The Ethical Concerns of Sweatshops

Ethics in Progress

Existing literature by Powell and Zwolinski (2011), and Synder (2010), suggest that the ethical argument for sweatshops through a moral lens of the individual does not hold, hence this capstone project hopes to approach the argument from a different angle. This project aims to explore the ethical concerns of sweatshops, the progress that fast fashion brings to the socio-economic scene of certain countries where sweatshops are commonplace, as well as some ethical points of contention — are sweatshops sources of economic and social progress for these labourers, or are they convenient sources of exploitation? This project considers both the ethical and unethical concerns of sweatshops in a socio-economic dimension, then evaluating the necessity of sweatshops in terms of the ethical lenses of deontology and utilitarianism.

In general, we argue that fast fashion and its influence it has on sweatshops is a double edged sword when it comes to the social and economic impacts it can have on its host country. Entirely obliterating the industry of fast fashion is almost impossible, as it would involve millions of low-skilled workers being unemployed. Instead, careful regulations have to be put in place to protect the rights of the disempowered working in the industry such that everyone can benefit from it.


In many developing countries, employment opportunities come in the form of sweatshop labour—where workers, mostly women and children, work in exploitative and hazardous conditions, facing harsh employers and suffering the backlash of global materialism all for a meagre pay. Driving the demand for sweatshops is the consumerist desire for new and on-trend items, otherwise known as fast fashion, ranging from high-fashion apparel to machine parts; yet the pursuit of convenience and material gratification always comes at a higher price than the good purchased. Nowadays fast fashion brands produce about 52 “micro-seasons” a year, translating to at least one new “collection” being released per week. According to author Elizabeth Cline, the ever-popular Zara started the craze by shifting to bi-weekly deliveries of new merchandise back in the early aught. From then on, it has become the norm to have a towering supply of stock at all times. With the increased rate of production of retail clothing, there are inevitably corners to be cut, resulting in clothing items that are being produced at an astonishing rate, but being low quality and even lower costs. Brands such as Forever21 or Zara are able to profit from their operations by selling a tremendous amount of clothing worldwide at cheap prices. However, as expressed by journalist Lucy Siegel, “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying.” At the expense of workers’ basic rights, retail conglomerates choose to focus on economic gain, where keeping wages low allows the firm to lower manufacturing costs, and keeping workers packed in cramped, unsanitary conditions allows for the employment of more workers per factory. Simultaneously, proponents of sweatshop labour argue that the creation of such factories provide jobs to the unskilled, who choose to work in the best given conditions in the country, where alternatives could be even less favourable. Therefore, with this dilemma in place, this brings to light a critical question: what are the ethical concerns of sweatshops?


Sweatshops violate the right to basic wages and working conditions. Sweatshop owners often pay their workers inadequate wages, an injustice compounded by unsafe working conditions and exhaustive working hours – in Bangladesh, workers are forced to work daily for 14-16 hours for around $45 a month, which remains far below the living wage level (War on Want, 2015). Several thousands of workers were also injured from over 50 factory fires since 1990. As workers are routinely paid below the minimum wage, much less can be expected of employers to pay their labourers for overtime work done, what workers are forced to commit to daily. Overtime pay thus becomes a secondary concern (Bullman, 2003) in the face of poor working conditions. Besides this, to ensure the subordination of female labourers, male workers and supervisors inflict sexual, verbal and physical abuse onto these women.

Furthermore, the desire to expose sweatshop employers and bring justice to the workers may come at the expense of complete joblessness, forcing sweatshop labourers into worse job alternatives or deeper poverty. In the debate over the ethicality of sweatshops, the “Choice Argument” posits that “a sweatshop worker’s choice to accept the conditions of his or her employment is morally significant, both as an exercise of autonomy and as an expression of preference” (Zwolinski, 2006). However, there are objections to be made against this belief, as workers firstly may not be of the age to consent to working in such dismal conditions, which is the case for exploited child labour. Secondly, due to a lack of education, labourers from developing countries may not understand the implications of, and alternatives to, working in sweatshops, thus are robbed of the opportunity to further their skills due to the constraints of their abilities. Finally, with a lack of better infrastructure and employment opportunities, even if such labour does provide minimal benefits, sweatshops still remain wrongfully exploitative (Zwolinski, 2006).


Economic benefits of sweatshops

Firstly, sweatshops could encourage mass employment opportunities, which raises the minimum wages. This is especially so for the fashion industry, which is still a labour-intensive industry that causes companies to source much of the low-skilled labour required from the host countries in order for them to keep their cost of production as low as possible. With the creation of job opportunities, fewer desperate workers competing for jobs meant employers must pay more for labour, argue economists Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago and Stefan Dercon of Oxford University in the latest study (Coren, 2016).

Furthermore, local employees benefit from the transference of skills that the sweatshops equip them with, especially since many employees of sweatshops are low-skilled groups of people who often have little access to education. There was a particular facility in Bangladesh that was well lit and clean, and the ladies inside were required as a condition of employment to spend several hours daily in a company-run school where they were taught to read and write (Graham, 2000). This was a country where illiteracy rates among women could reach almost 90 per cent, hence such efforts would drastically improve the quality of labour in the country where the sweatshop resides in. Even though instances of harsh labour conditions can be found due to lapses in regulations, senior management officials will correct them once they and the public become aware of them, suggesting that the conditions of sweatshops can be improved to reach an “acceptable standard”.

On a macro scale, the presence of sweatshops bring in Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) which are highly beneficial to host countries, especially if it is closely integrated with parent firms (Cooper, 2009). FDI generally improves the living standards in the country because the infrastructure required by the sweatshop industry can help to support the host countries’ development. Furthermore, there are more indirect impacts brought by FDIs through forward and backward linkages in the production circuit that enables more local industries, such as textiles for clothing sweatshops, to increase their activities as well. There are more jobs created in the local economies of the host countries because of increased local spendings on more goods and services, driving the entire country’s economy to develop, as well as to reduce unemployment rates (Kurtishi-Kastrati, 2013). A number of countries have passed through a manufacturing phase in which sweatshop conditions were more prevalent on their way to full industrialisation and a diversified economy, such as the United States, Japan, and Korea. More recently, China may be on a similar route though it is still in a transition phase and sweatshop abuses reports are rather common (Jimenez and Pulos, n,d.).



This section will evaluate the necessity of sweatshops in the fashion industry using two ethical perspectives, deontology and utilitarianism. It will compare the two theories and their relevance to the issue at hand and defend the presence of sweatshops through a utilitarian approach while critiquing the applicability of the deontological approach in examining the ethical nature of sweatshops.

Employing a deontological perspective

Deontology is a normative ethical theory that argues that the rightness or wrongness of an action should be determined by whether or not the action is right or wrong under a set of rules or duties; in this case, evaluating the moral value of sweatshops would require reference to the legal frameworks and social paradigms present in individual countries in order to draw conclusions on whether they are right or wrong. Therefore, a deontological approach to considering the moral nature of the sweatshop industry would involve an examination of the existing laws that govern the fashion industry in countries with heavy sweatshop activity, as well as the various social rules and duties underpinning countries, such as the duty of the government to ensure economic growth and the duty of the average citizen to be a productive member of society.

As previously discussed, many sweatshops violate labour and wage laws due to the subpar environments which they operate in. This indicates that sweatshops are deontologically wrong due to their violation of the law. However, deontology also advocates that the ethical nature of actions should be determined in relation to the duties of the actors performing them. In the case of firms in the fashion industry, which have social obligations to manufacture clothing for consumption, deontology would not oppose the establishment of sweatshops if they were primarily used to provide consumers with clothing. However, this is only true if it is assumed that clothing is a basic necessity and thus obligates producers to cater to this need; admittedly, this may not strictly hold true in all situations, such as the frivolous purchasing of clothing by the financially comfortable.

At the same time, firms arguably have a duty to respect the human rights of sweatshop workers and are therefore deontologically faulted for failing to meet them through sweatshop operations. Employing a deontological approach therefore appears to lead to a moral impasse, where the duties of firms are internally conflicted and are not aligned towards common end goals e.g. the firm’s duty to maximise profit and to meet the high demand for clothing contrasts and its obligation to comply with national laws contrast with the firm’s duty to maintain acceptable working conditions in sweatshops. To appropriately apply the deontological approach to the sweatshop industry, one would need to properly examine and reconcile the conflicting rules and duties of every agent involved; this is clearly untenable.

Employing a utilitarian perspective

Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is an ethical theory that advocates that the most ethical choice is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Unlike deontology, the utilitarian approach does not lead to internal contradictions if applied to the sweatshop industry. It applies a clear criterion for determining which action is more ethically desirable: how much good it does for how many people.

In the case of employing utilitarianism to evaluate the sweatshop industry, one would weigh having sweatshops or abolishing them and then determine how much “good” each option contributes and for how many people. Simply put, the utilitarian approach justifies the continued use of sweatshops for three primary reasons. The first is that the sweatshop industry has produced a net happiness for consumers of clothes. It can be realistically assumed that the total number of consumers of sweatshop products in the world, estimated to be 1.2 billion by 2020 (Orendorff, 2019) far exceeds that of the number of sweatshop workers. It has also been argued that the purchase of clothing produces happiness in consumers, given that the choices inherent in shopping may restore personal control over one’s environment and reduce residual sadness (Rick, S. I., Pereira, B., & Burson, K. A., 2014). It is reasonable to conclude that the gross happiness derived from purchasing sweatshop products outweighs (or at least equals) the sum of negative consequences, both emotional and physical, that the sweatshop industry has inflicted on sweatshop workers, then the continuation of sweatshops holds more goodness than its discontinuation.

Conversely, discontinuing sweatshops would result in less net “good” because the loss in net “goodness” due to the number of people who are no longer able to consume sweatshop products would outweigh the increase in “goodness” due to the improved standards of living for sweatshop workers. Secondly, since it has been argued that sweatshops do in fact lead to some benefits for workers themselves (such as the provision of wages in the first place), it may be argued that sweatshops should still be continued because they benefit workers themselves, albeit to a smaller extent. In this way, the best approach to maintain the use of sweatshops without abolishing them altogether would be to strike a middle ground by ensuring that workers enjoy more rights and higher wages while operating under acceptable working conditions. Thirdly, the presence of sweatshops in the fashion industry yields “good” for other agents beyond consumers and workers. For example, firms are able to benefit due to the lower costs of production of operating sweatshops, while governments are able to easily achieve macroeconomic goals like lowering unemployment through the creation of job opportunities in sweatshop industries. The benefits generated for third parties are evidently enough to justify the continuation of sweatshops as compared to their discontinuation.


In this paper, we outlined both reasons as to why sweatshops may be unethical or ethical and evaluated the necessity of sweatshops using a deontological and a utilitarian perspective. The ethicality of sweatshops can come into question when issues such as the right to basic wages, safe working conditions and cases of exploitation and harassment come to light. On the flip side, sweatshops also provide mass employment opportunities, allow for transference of skills to the less-educated and lowly-skilled garment workers and bring in FDI to improve general living standards in the host country.

Using a deontological perspective to evaluate the necessity of sweatshops brings us to a moral impasse: where the duties of firms are internally conflicted and not aligned towards a common goal end.

We also employed a utilitarian perspective to evaluate the necessity of sweatshops, where we concluded that the benefits generated are enough to justify the continuation as compared to their discontinuation.


Recent trends have shown that retailer ethics will be increasingly scrutinised in today’s market; unethical behaviour or manufacturers will be highlighted and they will be subject to bad press like Zara and H&M. Though the systematic exploitation of labour due to fast fashion is a problematic model that needs to be subject to change, large fashion retailers such as H&M employs over 100,000 people worldwide, and to stop making clothes would mean job losses on a huge scale. To simply say ‘no more fast fashion’ would mean the redundancy of millions of people, including those indirectly affected in the supply chain. Admittedly, the model of fast fashion is important to consumers, manufacturers and labourers. Instead of casting aside the entire model of fast fashion manufacturing, a paradigm shift must occur — to move away from unethical practices in the fast fashion industry towards sustainable, ethical practices that will benefit all parties involved. There is evidence of growing interest in responding to ethical consumer concerns, by incorporating ethics into organisational practices in large companies. It is plausible to say that change is on the horizon for the fast fashion industry. Yet, a change will only be observed in this complex and convoluted system through the joint efforts of all the actors involved — the manufacturing companies, governments, labourers themselves, and consumers like you and me.


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Luanne Ang, Charlotte Teng, Isabel Nadine Tan, Lek Siang Ern (18-U1)