Sainsbury‘s Head of Sustainability appeared on Newsnight last night, discussing an interesting piece on ethical fashion. Unfortunately she was either misinformed or, more likely given her senior position, deliberately misleading viewers. Here’s the particular exchange that raised my eyebrows:
Kirsty Wark: In Bangladesh you pay in Tk1841 – £14 per month – but the Bangladesh Institute of Labour studies says that to sustain a family you need Tk4800. If you paid people better, they would win, and you would win.
Alison Austin: Well I think you have to be very careful what companies and what clothing you’re looking at, and I think Joan’s quite right that customers need to be aware of the issues and ask questions.
KW: But you’re still paying very low wages!
AA: But that’s why we’re making such investment in the Fairtrade clothing market, because there we really can clearly communicate to customers that for the clothing they buy with the Fairtrade Mark, a fair wage has been paid. But all the other factories that we source from meet the stretching standards of the Ethical Trading Initiative, and we’ve been working with them for a long period of time.
What’s so wrong with that? Well, two things.
First, in response to a question about wages in the manufacture of clothing in Bangladesh, she refers to “Fairtrade clothing.” Ms Austin should be well aware that the Fairtrade mark covers only cotton production (pdf link), not the manufacture of clothing. In terms of manufacturing, there is no guarantee to consumers that, “for the clothing they buy with the Fairtrade Mark, a fair wage has been paid.” Bangladesh doesn’t even have a cotton industry, so that can’t be the confusion: it’s hard not to suspect that Ms Austin is playing fast and loose with the facts here.
But then it gets worse! She continues by saying that, “all the other factories that we source from meet the stretching standards of the Ethical Trading Initiative [ETI].” This suggests that the ETI is some kind of certification body. The ETI base code does set out some ‘stretching’ standards – though stretching is not the right word, given that they are based on fundamental human rights – but there is no guarantee that companies in the ETI meet those standards. Indeed, the whole premise of the ETI is that companies work together towards implementing these standards progressively: few companies would claim anything else. So this is a disingenuous statement to say the least!