Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The ethical fashion maze

Lost? Confused? If we work together we'll find a way through

This post has been written to mark Blog Action Day, which falls on October 16 each year. The idea is for bloggers all over the world to come together and focus on a single theme. This year it is human rights. To learn more about the event, please click on the links in the panel on the right.

We want to look good. We want to be able to ring the changes. We want to dress on a budget. Where do we shop? Primark? Matalan? Asda?

We have a little more money. We want to look stylish. Where do we shop? Zara? Gap?

We like sport - or to look sporty. The bank of Mum and Dad is willing to fork out. Where do we shop? Nike? Adidas?

We want to make sure that our clothes are ethically produced. Where do we shop? None of the above?

It's easy to point the finger at Western brands and assume they are all cavalier about the safety of the workers who produce their clothes and shoes.

Many take it for granted that if it's cheap it's probably been made in a sweatshop, if it costs a pretty penny then it's more likely to have been ethically sourced.

Not so. Price is no guide to the quality of life enjoyed (or suffered) by the girls at the sewing machines.

Do we look to see if they have signed up to the fire and safety accord drawn up to try to prevent a repeat of the blaze that killed more than a thousand people at the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka in April? Well it may be a start, but that accord applies only to Bangladesh. And some of those who didn't sign had their own arrangements in place.

So how are customers supposed to make their decisions?

After the Rana Plaza disaster SubSist suggested the introduction of a little red sewing machine symbol to indicate that workers' conditions met a certain agreed level. Not being an expert, SubSist could not suggest what the criteria should be, but hoped campaigners, brands and manufacturers could come up with a benchmark.

How naive. The idea was popular, but there were too many complications. Too many inspection regimes, too many different campaigns, too many countries with different issues.

It would be nice to think that it is still a viable notion in the longterm, but in the meantime, let's look at what's going on in the Far East.

Bangladesh is seen by many as the top priority, largely because of the Rana Plaza tragedy and the failure of Western companies to come through with proper compensation for the survivors and families of the dead.

Another fatal fire this week reinforces that idea. Ten were killed in the blaze at a knitting factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, which fortunately started after most of the 3,000 workers had gone home. The fire has been blamed by some on a faulty knitting machine that had caught alight more than once before.

Orders from Gap, Next, H&M and Carrefour were found in the wreckage. H&M and Gap both said they had dealings with the factory's parent company, but that they had not placed orders with the plant that caught fire.

See the problem? Quite apart from responsibility for safety at the site, is the owner - the giant Palmal Industries - at fault for passing orders down the line without informing the customer or is the brand at fault for failing to check the entire supply chain?

Bangladesh has an enormous clothing manufacturing industry with about four million people working in  100,000 factories around Dhaka. Their efforts account for 80% of the country's exports, which were worth about $20bn last year. It also has the lowest wages. The Government (which inevitably includes factory owners, given the size of the sector) has agreed to lift a law banning unions from clothing factories. But while that's an advance, it's no panacea.

Cambodia strikers. Photograph: Nicolas Axelrod/Getty Images AsiaPac
In Cambodia, workers at the Singapore-owned SL factory have been on strike since August in a fight for higher wages and a food allowance. There have been riots, fires, and military police have been standing guard at factories. It is not a happy scene.

The strikes have twice been declared illegal and the unions are afraid that SL will shut down the plant, reopen under another name and then make sure that activists are debarred when rehiring workers. The owners say everything was hunky dory for a decade before the unions moved into the plant.

Well, that's a matter of opinion. Cambodian factories seem to be prone to a strange phenomenon known as 'mass fainting'. The union says this has been an issue since the early 90s. Hundreds of workers have been known to faint at the same time in some factories. What? Why?

A report called Shop 'Til They Drop published jointly last month by the Community Legal Education Center and Labour Behind the Label found that a third of the 95 workers they met were malnourished and a quarter of them were dangerously emaciated.  We don't know how the sample was chosen, so there is always a possibility that the most vulnerable were put forward.

The report concluded that low wages were at the root of the problem - the workers had little money to buy food and little time to eat it, since they were working long hours of (often compulsory) overtime.

The notion was pooh-poohed by the secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers' Association, Ken Loo. 'I think it's ridiculous to claim that workers don't have the financial ability to feed themselves,' the Phnom Penh Post quoted him as saying. 'They can afford mobile phones, but they can't afford to eat properly? Something doesn't add up to me.'

Ah, mobile phones. We'll come back to them in a bit.

But first the rest of Loo's remarks are interesting. The minimum wage is $80 per month - and you can bet few are paid more than that - but Loo says that with bonuses and overtime, most workers earn $150 - which happens to be what the joint study suggests was a living wage for a single person. So here's a primary school maths question:

If a worker is paid $80 for a 40-hour week, how long must he or she work to earn $150?

According to a report by Worker Rights Consortium,  Cambodian workers' wages have declined by 22 per cent in real terms between 2001 and 2011, compared with a 2% fall in Bangladesh. Over the same period wages in China doubled, those in Vietnam went up by 28% and those in India rose by 39% - all in real terms.

Loo's organisation has an explanation: the need to maintain a 'competitive edge'. It is, after all, by far the country's biggest export sector, employing more than 600,000 people. As with Bangladesh, the clothing factories account for 80% of  overseas trade. The World Economic Forum estimates that the trade was worth $4.5bn last year and reports that five new factories are opening every month.

If the strikes and the fainting and the rivalry with Bangladesh weren't enough to contend with, a UN-backed organisation is stirring the mix. The International Labour Organisation's Better Factories Cambodia announced last month that from January it would be publishing online information on how factories fare in meeting safety and welfare standards on 21 different measures.

Better Factories has been conducting unannounced inspections since 2001 and its findings were published in line with a trading agreement between America and Cambodia. Once that pact came to an end, so did the publication of inspection results.

The announcement of the 'name and shame' policy three weeks ago enraged the garment manufacturers - who declared that it would drive business out of the country to cheaper rivals such as Bangladesh. They also said that if Better Factories inspectors turned up they would be accompanied round the plants by government officials. But all the time the factory owners insisted that they were all for greater transparency on working conditions.

So the ILO group are the goodies here? Well, not in everyone's eyes. Critics point to the dramatic decline in wages under its watch. And the rather complacent video above doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

The SL workers' fears that their factory could be closed peremptorily may seem melodramatic to people in stable employment in the West, but ethical sourcing campaigners will hardly need reminding about the 2,800 PT Kizone factory workers in  Indonesia, who were thrown out of their jobs without pay at the beginning of 2011.

The factory made quality college and sportswear which sold all over the world, particularly in America. But the workers were not paid in December 2010 and then the factory owner disappeared. Buying agents called Green Textile took over the plant in February and signed agreements with the local union to pay some of the money owed. Kizone was declared bankrupt in April and the factory closed.

In July, Nike offered just over $500,000 to the workers and in November Dallas Cowboys also agreed to put up some money so that, including the Green Textile funds, a pot of $1.6m was available to the workers. Sounds a lot - but it came down to $21 per worker.

The following March a bankruptcy judge awarded the workers around $500,00 - but that was immediately contested by other creditors and was mired in Supreme Court litigation.

In April, a year after the factory closed, the union wrote to Adidas to ask it to fulfil the obligations of its contract with Kizone and pay the workers the remaining $1.8m severance they are owed. Further letters followed without result and in June, campaigners in Europe and Indonesia organised protest days to coincide with the Euro 2012 football championship. The company (which sold 900,000 shirts during the competition) responded immediately with a spectacular own goal, offering the workers food vouchers - a gesture rejected as an insult.

The workers were particularly affronted because they said they were seeking only a fraction of the money Adidas was investing as a prime sponsor of the London Olympics. Just before the Games opened,  the company's chief executive Herbert Hainer told Margareta Pagano of the Independent that it had spent £100m on sponsorship, advertising and marketing for the event. The Gamesmakers were all clad in Adidas and it was the only sportswear brand allowed to have its logo on its merchandise.

Pointing to protesters outside the Olympic Park, Pagano asked Hainer about claims that the company did not pay the people who made Adidas goods enough to feed themselves. He replied:
"It's completely false. It's a lie. We pay double the local rate for our workers – and we have assembly and manufacturing in many, many countries around the world where we work with non-governmental organisations on meeting the local rates and conditions." 
He also said that Adidas had twice offered to talk to War on Want, but had received no response. War on Want did, however, have a public response for the company with a giant projection near the Park once the Games were under way.

In September American universities started to put the heat on Adidas and Cornell broke off its contract with the company. Over the following months, 17 colleges followed suit. Once again the company offered food rather than money, and was once again rebuffed.

International weeks of action, Facebook protests and a disrupted fashion show added to the pressure and in April - two years after the Kizone factory closed - Adidas finally agreed a confidential deal to give the workers their severance pay.

Adidas achieved record sales on the back of Euro 2012 and the Olympics, although the sheen was taken off the figures by falling demand for its Reebok products. If the Reebok losses were discounted, the company's profit rose by 29% to 791m on sales that were up nearly 12% at 14.8bn

The battle to get Adidas to pay up was detailed this week in an annual review from the Clean Clothes Campaign.  There have been other successes, but it still points up continuing struggles against extortion, intimidation and dangerous working conditions in Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

There are also still worries about the use of child labour, particularly in India. They may not be in the factories - but the children who spend their days sewing at home aren't doing it for fun. And then there is the prospect of a new kid on the block.

A Rangoon garment worker: the industry is growing but factories are not up to standard

With the end of trade sanctions and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma is looking for a way to escape from poverty - and garment manufacture is seen as the ideal route. There is an abundance of labour, the work requires minimal skills - 'Workers just need eyes and hands that work, that's all,' one factory owner told the Cambodia Daily.

It looks like another tragedy waiting to happen. An American expert who was taken on a tour of factories by the country's garment manufacturers association noted underage apprentices, dangerous machinery, inadequate lighting and excessive overtime. 'There's not a single factory I saw that would pass compliance.' Oh dear.

How do we, the concerned consumers, work our way through this maze? One way is to look at what our shops are doing. M&S is using mobile phone technology to get first-hand reports from more than 20,000 workers in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Factory owners are kept informed, but the workers give their opinions anonymously. And the use of phones means those who can't read or write are not denied a voice. It's a start. But not a global solution.

All of which seems to suggest that it's impossible to dress ethically. If we boycott Primark et al, then people who depend on the company for their meagre incomes will see their living standards deteriorate further. The manufacturers argue that the Western shops will not pay more and that they screw the factories down to the lowest margins. But if the shops did pay more - and, naturally, pass the extra expense to us - would that extra money find its way into the workers' pockets or merely increase the factory owners' profits?

A remnant can become a boob tube
Steal Mum's old cardi from the attic

So here are a few suggestions:

1: Where possible, buy from shops that have been able to track the whole supply chain and can guarantee working conditions.

2: If travelling, try to buy from the individuals who make the goods you want rather than from markets or stores.

3: Shed the guilt about buying from chain stores. Just limit what you buy. Don't get suckered into going for a 'bargain' that you don't really need.

4: Don't be too proud to buy from charity shops, boot sales, ebay. But choose topnotch labels that you can trust, not an even cheaper Matalan T-shirt.

5: Create your own style. Rootle around in the attic. Go to retro shops and vintage fairs. Mix and match a quality piece bought second hand with that cheap shirt or vest. 

6: Get to grips with the sewing machine and make your own clothes.

Fifties style from vintage market £15
1970s Richard Shops dress(£30)
plus grandmother's 1930s handbag

And even on the biggest day of your life, you can still look stunning in a vintage number picked up from a charity shop and altered just for you. Good luck.

This is the fifth post on the state of the clothing manufacturing industry. They can all be found on the SubSist blog by looking at the archive list on the right, or you can see them in chronological order on the sister blog SubScribe.

Guest blog: Don't blame the customer

As part of Blog Action Day Fashion Mob founder, Esther Freeman, explains why it’s dangerous to  point the finger of blame at consumers for human rights abuses by the fashion industry. 

Since the collapse of the Rama Plaza building in Bangladesh, the media has been full of discussions and head scratching about fashion. One comment that keeps coming up is the responsibility of consumers around fast fashion. 

Quite frankly this is nonsense. Furthermore it is dangerous to suggest so. 

All too often high street chains whine about how hard it is for them to improve human rights, and how they’d change but consumers don’t want it. It’s become their get-out clause. And by saying consumers have some kind of responsibility, we reinforce that myth. 

It also overlooks that slavery, poverty and disaster happen at the higher end of the fashion too. There have been several campaigns against Adidas and their refusal to compensate workers and pay a living wage. And designer brands like Dolce & Gabbana have been in the firing line too. 

In an interview for the film Apparel Truth, a trade union leader in Bangladesh is very clear where the responsibility lies. He said: “The main profit from this business is going to the multi-national company…The multinational company is putting pressure on the local business to pay a living wage. But also the multinational company is putting pressure on the local business to reduce their price.” 

So let’s point the finger where it should be pointed – at the global brands who create human rights abuses as fast as they create fashion. 

That’s not to say consumers have no role to play in creating change. People power is incredibly important. That’s why we launched The 1% Campaign. 

The campaign calls on the fashion industry to invest 1% of their profits in solving issues in their supply chain, especially around human rights. 

We need more time and investment in activities like better auditing, health and safety training and improved working with NGOs and trade unions at local level. Consumers are in a powerful position to demand this. And if we all work together we can help bring about a solution.

Sign the 1% Campaign petition and demand that multinationals take responsibility for what happens in their name.

Guest blog: Don't feel guilty

Global Poverty Project Ambassador Alice Vickers urges shoppers to keep up the pressure on brands for real transparency

You just made me feel really guilty,’ said one of my colleagues as she passed my desk the other day.

‘Sorry, what?’ I had no idea what I’d done.

‘You know, with that survey, it forces you to think...’.

This was typical of the reactions I had this summer when asking people to fill in their See Through Fashion survey. I admit this was my initial reaction, too. Embarrassing though it is, given that I think of myself as a pretty ethical and informed person, I’ve generally tried not to think much about where my clothes are made, by whom and in what conditions.

I’ve avoided questioning these issues, not only because of the nagging suspicion that I’d be unlikely to like the answers, but also because I’ve had no idea how to get the answers or if I got them what I could actually do.

This lack of information has characterised the majority of the discussions that I’ve had with people who have completed the survey. Friends, family and colleagues have provided a pretty resounding chorus of ‘We have no idea where or how our clothes are produced or which companies treat workers fairly. We don’t know how to find this out and we try not to think about it; it makes us feel guilty’.

Summarising these reactions here seems to present quite a damning picture of my nearest and dearest, but that’s really not the case. There was also an overwhelming sense that when challenged to think about issues, like working conditions in the clothing industry in Bangladesh, people really do care.

My survey respondants want UK clothing companies to be more transparent about their supply chains, working conditions and wages. The people I spoke to are genuinely concerned about workers not receiving a living wage and working long hours in unsafe conditions. Many expressed a desire for companies to take social responsibility for their workers, wherever in the world these workers live.

And why on earth shouldn’t they?

Companies have reaped the benefits of globalization and need to accept the responsibilities. Safe working conditions, a decent minimum wage and freedom of association are human rights.

We’re all humans so we’re all equally entitled to have our human rights respected. To suggest differently makes me think of the satirical quote from Animal Farm ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. It just doesn’t make sense.

Bangladeshi clothing workers employed by British companies should work in safe conditions, be paid a decent wage and have the right to join trade unions. Some of my survey respondants raised different and interesting points.

One friend asked ‘What about people living below the poverty line in the UK, don’t they need cheap clothes?’ No one in the UK lives below the extreme poverty line. Any of the 4 million clothing workers in Bangladesh earning the average wage and responsible for a child lives below the extreme poverty line.

Another friend said he had an ethical quandary, ‘If I stop buying clothes probably produced in unfair conditions, am I taking money out of developing world economies? Won’t this cause additional suffering for workers, who’ll be paid even less or laid off?’ My answer is that trade should lift people out of extreme poverty not trap them in it. The issues he raises might not exist if there was transparency and if people paid just a little bit more.

Everyone I spoke to, and 74% of all survey respondants, said that they would pay more for clothes if there was a guarantee that workers were fairly paid and conditions safe. Companies must take responsibility, but we all need to take personal responsibility. We’ve reaped the benefits of globalisation, too.

The Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh helped to reveal the unacceptable conditions in which some clothes are produced. We need to harness our collective revulsion at this tragedy as a force for change. Support See Through Fashion to demand that British companies including Arcadia, River Island, Matalan, Peacocks and Sports Direct sign the Bangladesh Workers’ Safety Accord by  October 24.

The accord is a legally binding agreement which, among other things, provides consequences for unsafe factories and compels companies to publish their supply chains.

People feel guilty when there’s a violation of a moral standard. The survey makes us feel guilty because we know the exploitation of those who make our clothes is wrong.

By taking action with See Through Fashion together we can achieve safe working conditions for the 4 million clothing workers in Bangladesh and a minimum wage to lift them out of extreme poverty.


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