Clothing myself and my kids is expensive, and I do – as most sensible mothers do – look for the best deal possible.
But, what I want to know is this: What is the cost to workers in the clothing industry for my good deal?
We cannot ignore the fact that we have a huge problem within the clothing industry and it’s all extremely confusing. H&M converse style trainers are a snip of the price of the real thing but why? I am on a mission to find out what brands of clothes can I buy, safe in the knowledge that no one was hurt in the making. The information out there is mind boggling. If you go onto individual brands’ websites and hunt down their ethical status, you are blinded by sophisticated sustainability reports glossing over fine details. I swear you need to have a degree in the subject to figure it all out when all we really need to know is which brands have safe working conditions where women and children are treated with respect and earn a decent living.
It has been over a month now since the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh. I only show this picture to remind you, it’s just heart breaking. 1,127 garment workers died and many more were horribly injured. In the aftermath, unions and retailers drew up a legally enforceable, first-of-its-kind contract that holds retailers accountable for safety and labour conditions in the factories they employ in Bangladesh.
It is called the Bangladesh Safety Accord, the Accord will sound dull to many fashion lovers I know. It is a contract between brands, retailers and trade unions in Bangladesh. It is a legally binding, five‑year pact that makes independent safety inspections of 1,000 factories and public reporting on them mandatory. It is also the first-ever multibuyer collective agreement. So this is an historic moment for the campaign to clean up fashion.
Below is a list of companies that have committed to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh:
- Abercrombie & Fitch
- Aldi Nord
- Aldi South
- Bay City Textilhandles
- Charles Vögele
- El Corte Inglés
- Ernsting’s Family
- Fat Face
- G-Star Raw
- Helly Hansen
- Inditex (Zara)
- John Lewis
- Kmart (Australia)
- LC Waikiki
- Loblaw (Joe Fresh)
- Marks & Spencer
- N. Brown Group (SimplyBe, High&Mighty)
- New Look
- Otto Group
- PvH Corp. (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hillfiger)
- S. Olivier
- Sean John
- Target (Australia)
- We Europe
So that is a great start, currently more than 40 of the world’s leading apparel brands have signed the Accord. But dozens are refusing to hold themselves legally accountable for safety and labour conditions in the factories they use in Bangladesh. One common factor amongst the companies holding out? They are mainly American. In fact according to my list above only two American companies have signed up: Abercrombie & Fitch and PvH Corp, the latter of which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
Even my kids’ favourite, Gap, has said that they will sign the agreement, as long as it isn’t binding. What? Even I, a rather confused layperson can see that that is a ridiculous statement. It renders the Accord completely unenforceable (I guess that is their reason?) Amongst others the companies not currently signing are: Walmart (George at Asda), Forever 21, Target, Sears, and Foot Locker.
Legally binding safety standards are necessary to ensure that the clothes we buy aren’t made in death traps.
However, some North American retailers including Gap and Walmart have now announced their own five-year plan to improve safety conditions in the Bangladesh garment factories that supply their wares. They have called this the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and promote it as an alternative to the original accord. The main difference that I can see is that one is legally binding and the other is not.
The Alliance group said in a press release: “As leaders in the apparel industry, we understand the complex challenges that surround the garment industry in Bangladesh”… “The safety record of Bangladeshi factories is unacceptable and requires our collective effort. We can prevent future tragedies by consolidating and amplifying our individual efforts to bring about real and sustained progress.”
However, a joint statement from the Worker Rights Consortium, Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, and United Students Against Sweatshops also cites reservations about the Alliance scheme. “This is a company-developed and company-controlled program,” it says. “Worker representatives are not part of the agreement and have no role whatsoever in its governance. Given the grave risks facing millions of workers in Bangladesh, there can be no credible or effective program without a central leadership role for worker representatives, as in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.”
In their statement the group says that the Alliance imposes few obligations on its members, and those it does impose are unenforceable. “Under the terms of the ‘alliance,’ any company can walk away whenever it wants” … “The sole penalty for doing so is that the company has to pay part or all of its administrative fees, depending on how soon it chooses to quit.” They describe other fines imposed by the Alliance as little more than slaps on the wrist.
So, I am not an expert in any sense but in reading these reports I can see clearly that the Accord is a legally binding document that has the workers’ rights at its heart. That gets my vote. The Alliance? I am not convinced I am afraid. What is preventing everyone from signing the Accord? Until major brands choose to be legally accountable for their actions then I for one will not be shopping with them.
Further, my rather cynical self is wondering if we’d had no awful building collapse and no fire would any of these companies be held accountable at all? Would these companies still be allowing their garments to be made in appalling conditions? Yes. I think the answer is simple: they would have continued, banking on our desires to look “hot” and “now” and all those other fashion buzz words. Sadly, these desires blinker us against thinking about where our clothes are made and asking ourselves “why is this sequined T-shirt £3?”
I feel it’s high time that we all become responsible for where we shop.
What exactly is a sweatshop?
Sweatshops are clothing factories where workers (mostly women):
- get a very low wage (often below the cost of living)
- have to work long hours (often to meet impossible quotas)
- work in poor, often dangerous, conditions (often exposed to hazardous machinery, chemicals or without adequate ventilation, heating, cooling etc)
- are treated badly by their employers (such as: being sexually harassed; denied basic human rights such as toilet breaks; or fined for breaching impossible rules or not meeting impossible quotas)
- are not allowed to speak out or join a trade union
Sweatshops are widespread in Asia, China and Latin America, where young children often work alongside their mothers in cramped, dangerous conditions. However, there are also sweatshops in Europe and the United States, where people work long hours for poor pay and are denied the right to join a union. The odds are that you regularly wear clothes made in sweatshops.
Check out this link for much more shocking information on sweatshops: http://www.playsweatshop.com/sweatshop.html
What can we do? Should we boycott clothes from companies that use sweatshops? Evidence suggests that boycotts are an extremely effective tool in getting big brands to pay attention to consumers. I believe a change is starting to happen.
Let’s pull our heads out of the sand, do our research and buy responsibly. Did you know that if we’re willing to pay just a paltry 1.8 percent more for our clothes that could double the salary of a sweatshop worker? That translates to paying £20.36 for a garment that we are currently paying £20 for.
Where do we shop then?
Well to start with the easier option seems to be online shopping.
I have included this very helpful link from the Guardian: it has a wonderful list of ethically produced retailers ranging from fashion and accessories, from Fairtrade babygros to vegan shoes.
Sam Maher, of Labour Behind the Label, suggests we reward companies who have signed the Accord: “Choose the brand that’s signed over the one that has not.” I am leaning towards this solution myself. I will additionally look at whether a company shows some evidence of willingness to work towards a living wage in countries where legal minimum wages are set too low to ensure a decent standard of living.
Recently, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the brands I have previously bought and loved. The results were disappointing in the main and devastating in many cases. I implore you to use your own resources or some that I have mentioned here to determine whether your favourite brands deserve your ongoing support or whether now is the time to use your spending power to bring about real changes to the working conditions of people who are unimaginably poor and disempowered.
In my idealistic dreams we all turn to those ethical brands that make ethics and sustainability their number one priority. Please, do your research, buy fewer clothes and spend a little more, not much, just a little on each garment to ensure what you’re buying is ethical all the way down the line.
The responsibility? It lies with us all.