The Hidden Cost of Fashion

18 July 2014

calcuttaslumgirlA friend recently challenged me on the clothes that I buy. I told her that ethical clothing wasn’t really ‘my interest’. But she then asked me a question that has stayed with me: how can we claim to care about people who are trapped in slavery if we then buy the products that they are forced to make?

Who is really responsible? The factory bosses – the government – the high street shops – you? There is a thread of responsibility that you are woven into when you, knowingly or not, buy an item that has originated from a factory that has violated labour laws.

Many workers all over the world suffer from dangerous conditions, extremely long working hours, little or no pay, and physical and sexual abuse.

Alarming cases have caught the media’s attention in the last few years, such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, on 24 April 2013. The eight-storey building contained many factories that supplied to high street brands such as Benetton, Primark, Matalan, and Mango. Inspectors had visited the factory the day before the disaster and, noticing large cracks on the wall, had immediately ordered a full evacuation of the sub-standard building. But bosses then forced their garment workers to return to work the next day, a fatal order that resulted in over 1,100 deaths and twice as many people injured. This was entirely preventable. Workers’ safety and labour rights are at risk all around the world – some of the UK’s high street brands are linked to building collapses, factory fires and workers dying from appalling working conditions.

Primark also came under fire in June 2008, when The Observer and BBC Panorama did a seven-month undercover investigation in Tamil Nadu, southern India. They exposed a direct link between the use of child labour, long hours and awful conditions in refugee camps, and the high street store. Primark reacted to the public revelation very quickly, sacking three suppliers and carrying out an investigation of their own. Read more on this case here.

But why did they have to wait for a public scandal before they acted?

There are 17.2 million children engaged in paid or unpaid work in the world (Global March Against Child Labour). As a nation, we need to disengage ourselves from this horrific injustice.

The Good Shopping Guide have presented a high street fashion rankings table by The Ethical Company, revealing which brands are ethically credible, and which are ethically corrupt. The named shops to avoid in terms of their low ethical ranking are F&F (Tesco PLC), George (Asda/Walmart), Primark, French Connection, TU (J Sainsbury PLC), Matalan, and Gap. There are other brands with extremely bad human rights records, but these seven shops have the lowest rankings by far.


So what can you do?

When you go shopping, it can feel hopeless trying to find ethical clothes and work out which shops treat their labourers well. But there are easy ways to get around this.

1. Buy the Ethical Shopping App for your smartphone. You can then use it whenever you go shopping, and can check a brand’s ranking and track record within seconds. Watch the preview here or click here to buy the app for £2.99.

2. Brands with the highest ethical rankings: Liv, People Tree, Seasalt, Fat Face and New Look (The Ethical Company Organisation).

3. Click here for The Guardian’s Ethical Fashion Directory UK – a comprehensive, thorough and easy-to-use guide.

4. Check out this ethical fashion blog for a list of 50 great affordable ethical shops. Included in the list are the likes of ASOS Marketplace and Etsy.

5. Style-Is… is “the biggest and most stylishly sustainable UK online fashion store” – also well worth checking out.


But how can you also make a bigger change?

We really should not have to actively search for alternatives. We need slave-free clothes on our high streets.

Asking companies to regulate themselves has not worked in the past, apart from a few brands such as American Apparel, who openly lay out their policy here.

The Modern Slavery Bill was introduced in June 2014, and is currently going through Parliament. It aims to increase support for victims and strengthen powers to prevent human trafficking. But the Bill does not currently contain a clause on supply chain transparency, and the addition of this is vital, as businesses and companies would then be legally obliged to declare where and under what conditions their products are made. This clause would lead to a just and much needed regulation of the supply of slavery-linked products into the UK.

You can help by writing to your local MP, and asking for them to support an amendment to the Companies Act via the Modern Slavery Bill. You can read the Centre for Social Justice’s recommendations for Parliament here.

It is silence and apathy that allows these illicit businesses to thrive. We need to make our companies and brands fight for decent working conditions and an elimination of slave labour in their own supply chains, thus breaking this chain of injustice.

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