I was getting ready to (finally) post my wartime wardrobe challenge post for April, but I couldn’t not say anything about the Bangladesh factory collapse first. These are just some thoughts, not anything comprehensive, but I thought it was worth giving them their own post anyway.
Shopping to help workers?
When this story first broke, they interviewed someone from a pressure group (presumably Labour Behind the Label, though I can’t remember) and they said that they did not recommend people boycott Primark because that will put the garment workers out of a job, but rather than you write to them to complain and express your concern about labour standards. Equally, Lucy Siegle in the Observer quotes someone saying that people who are appalled at the death tool “should let the retailers know and threaten to take their money elsewhere”. But what if your money is already elsewhere? I have no intention of shopping at high street shops ever again if I can at all help it. Should I write to them anyway, pretending I do? I did sign the petition on change.org, but I’m not sure I would go as far as engaging with retailers I want to have no relationship with either way anyway.
I guess this is an interesting dilemma of trading off various aspects of ethics against each other. From a purely labour standard point of view, we should be buying as much fairtrade stuff as we can possibly afford, to help the fairtrade companies grow, and force other companies to follow suit to keep up. But that goes completely against the aim of reducing resource use and preventing environmental degradation. I have written about the tensions between all these things before, and I guess for me the sustainability issue comes out top. A non-essential purchase from a fairtrade company or a local one is obviously better than one from a fast fashion chain, but still the best thing for me is to not buy it at all.
We HAVE to stop buying and producing stuff, and we HAVE to find a way for people to earn a livelihood without endlessly chasing economic growth through the churning out of more stuff**, or the next generation will be completely screwed. It is for this reason that I am feeling pretty ambivalent about a lot of sustainable/ethical fashion blogs. It’s all very well saying ‘look at this new fairtrade/60% upcycled/handmade in Britain company and all their beautiful stuff!’, but ultimately it’s still sending the message that we can somehow shop our way out of this.
Primark vs everyone else, and price as an indicator of labour standards
It is worth noting how everyone pretty much focused on Primark, and Mango, whose labels were also found in the factory, have escaped relatively unscathed. I think I particularly noticed, because pretty much the only time in the last few years I’ve bought unnecessary stuff in a high street shop in the last few years was at Mango* and I feel pretty terrible about it now. But to be honest, no high street shop is safe, and the fact that labels weren’t found does not mean other companies were not using that factory or the many like it.
I think in a way Primark is the easy target, because they are so cheap and the posterchild of fast fashion, but I do find it a bit regrettable the way everyone is so focused on them. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve read people going “When I see a top for £5, I know that the people making it can’t have been compensated fairly”. And I guess that’s true, but equally a top costing £50, or £500 does not in any way whatsoever suggest that labour conditions were better. All it means is that company spends more on marketing, and maybe materials, and makes a larger profit. The factories will be the same. This is not a few bad apples, this is endemic. The only way you can know a company is compensating its workers fairly, and ensuring their health and safety is if they explicitly state they are doing so. You can be sure that any company that does do so will be shouting it from the rooftops. If they aren’t, chances are it’s because they’re doing nothing.
The role of governments
A lot of the outrage in the wake of the disaster has been aimed at the retail companies. And that makes sense, since they are the organisations we as Western consumers are most in touch with. They work for us, or they work to attract us anyway. However, that’s exactly it. Their job is to convince people to buy stuff, and if that means taking some steps towards better labour practices, and using more sustainable materials, they will do that to some extent.
But it’s not actually their job to look after their workers any more than is necessary to get on with the selling of stuff, whereas it IS governments’ job to protect their citizens. They are the ones with the power to introduce minimum standards, and then to actually go and enforce these standards. Voluntary codes can help, but ultimately it’s the law and the regulation that determines how companies act. I can’t remember my source for this now, but I remember reading something about H&M and their widely varying social standards between countries. They’re all Scandinavian social enlightenment in Denmark and Germany, but will treat their workers like crap in countries that allow them to get away with it. Being good in some places does not necessarily translate.
So I’m just wondering whether more energy should go into supporting the groups within Bangladesh that are lobbying the government, as well as the buying companies. This interesting article talking about the positive example of Vietnam discusses this a bit (via Jesse Anne O)
* a dress and a pair of trousers last summer. I also bought a couple of maternity things in H&M, but that was more neccessary, so I regret it less