Fashion: Are gifts sustainable this holiday season?

Friday, 21 December 2012
If quick online browsing is anything to go by, clothes, gift cards and electronics are still very much in demand this holiday season. The US and UK, Christmas tops the list as the holiday that people spend the most money on. But in  view of the recent scandals in sourcing countries (260 casualties in a garment factory in Pakistan, 115 in Bangladesh) and harmful chemicals even in branded clothes, are fashion items still as popular as holiday gifts as they used to be?

Fashion companies have increasingly been dragged into the spotlight for their actions – sportswear giant Adidas and its sponsor agreements were cancelled by various big universities because of pending severance payments to a manufacturer in Indonesia is just one example. But what can fashion houses do in terms of sustainability and worker safety? And how can they assure customers looking for answers? Fashion United investigated the matter.

Lower profits are often held against active sustainability campaigns – be it in connection with environmentally friendly production or worker safety. “[Companies] dread making decisions here because by buying fair trade products or insisting on humane working conditions, costs go up and thus, company profits decline,” said CEO Volker Beck of the German Green Party.

But according to a calculation by the Clean Clothes Campaign, the actual cost of a t-shirt, produced sustainably and under fair conditions, would go up by only 12 cents – a reasonable increase, especially for a garment whose label marks it as a ‘clean’ one.

Another aspect is the disclosure of all sourcing agents, which is currently voluntary. Western clients are often reluctant to divulge their sources but this practice, should it become mandatory, would be for their own safety too as the disclosure should extend to the suppliers as well. However, the saying ‘trust is good, control is better’ applies, or otherwise a fashion company can quickly find out that the garments ordered were not produced by garment factory XYZ but in a prison or using child labor. The case of German clothing discounter Takko comes to mind: the company relied on the information given by the foreign subsidiary of a German sourcing agent and found out the hard way that thousands of its garments had been produced in Chinese prisons.

What should fashion brands do when this kind of negative publicity looms large on the horizon? Instead of hiding behind codes of conduct and shirking accountability by pointing fingers at local suppliers and agencies, the companies in question should admit their mistakes. Costumers appreciate an honest brand and its (kept) promise to actively get involved in changing the current circumstances, for example through regular safety checks, regardless if the production site is next door or thousands of miles away.

What certainly doesn’t help is to boycott a certain brand, company or country. This kind of action usually hits those hardest who already have very little: the predominantly female workers in the garment factories, for example, whose job supports their families and guarantees them a bit of financial freedom, maybe for the first time in their lives. More meaningful would be to improve working conditions along the whole supply chain. Information and persistence will pay off here (from brand and customer side) as it will be necessary to constantly monitor and prod until the first guidelines have been established.

And even legally, there may be light on the horizon. A bill by the German Green Party, for example, envisions an amendment to the Corporation Law, „whereby the adherence to humane, social and environmental standards in all areas of accountability will be part of the diligence of a prudent and conscientious business manager and could therefore not lead to any indemnity claim against the management. “ Thus, corporate social responsibility would shift from a voluntary requirement (‘nice to have’) to a legally binding standard (‘must have’).

In light of the latest scandals, do fashion brands need to fear that their customers will turn away? According to a brief survey by the German online magazine Textilwirtschaft in early December, the answer is ‘no’. Respondents’ reactions about the factory fire in Bangladesh and the involvement of German fashion discounter Kik ranged from “I feel sorry for those people” and “somehow, we are all responsible” to “I have to watch my money too”. ‘Not yet’ seems to be a better answer to the initial question if one takes well informed customers into account. After all, it seems only a question of time until the sheer number of incidences and resulting negative publicity will affect purchase behaviour. 

Simone Preuss
Foto: Laura Bittner

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