Sunday, 28 April 2013

High Street Fashion - Cheap Clothing At What Cost?

In the last few days it has been impossible to avoid the terrible scenes in Dhaka, Bangladesh where 360 people are dead and hundreds more still missing, presumably under tons of twisted steel and concrete, following the collapse of a clothing factory.

Despite cracks appearing in the structure on Tuesday, management ignored concerns and forced staff to carry on working the following day or have their pay docked. Company stooges then approved building safety the day before the collapse. Building owner Mohammed Sohel Rana has now been arrested along with three factory owners and two engineers but surely this is just the tip of the iceberg.

This tragedy isn't just another far off disaster we can shake our heads and go back to our cornflakes. The factory has links to well established high street retailers Primark, Matalan and Mango so there is a good chance you may have some of the offending factory's handiwork hanging in your closet.. It highlights a thorny issue, one which the West has gamely ignored for years, namely that the sweat shops of the 3rd World make most of the clothes on our backs.

Is this disregard for workers safety a byproduct of the West's insatiable appetite for disposable fashions or is the developing world's desperation to better itself by exploiting its workers the root cause?

I am reminded of the Panorama documentary Primark On The Rack, originally aired in 2008, which conducted an undercover investigation on the ubiquitous high street fashion retailer's dubious manufacturing processes.

Primark are a fashion success story with over 160 stores in the U.K and boast a rapid expansion throughout Europe. Famed for "disposable fashion", items are so cheap they can be worn once and thrown away, T-Shirts sell for £3 and jeans for £8. The are quick to ape cat-walk fashions and can do so for a fraction of the price.  Some of their range isn't actually that bad and I'll be honest, in my moments of weakness I have bought the odd pair of pants.

Many say Primark are a prime example of West's penchant for waste and disregard for worker exploitation in far off lands.  To commemorate their status as the Cruella De Vil of the retail world they were awarded the dubious accolade of "Least Ethical Retailer 2005" by Ethical Consumer Magazine. But who cares about a no-name award given out by a bunch of hippies? We all want cheap clothes right?

Rattled by this bad P.R, Primark trumpeted a change in their policy and proudly display their commitment to ethical standards at the entrance to their stores. The documentary exposes this as empty rhetoric. Reporter Tom Heap went undercover in the Indian textile industry to shine a light on the seedy sweatshops whose slavelike conditons are the sole reason you can buy embroidered dresses for £15.

In the labyrinthine slums of Delhi mass produced garments are ordered with very little lead time forcing Indian suppliers to get shipments ready using illegal outsourced child labour. According to Heap, who posed as an industry buyer, children as young as ten have to work long hours in squalid conditions for peanuts (17p/35c an hour was the wage quoted). India has a huge problem with poverty and many of the population live conditions that those in the West would consider subhuman. With wages this paltry it is hardly surprising.

I remember being at my folk's house when I watched this and whilst I pontificated on my best Guardianista soapbox about the appalling conditions and sub-standard pay my mum came up with a couple of salient points. First of all, one could argue that if these big retailers didn't place orders in third world countries they would literally have no jobs and no income whatsoever. Bangladesh for instance relies almost exclusively on its textile industry to supports its economy. Primark itself says it creates work for about 2 million workers in the developing world in one form or another. If they thought conditions were bad now what position would countries like India, Honduras or Vietnam be in without any western investment?

When I complained about the fact that these kids should be in school I was told that we shouldn't expect our values to be reflected in our cultures in the same way. We have the luxury of legislation forcing kids to go to school and a social system that helps the margins of society. In effect we have it very easy in the West. With no social services, Indian parents see large families as an insurance policy to help earn money and look after them when they get old.

The answer to these cultural and socio-economic problems could possibly lie in the Fairtrade model. Start paying a bit more for our clothes and instead of the money going to the multi-nationals the locals could get a fair wage and afford for their kids to go to school. Despite fair trade coffee and sugar being available on most supermarket shelves I have yet to see a Fairtrade clothing shop.

Its easy to see why Primark, with their emphaiss on low prices, take the lion's share of abuse on the topic of fair trade but take a second to look at what you are wearing today. I just did. Topman jeans made in India. North Face fleece made in Indonesia. Berghaus jacket made in Thailand. Onisuka Tiger/Asics made in China. Its not just the cheap brands that contract out developing nations. Everyone is at it.

Personally I feel it is unjust to pin all the blame on the West for outsourcing its manufacturing processes.  Local governments shoulder some of the responsibility for their absence of regulation and paucity of labour law that effectively puts the interests of the manufacturers above that of their citizens. Comprehensive, well policed employment regulations what stop abuses fairly quickly, but they would drive up production costs and in turn that would drive business elsewhere.

Banning products from countries with questionable safety records is not the answer as this would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water? If things are this bad now what kind of conditions would Bangladesh's workers would have to endure if Primark et al pulled out?

I'm not naive. I look for a bargain like the best of them. The reality is that in these credit crunching times there is even less inclination for the West to change the status quo and for the likes of you or I to start paying more for our clothes, shoes or electronics. If Primark step out there a long line of retailers waiting and willing to fill the void.

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