Ethical Fashion and the Sweatshop Issue - Why should we care?

The appetite for low cost, clothing designed to be disposed of after wearing for just a season and replaced with more low cost disposable clothing means that the fashion industry is continuously under pressure to produce ever cheaper clothing. It might not even occur to some of us that our well-meaning, thrifty purchases could be costing us, and others, much more than we think. While ethical chocolate and other ethically produced foods are now firmly on the radar of most people, ethical fashion is still for some a remote concept. However, the recent tragedy in Bangladesh last month and again this month in Cambodia is a real wake up call to look at the true cost of the clothes we put on our backs.

The fact is, that at some time or another the majority of high street fashion brands have at one time or another, been accused of using sweatshops in the manufacture of their clothes and shoes. With little control over a supply chain that conducts itself on the other side of the world, some retailers almost seem to have given in on the issue. But that doesn't mean that the consumer has to, and with a number of alternative options available, it's up to us to put our money where our mouth is and buy more fashion that is ethically produced and sustainably.

What is a sweatshop?

As the name suggests, a sweatshop is not a very nice place. Imagine rows and rows of people, some as young as 14 (and in some countries even younger) working in cramped conditions, repetitively stitching a collar or sewing a button onto thousands of garments a day. It is common that these workers are forced to work shifts of 12 hours or more, often without a break for food or recreation, and made to take overtime at the weekends or out of hours to meet quotas, on punishment of losing their job if they refuse.

Many of these workers sleep nearby in employee housing that is owned and managed by their employer, and the conditions are just as bad there. Bare stone floors, no running water and no toilet facilities are common, so you can imagine these workers feel like its just one nightmare after another. Some of these workers may not have even willingly started work at the company. Many are tricked into working in a factory, either through human trafficking or by being promised higher wages that never materialise. It is common that workers are held in debt to the sweatshop employer, either because they 'owe' money for their accommodation, or have been 'loaned' the cost of their training or uniform.

Ethical Fashion Nemesis

With the fashion industry attempting to maximise their profits through lower production costs, and shareholders demanding ever higher profits, the majority of garment manufacture is now conducted overseas, mostly in the poorest parts of the world. While large contracts, on the surface, good news for developing countries who rely on a manufacturing base to provide jobs for their citizens and raise their GDP, if consumers demand T-shirts for £10.00 then the sums do not add up and someone has to lose. A basic T-shirt will include inputs of fabric, colouring or printing, labels, thread and manufacturing. Payments need to be paid for delivery, packaging, marketing and sales. The brand / shop selling the T-shirt needs to make a profit to pay for rent, rates, staffing, etc. With each party needing to take a cut for getting the T-shirt into the hands of the consumer it is evident that £10 can only be slit so many ways before power struggles enter the picture and the actual sewers being at the bottom of the tree.

In the past decade, much has been done to promote the plight of these workers, with brands like Nike, Gap and Benetton repeatedly urged to tighten their policies and prevent sweatshops from operating in their supply chain.

Since then, the majority of big brand companies have taken steps to change policies and have attempted to review their supply chain to eradicate any child labour or sweatshop practices in their supply chain. As an example, Nike and Gap now publish the following policies:

  • All workers should have at least 1 day off in every 7
  • Zero tolerance of underage workers
  • No forced overtime
  • GAP require all workers to be at least 14, or the legal working age in their own country, and Nike require workers to be 16 or 17

All sounds great, and certainly progress, right? But in a BBC Panorama investigation aired in 2012, the programme discovered that despite the well-meaning intentions of these companies, the real situation was not improving at all, due to difficulties in policing the supply chain. They highlighted a factory in Cambodia, where the workers stated:

  • Overtime was constantly forced upon them. If they refused more than three times, they were fired
  • Living conditions were small wooden huts with 3 or 4 people to a room, no running water and regular power outages
  • Children as young as 11 or 12 are working on the production lines, because their families cannot afford to live without their wages

A recent study by the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (ITGLWF) agrees with the notion that the sweatshop industry is still alive and well, and named and shamed many popular brands who they stated were "routinely breaking every rule in the book when it comes to labour rights".

It seems the issue is impossible to police, as many factories are tending to employ workers on temporary contracts or as day labour, thereby dodging all the usual requisites of sick and holiday pay as well as law abiding employment contracts. In one factory in the Philippines, 85% of workers were 'temporary', making it almost impossible for trade bodies to have any significant influence over the working practices there.

Of the 83 factories surveyed by ITGLWF, not one paid a living wage to the workers, and the majority didn't even pay the legal minimum wage. Many workers get paid the equivalent of just 11p per hour, and overall it is estimated that the average percentage of the retail cost of a garment that goes to the people who made it is in the region of 0.4 - 4%.

Choosing Ethical Fashion Brands

If you disagree with the sweatshop industry, it may seem like there is no sure fire way of removing the likelihood of unethically produced clothing from your wardrobe. After all, even if the company has watertight policies on slave labour, how can you be sure the supply chain is adhering to their standards? Choosing ethically made clothing from local, reputable sources is one way in which you can let your cash do the talking and say 'no' to sweatshop labour.

Here's our list of ethical fashion companies and sustainable menswear brands that are spearheading the change:

  • Huit Denim
  • Po-Zu Shoes
  • Elvis & Kresse Accessories
  • Honest by online design shop
  • Christopher Raeburn
Free delivery on all UK orders
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