A couple of my favourite vintage dresses
My resolution this year is to stop buying clothes made in sweatshops. I’ve been reducing the amount that I buy from high street shops for years, but I have always been occasionally tempted. This time, there’s no leeway. No clothes from sweatshops in 2017.
Ethical fashion has been having a resurgence recently. I think the True Cost of Fashion documentary (watch on Netflix here) and the recent Channel 4 Dispatches on fast fashion was shock to the system for most of us. I’ve been thinking about the way clothes are made on and off since taking part in People and Planet’s Sweatshop Free campaign as a student, but finishing Naomi Klein’s No Logo gave me a much needed boost in resolve. I highly recommend it – it’s tough to read in parts but details the rise of sweatshops and the anti-sweatshop movement with so much clarity and insight.
Klein explains that in the 90s, brands started shedding factories and workers, distancing themselves from the actual production of things, instead producing aspirational images and ideas in marketing departments. Brands sold products based on who they could help you become, rather than focusing advertising on quality, and for the first time predominantly targeted image-conscious teenagers. Marketing became the core business of brands and production was auctioned off to a progressively long supply chain of factories, increasingly based in the developing world. Often there were middle-men companies contracting the factories, who would squeeze prices and base production in areas with authoritarian regimes and poor human rights records. Cuts in production costs were made off the backs of workers with no living wage, no job security, abusive and dangerous working conditions and a heavy reliance on child labour. Governments encouraged the existence of these factories by placing them in special “free trade zones” where companies paid no tax and adherence to the minimum wage and labour rights was not required. When questioned, brands could conveniently claim blissful ignorance. They didn’t own the factories after all.
Depressingly, not much has improved since Naomi Klein was writing in the early 00s. The Apparel Industry Partnership initiated by Bill Clinton was eagerly awaited in the 90s, but seems to simultaneously have eased consumer concerns and allowed companies hide under the veil of “self-reporting” on factory conditions without improving any real life labour rights. It is still impossible to access information on working conditions for the majority of high street brands. Companies simply don’t know where their clothes are being made – either because they don’t want to or because there are so many factories involved it is too difficult to keep track. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 killed 1,135 people and injured or disabled 2,515 more. The building was constructed on swampy grounds and the top floors which had been added illegally, despite prior warnings from engineers, came crashing down. This factory made clothes for companies including Walmart, Primark, Matalan, Mango, J.C. Penny, Carrefour and Bonnemarche. It was a tragedy and a stark reminder that things still need to change.
It is still the case that garment factory workers are paid below the minimum wage. They are still threatened with dismissal if they form unions. The majority of garment workers are still women. They are still forced to take birth control / routine pregnancy tests so employers can avoid paying maternity leave. They are still deceptively recruited from rural areas with the promise of pay checks to send home because the workers then have no choice but to stay when they discover how bad the conditions are. They still work in toxic conditions which damage their health.
I’m not claiming that consumers are to blame for this – clearly it is the companies at fault – but I no longer want to participate in this system. I no longer want to support companies that use sweatshops.
So, what does it involve to boycott sweatshops? I won’t be buying from any company unless they can guarantee their clothes were not made in sweatshops. It’s harder than you might think to discover under what conditions clothes are manufactured. Companies hide behind policies of being “committed to upholding high standards in the treatment of workers” which mean nothing in practice. There are no British high street brands which can guarantee ethical labour practices. In reality, going sweatshop free means abandoning the high street.
The simplest way to reduce reliance on sweatshops is to stop buying clothes. I know, it’s hard for me too. I think I will always be interested in clothes but really knowing what I will wear and what will fit me has been a long journey that’s resulted in fewer purchases for me. When you want the thrill of clothes shopping, second-hand is the way forward. Charity shops in the UK have become seriously upmarket, and I love the vintage themed shops like Sue Ryder that are becoming more common. Vintage is also a good option, but these clothes have often been shipped from Europe or the States, so they can have a bigger carbon footprint than your local charity shop. When new clothes are a necessity (I’m thinking tights and underwear here, and a good fitting pair of jeans) there are lots of ethically produced brands to choose from. I’m sure I’ll need to do a lot of research this year to figure out where I can shop, and I hope to share my findings with you in some sort of organised and searchable list!
There are two common criticisms of sweatshop boycotts that I want to briefly address here. The first is the idea that boycotts lead to factory closures, and garment workers would rather have an underpaying job than no job at all. My initial problem with this is that it falsely restricts the options. This argument assumes that either workers are paid poorly, or they will have no work at all. This is not the case, conditions can be improved. I think it is unwise to boycott clothes made in a particular country – in Bangladesh for example – because companies are likely to pull out of that country but set up somewhere with equally poor enforcement of labour standards. Ultimately, the more unethical labour practice affects their bottom line, the more likely they are to do something about it.
This huff post article claims that boycotts are a bad idea since companies can’t control the labour practices used in their factories. If sweatshops really are an intrinsic part of bloated transnational corporations, I can’t think of a better reason to exclusively support small and transparent businesses. The author recommends that governments (not companies) create better infrastructure around monitoring and fixing factory conditions. I agree, but perhaps if companies agreed only to operate in countries where this was happening, it would be pushed further up the agenda, with the result that labour conditions would actually improve. There is no impetus for companies to do this unless it affects their profits.
The second criticism often levied at sweatshop boycotts is that not all consumers can afford to participate. For some, the £10 required to buy a T-shirt from Primark is still a stretch. This is true in some cases but we are all currently buying far more clothes than we need. Consumers buying cheap clothes are still getting the raw end of the deal when their purchases shrink, tear or become misshapen due to the poor quality of material. Part of the reason that ethically made clothes are more expensive is to encourage people to invest in items of clothing that they will treasure and that will last for a long time, unlike the mass produced (but ultimately affordable) clothes currently on offer. I would like to see part-payment for clothes made much more widely available (like UNIF have offered with Affirm) so that well-made ethical clothing is available for all. For the time-being, buying second hand is an affordable option for most occasions.