What to buy - can consumers make a difference?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013
IN_DEPTH_ In view of the recent tragic accidents in sourcing countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Cambodia, what can consumers do to make sure the clothes they buy are not produced in unsafe factories? Can they do anything? This next installment in our sourcing series takes a look at different options.

Let’s first examine a common assumption – namely, that the higher a garment is priced, the more money will be available for expenses like wages and fire and building safety. Sounds logical at first but practically, that is not true. Higher margins do not automatically translate into better and safer working conditions.


Are high end brands more responsible?

As the recent tragedies have shown, the same factories that produced garments for discounters like Primark, Kik and Walmart also produced clothes for high street brands and retailers like C&A, H&M, Esprit, Nike, Li & Fung and others. Also, high end brands tend to invest a larger part of their margins into advertising campaigns, so that the portion that could be spend on safety measures shrinks further. Thus, price alone is no indication that a bigger proportion is spent on worker and building safety. However, it is safe to assume that when buying a super bargain (e.g. a t-shirt for 99 cents), nothing will remain for fair wages or safety measures.

So far, so bad. Studying the label and especially the country of origin carefully is also not a permanent solution as a boycott of clothes made in so called low wage countries (as some radical voices demand) would further aggravate the problem. Which other countries could step in as sourcing countries with comparable workforces, resources, wages and turnaround times? After all, we’re talking large scale here as the global clothing and textile industry is a trillion dollar industry (2,560 trillion dollars in 2010 to be precise). And even if a substitute was found, production conditions in Eastern Europe and Turkey – likely alternatives – are not rosy either with fair wages, long working hours, insufficient health coverage and the right to form unions being the main issues.

Also, if workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and others lose their jobs due to a boycott and therefore reduced orders, they will not be better off. On the contrary, the mainly female workers will lose whatever little independence they had and go back to a life of domesticity that often goes along with early marriage, early motherhood and little say about one’s future.


What consumers can do

But all is not lost – efforts are underway to improve the conditions of workers on site; the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that 30+ mainly European brands and retailers have signed is an important first step that will hopefully be extended to other countries as well. Also, there is the Fair Wear Foundation, a network of textile and clothing companies, brands and unions that work together to improve labour conditions for garment workers worldwide.

Due to the nature of the business, the organisation can not award a quality seal that guarantees fair working conditions. “The textile industry has a very complicated supply chain. There are so many suppliers and subcontractors that it is very, very difficult to monitor all these production channels,” explained Martin Curley, Fair Wear Foundation.


Research, research, research

In summary, until a kind of ranking system for clothes is developed that indicates on the label itself how fair, safe and sustainable a garment is, there is no easy way out for consumers. But not all is lost given the wealth of information available on the internet. Those who would like to know how responsible their favourite brand is should do a bit of research beyond the company website.

Non-profit organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, Free2Work, the International Labor Rights Forum, the International Labor Organisation and others conduct surveys and publish information about specific brands and retailers. And consumers should not underestimate the purchasing power they hold.

Last but not least, maybe it’s time we started thinking of clothes as an investment rather than a throwaway item with a limited shelf life. After all, lots of pains literally go into producing one piece of clothing and the least we can do is show our appreciation by valuing what we wear. The next article in this series will appear on Thursday. If you’d like to share comments or feedback, please email us: news@fashionunited.com.

Image: Women shopping for clothes

Simone Preuss