How our love of fast fashion is undermining the pursuit of an ethical lifestyle

Many of us follow fashion and like to seek out new items for our wardrobe as the new season breaks, or a new trend catches our eye. But our constant appetite for new trends and new clothing is driving a corporate machine that places a really low value on ethical and sustainable material sourcing and production, and ethical workplace practices in production and distribution.

Instead of two fashion seasons, we’re on a constant treadmill of new trends, fed by items that we can pick up on the high street for bargain prices. In order to keep this treadmill going, quality has dropped, quantity has grown, and production has been outsourced and scaled to offer the best return on investment. In reality, this means corners are cut and production costs are squeezed. The most prominent illustration of this is the Rana Plaza disaster, in which a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers. The factory produced garments for many of the most prominent brands on the high street today, including Primark, H&M, and Benetton. The justification for these brands turning a blind eye to the conditions and working practices is often that they are a ‘better’ alternative than the other jobs available in these regions. Whether or not that’s true, these brands have the capability (in size, in profit, in resources) to offer standards which are comparable to more accepted working standards in the rest of the world, to offer rates of pay and employee programs capable of supporting genuine empowerment and social change, and placing employee welfare at the top of their priority list. They don’t, because the market isn’t forcing them to. As long as they aren’t worse than the existing alternatives, they can keep their heads below the parapet. Workers in these countries report, in accounts given in The True Cost, that attempts to unionize and lobby for better conditions or pay are met not with silence, or indifference, but violence from the factory owners who employ them, and their own governments. Production contracts are so lucrative, and competition between countries so widespread, that many governments seek to provide the ‘best’ offering to corporations to ensure the contracts aren’t lost to other countries where labour is cheaper or easier.

The True Cost – currently available on Netflix, the True Cost looks at the fashion production industry with a critical eye and presents some stark accounts from garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia]

The ethical questions around workplace conditions can’t be underestimated, and the impact large clothing retailers could have on the welfare and lives of those they employ around the world is potentially huge, but currently drastically underexplored. Recent work done by Labour Behind the Label and reported by Ethical Consumer indicates that just 4 of the 40 largest international clothing brands could demonstrate steps being taken towards a living wage (Source Nov 2015).

One of the things that strikes me when reading around this issue is how broadly the term ‘ethical’ has been interpreted, allowing it to be bent to the will of corporate retailers. Take, for example, the news that H&M was recently named the ‘World’s Most Ethical Company’ for the fifth time. This year’s list, produced by EthiSphere, also recognises L’Oreal, Starbucks and GAP, amongst many others. Many consumers, myself included, have serious questions about the ethical practices of these companies when it comes to issues like employee welfare, sustainability, and animal testing, to name but a few. This is just one example among many, but it indicates that we aren’t always clear what we mean when we talk about ‘ethical’. That ambiguity allows companies and industries to interpret it in a commercially beneficial way and as an increasingly handy marketing tool. EthiSphere judge ethical companies as those which “go beyond making statements about doing business “ethically” and translate those words into action. Honorees not only promote ethical business standards and practices internally, they exceed legal compliance minimums and shape future industry standards by introducing best practices today.” (Source Nov 2015). These standards are set by industry, for industry, and it shows. The criteria listed by EthiSphere focus on corporate governance, and don’t seem to get too interested in actual operating practices like production, materials, or employee welfare, so how meaningful is this as a measure of ethical practices, really? (Source Nov 2015).

die_for_fashionImage by Solidarity Center via Flickr

For a really detailed look at H&M’s promises and practices, take a look at this post from the Clean Clothes Campaign: 10 ways H&M is spinning the facts on worker safety, or this analysis on Medium: Is H&M Really the World’s Most Ethical Company?. To give H&M their dues, they were the first brand to sign a commitment to safer working environments following the Rana Plaza disaster, but recent studies have shown this to be well behind schedule, suggesting that the initial PR management may have been more of a priority than effecting real change (Source Nov 2015). We’ve looked at H&M as an example here, but the deliberate muddying of the term ‘ethical’ is widespread across commodity industries, and plays to our consumer interest in ‘good actors’, whilst requiring the most minimal changes to working practices and industry standards.

It’s easy to imagine that poor pay and conditions for textile workers is an issue faced, or even caused, by developing countries. However, recent studies have indicated that this issue impacts workers in developed countries like the UK, too (Source Nov 2015).  With poor pay and working conditions seemingly rife in the UK market and the US industry too, just checking the country of origin isn’t enough to ensure your purchases are ethically produced in safe workplaces.  Finding smaller scale producers and makers local to you is one way to reduce the environmental impact of your purchases, whilst also going a long way to keep labour local and fair. We appreciate that such brands are often more expensive and typically harder to find in some parts of the world than others, so I’d also recommend checking the list at Ethical Consumer.  At the time of writing, BHS easily outstrips the other high street retailers with a score of 12/20 on the measures used by Ethical Consumer (I’ll leave you to decide the relevance of BHS’ recent sale by Arcadia Group, which scores 7/20). Ultimately, by creating the demand and prioritising quantity and price over quality and ethics, we’re perpetuating the supply. As consumers, we have the power to demand clarity on issues like ethics, and to vote with our money when it comes to choosing products and companies which fulfil the ethical standards we want to see become the norm.

This issue is huge, and the impact doesn’t stop with workers in the supply chain – there are huge issues for sustainability, the environment, and non-human animals, which we’ll cover in a separate post soon.

Further Reading

I cannot recommend this essay highly enough, it’ll change the way you think about this issue as you go about your day to day – it did for me

The Sweatshop Sublime, Bruce Robbins: http://www.columbia.edu/~bwr2001/papers/sweatshop.pdf

Ethical Consumer worked with industry bodies to put together a special report on the fashion industry, 1 year after Rana Plaza – there’s a lot of useful information in there if you want to know more and, of course, Ethical Consumer’s handy ranked lists. http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/ethicalreports/fashionindustry.aspx

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