Gap has been the target of anti-sweatshop campaigners for about a decade now, so there’s a sense in which today’s Observer story, which finds ‘slave’ child labour in subcontractors producing for Gap, is merely retracing a familiar pattern. Indeed, it’s not the first story of poor working conditions in India this year, and it’s one of a string of recent exposés.
What does make it interesting is that in recent years Gap has been steadily building a reputation as one of the most progressive companies when it comes to labour rights, as the Observer notes. This comes despite the apparently irreparable damage done by bad press in the late 1990s, which still sees many good-natured but ill-informed souls boycotting Gap. (I am wearing Gap trousers as I write this, more because they fit me well than for any ethical reason…)
Gap’s groundbreaking ‘warts and all’ social responsibility reporting has won it plaudits where its competitors continue to deny the full scale of the problems in their supply chains; its response to our own Let’s Clean up Fashion investigation was one of the better ones we received; it has some progressive collaborative work with the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation and with Women Working Worldwide.
So what does this teach us?
First, it demonstrates once again that no company is doing enough to address the deep-rooted exploitation on which it relies to produce fashion at high-street prices.
Second, because poor working conditions exist in all companies’ supply chains, it is not how often a company is linked to them in the press that tells us whether it is ‘ethical’, but how ambitiously it is working to address them.
Third, it shows that, while consumer pressure has done an awful lot to push certain retailers towards a more progressive outlook, there is much for us all still to do.
There is no black and white list of bad and good companies, only shades of (pretty dark) grey.