). Brands choose not to address this fact and instead avoid the problem they are contributing toward by putting forth an unjust argument.


  1. Brands dodge responsibility by claiming living wages are too costly. Some brands claim that paying workers a living wage is too difficult from an expense perspective, but that’s not entirely true. Studies show that it would only cost a brand 1-4% more per garment to ensure living wages across their supply chain (Source: Oxfam, 2019).


  1. Brands dodge responsibility by saying the factory is responsible, not them. In many cases, brands shift the responsibility of ensuring a living wage to the manufacturer from whom they purchase. The problem with this logic is that those same brands are using their purchasing power to demand an extremely low cost from factories for the products they buy. And, the factories know there is always a threat that major brands will leave if they try to raise prices in order to pay workers more. A poignant real-life example of this appears in The True Cost (a groundbreaking documentary available on most streaming services) where a factory owner in Bangladesh explains–in intense tears–this sad reality.


  1. Brands dodge responsibility by saying workers are responsible. In other cases, major brands put the responsibility ON THE WORKERS themselves, claiming that “collective bargaining” and the right to create unions is the #1 protection of living wages. The problem with this logic? The reality is that workers are often threatened with losing their jobs when wages are challenged, and in some cases, even physically beaten by management. Again, hear the stories of real life garment industry workers in The True Cost, and you’ll quickly see how little power workers often have behind closed doors thousands of miles away from the final destination of our clothing.


  1. Brands dodge responsibility by saying living wages are too hard to calculate. Brands claiming that providing a living wage is not possible because living wages are difficult to calculate is a sad excuse. While they may not be perfect, living wage global benchmarks such as WageIndicator and Trading Economics are widely available (and MIT publishes a public database that shares what a living wage is in every county of the U.S.). On top of using these resources, brands can simply ask their workers what their living expenses are and establish the lowest wage based on those figures. Nisolo and ABLE have done this in many of their factories and have used affordable 3rd party auditor, ACCOUNTABLE to verify living wages. Sadly, most brands are not using these resources to improve the wages they pay their factory workers.


Livia Firth, Cofounder of Eco-Age and long-time living wage advocate, says it perfectly:

“Lack of clarity or consensus on precisely how a living wage should be calculated cannot be a legitimate justification for paying wages that on NO calculation could be said to constitute a living wage...there are numerous studies that have dealt with this issue on a country by country basis and these studies have been published for decades.” (Source: The Circle. The Fundamental Fight to a Living Wage, 2017)


Enough is enough. It’s time for brands to stop dodging responsibility. Instead, we’re calling on all brands to vulnerably lean in and share their lowest wages and how they compare to living wages where they operate.


At the expense of human dignity and wellbeing, brands are not improving their practices fast enough. This must change. And, we believe this can change within our lifetime. While the industry is far from this reality today, we believe the fashion industry has the potential to serve as one of the most powerful conduits for social and environmental progress.


We envision a fashion industry in which every worker receives a living wage that covers their most basic needs. What would our world would look like if the 75 million people (and their children) held in poverty in the fashion industry were empowered out of poverty by receiving living wages for making the clothes we wear every day?


On Thursday, October 24th, we are partnering up with one of our closest competitors to do something radical. Together, we will take the most important first step we believe brands can take toward creating this reality.


Stay tuned.

Patrick Woodyard
Nisolo Founder & CEO


  • Theresa

    My words will fail to express how grateful I am for educating us and providing an alternative to clothing made at the sacrifice of someone else. Thank you for being faithful to humanity, and caring so much as to provide a dignifying option for those who are in poverty to move upwards into thriving.

    Well done and keep pushing the industry forward!


  • Jessica Bixler

    What are you going to do? And with whom?

  • Jessica Bixler

    Who is your partner and what are you doing? I agree 100% we should aim for a living wage and rethink the established clothing trend but I think this letter is vague in what you are going to do to address this very real problem!
    I’ve followed Nisolo from the beginning and Patrick you’ve been to my home, Zoe is my daughter’s dear friend. Please keep me posted 😊Jess

  • JoAnne Oliver

    We need to educate the American culture.

  • Samantha

    Hi Patrick,

    Thank you so much for utilizing your platform to get this information out there. There is a ridiculous amount of injustice in this world alongside all the beauty and magic, and a lot of those injustices are hidden from most people. This is a very real issue that needs to be addressed. So thank you, again.

    Also, on a somewhat unrelated (yet related) note, have you considered creating vegan footwear for Nisolo? I genuinely love your ethical stance and practice when it comes to your workers, but am hoping that ethical stance will extend to the materials used, at least for a few styles. As a past customer/leather lover, I’d love to be able to support Nisolo with my (limited) business again. Just something I wanted to throw out into the universe.

    - Sam

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