High-street fashion is notoriously lacking in ethics and morals. Most of us are aware of this, but few are active in boycotting the worst offenders or campaigning to prevent worker exploitation. You might feel a twinge of guilt when youâ€™re rifling through the bargain rails of Primark, ASDA and H&M, but, at these prices, who cares?
Well, campaigning groups such as War on Want and Labour Behind the Label (LBL) certainly do and both have released revealing reports indicating the shocking state of working conditions in clothing manufacturing.
The high street is to blame for the phenomena of disposable clothing. Now that ranges are changed every few months, cheap and cheerful copies of the hottest catwalk trends are produced quickly, worn a couple of times and then substituted for an equally inexpensive replacement. But by what means are suppliers able to speed production to this rate, whilst maintaining low costs? It doesnâ€™t take a genius to realise the conditions in these production factories are not quite as cheerful as the clothing that they manufacture.
According to a report issued by charity War on Want in December 2006, workers in Bangladesh regularly work 80 hours a week for a mere 5p an hour. The investigation, â€˜Fashion Victimsâ€™, examined the working conditions in six Bangladeshi factories in the capital Dhaka which employ over 5000 workers â€“ mostly women â€“ and produce clothing for British companies Primark, Tesco and ASDA. Although all are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies which promotes ethical consumerism and states that â€œliving wages [must be] paidâ€, research discovered that starting wages were around £8 a month in Bangladesh, around a third of the £22 a month required. Workers are also prevented from exercising another part of the ETI Base Code which promotes â€œfreedom of association and the right to collective bargainingâ€. LBL discovered that, in another of ASDAâ€™s Bangladesh factories, â€œif anyone tries to organise workers and form a union, he or she would be handed over to the policeâ€. In 2004, 22 workers at a factory who demanded their legal overtime pay were allegedly beaten, fired and imprisoned on false charges.
You may think this is not representative of all high-street chains. However, the credentials of the decidedly more upmarket retailers such as Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Miss Selfridge (all of which are part of the Arcadia Group) are not in anyway more reassuring. LBLâ€™s report â€˜Letâ€™s Clean Up Fashionâ€™ criticised the Arcadia Group for its complacency with regard to changes to prevent worker exploitation. The biggest high-street retailer not to have joined the ETI, it recently forced suppliers to cut prices by 1%, a move which will reduce wages and their workersâ€™ standards of living even further. Like supermarket slave-drivers ASDA and Tesco, they merely apply their supplying countryâ€™s legal minimum wage, a worrying fact seeing as multinational companies can pressurise governments to lower national wages in return for the companyâ€™s continual use of their factories and the subsequent money that this feeds back into the country.
On the surface, university students look like they want to take a stand on ethical fashion. Here at York, for example, fair trade fashion has followed ethical investment and boycotting Coca-Cola onto the activistsâ€™ agenda: recently YUSU passed a Sweatshops and Ethical Merchandise motion, demanding University clothing be bought from fair trade companies. The York Union Code also encourages YUSU to â€œpurchase fair trade products where possibleâ€.
The trouble, it seems, is that students are notorious for hunting out a bargain, whether itâ€™s a 15p can of Tesco Value Beans or a £3 H&M T-shirt. As Lucy Ford, a first-year campus fashionista puts it: â€œI want to be ethical in my clothing choices, but on a student budget, this just isnâ€™t possible. If fair trade clothing was less expensive, then Iâ€™d certainly choose that over anything else, but it isnâ€™t, and frankly I canâ€™t afford it.â€
Many other students seem to feel the same way, declaring that â€˜ethicalâ€™ clothing, such as fair trade brands or vintage items, are too expensive for their decidedly small budgets. Some of those I questioned also felt that the plight of the exploited workers seemed almost too disconnected from our standards of living to be important to them. This might help explain why a survey by TNS Worldpanel Fashion showed that only 42% of under-25s take any notice of ethical issues when it comes to what they wear.
In light of this, are there really any viable options to the ethical debate for the individual? Like the organic and fair trade food explosion gripping our supermarkets, there is more emphasis now on extending this into fashion, with numerous new fair trade companies emerging with an eye on ethics, not profits. Although theyâ€™ve moved a long way from the downright dodgy charity catalogue animal jumpers made from 100% organic products (and guaranteed to make you look 100% like an idiot), Iâ€™m not convinced that this is yet the answer. In theory, fair trade fashion is the obvious winner; organically and ethically produced clothing guaranteed to ensure fairer conditions for factory workers. In practice, many consumers are unwilling to pay the expensive prices demanded by these brands. Internet companies such as People Tree, Enamore Ltd, and Bourgeois Boheme offer collections of beautifully finished organic and fair trade clothes, but with basic cotton day-dresses retailing above £100, to the student population, their appeal begins to diminish.
There are a few alternatives which perhaps are more realistic. Although we might quite like the fact that clothing has never before been so cheap, it is necessary for consumers to recognise that these rock-bottom prices are unsustainable and based on exploitation and maltreatment of workers, even if they are thousands of miles away. By adapting our shopping to exclude the most unethical companies whilst opting for retailers who have proven themselves to be seriously connecting with the ethical debate and instigating concrete changes, we can force companies to reconsider their suppliers and begin to improve conditions for their workers. Although enforcing these changes will eventually result in price increases for us, the consumers, surely a couple of pounds extra on this side of the globe are worth proper living conditions on the other?
Some people view campaigns and boycotting companies as futile and having intangible results, yet the media furore regarding GAPâ€™s ethical practice during the past few years has been proven to have instigated positive change. In LBLâ€™s survey, GAP was discovered to be the most ethically minded of all the retailers researched, described as having taken â€œsignificant stepsâ€¦ to resolve the systematic abuses of workersâ€™ rightsâ€. Therefore, as a consumer, prove that you wonâ€™t accept exploitation of workersâ€™ rights; buy from companies such as Gap, Next and Marks and Spencer who are proven to be making improvements to their ethical practice, whilst avoiding the most unethical companies, such as ASDA and the Arcadia Group, all of whom are concerned with money, not morality. Iâ€™d rather pay that little bit extra for a clearer conscience and the knowledge that efforts are being made towards fair trade.