Bullying? Bangladesh under pressure

If you read this story you’ll understand about power. I’ll give you a brief summary: A group of major buyers from high street brands such as M&S, Hennes, Walmart, Tesco and Nike met with the head of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers Association and pushed for Bangladesh to reduce the prices they’re offering to exporters.

The brands used the excuse that other countries such as India, Pakistan, China and Vietnam were all lowering prices and strongly suggested that Bangladesh do the same.

My question reading this was, what choice do Bangladeshi garment companies have? I’m constantly shocked at how trade negotiations aren’t actually negotiations. As the deficit is passed down the supply chain, price drops and the economic crisis inevitably end up hitting the workers at the bottom hardest, and they’re the people who can’t afford the loss.

The reality is that as people stop shopping and recession spending hits home, companies have got spooked and are grouping together to demand lower prices from countries who are already being driven to produce at very cheap rates. Playground bullying? – yes even in the big world.

The president of the Bangladeshi exporters association noted that trade with Europe and the States had shrunk by 10 % in January, and was worried. As that trade makes up 90% of the industry, this is bad news for workers who will face job cuts in the coming months. Not to mention the industry reverting to temporary contracts to cope with a fluctuating climate, or factories accepting large orders that they can’t really cope with because it sounds like good money.

Blood, Sweat and T-shirts

Everyone has been talking about the BBC TV series, Blood, Sweat and Tshirts, in which, “six young fashion addicts experience life as factory workers in India, making clothes for the British high street.”

Last night was the final episode of the programme, along with a set-piece discussion on Newsnight (actual programme here – will work until 20th May).  Stacey and Georgina from the programme were in a discussion with Jane Mill from the British Retail Consortium, which represents a large number of the big fashion retailers.

The girls from Blood, Sweat and Tshirts had obviously been significantly affected by what they’d seen in India, but the problem – they said – was the dearth of positive alternatives on the UK high street.

We’re often asked ‘where can I buy ethical clothes’, a question we’ve tried to answer elsewhere.  The honest truth is that, while there are some fair trade alternatives away from the high street, on the high street there is no way to buy clothes that you can be sure were made in good conditions.  The important thing to do is to buy from whereever and then write to the companies telling them that you’re concerned.

The biggest disappointment of the discussion was Paxman’s line of questioning, which left unchallenged the BRC’s assertion, repeated on its website, that,

BRC members take their responsibility for the welfare of their own and their suppliers’ workers very seriously, especially with regard to the use of child and forced labour.

The reality is that if brands had been taking these matters seriously for the past ten years then a lot more would have changed.  Still, the BRC’s position is a considerable improvement on that which is found elsewhere on its website – outright denial:

It’s a myth that UK retailers source from exploitative, badly run sweatshops. That would be unethical and unworkable. For example China is producing shoes for the world on an unprecedented scale. That requires safe, modern attractive factories, not the backstreets. Standards in factories located in developing countries often surpass those in Europe and America. To provide goods in the quantities, of the quality and to the timescales UK retailers require, they have to. World class facilities in Asia are delivering product to some of the most demanding consumers in the world on the UK high street. Only the best will do and this must be built on total trust in ethical and environmental standards. Any factory which cannot compete on this level will simply not be able to meet the standards demanded by BRC members and their customers. Retailers work with the Ethical Trading Initiative to ensure that high standards are adhered to. Suppliers are systematically inspected . If they are not able to meet these standards contracts are ended and business is taken elsewhere.

Factcheck: Sainsbury’s on Newsnight

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: Read the rest of this entry »

Who is the ethical consumer?

At LBL you might be detect an audible sigh when a consumer asks “where can I get ethical clothes?” or a journalist “do Gap produce in unethical conditions?”

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical fashion’ has come to mean “an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing, which is both socially and environmentally sustainable” (Ethical Fashion Forum). But it signifies more than that: it is a fashion trend in its own right, a segment of the market, like petite or smart-casual or goth.

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical trade’, means that companies, “take agreed steps to ensure their supplier companies respect the rights of their workers by adhering to national labour laws and the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)” (Ethical Trading Initiative). Read the rest of this entry »

Primark response – living wage

Primark response to living wage actionPrimark owner ABF has sent us a response to our online action on living wages, which hundreds of supporters have completed. The action is also addressed to M&S, Tesco and the Arcadia Group, but these retailers have yet to respond. Click on the image to see the response in full.

Read the rest of this entry »

MSN Statement on Discovery of Child Labour in Gap Subcontract Factory

MSN Statement on Discovery of Child Labour in Gap Subcontract Factory

November 2, 2007

On October 28, a UK paper, the Observer, published an exposé on child labour in India, revealing that clothes bearing the GapKids label were being made by children as young as 10 years old. The bonded labourers were reportedly working 16 hours a day for no pay in filthy working conditions.

Read the rest of this entry »

What the Gap child labour story really means

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.