Step into a changing room and try on that latest shirt. It suits your aesthetics. But does it fit your ethics?
You want to know how it was made, so you scan its bar code into the changing room wall and a webcam screen displays rows of exhausted workers sewing the next batch in a factory in Indonesia – or Bulgaria, Morocco or China. Will this ever happen? The technology is simple, but most retailers would rather focus your attention on the washing instructions.
Globalization has created employment for millions of people, especially women, in poor countries. They desperately need these jobs but often face appalling conditions. Their right to join trade unions is frequently violated, preventing workers from securing decent conditions.
Retailers claim to be stamping out so-called sweatshops but many are actually turning up the heat. Their demands for faster, cheaper and more flexible production undermine the very labor standards they claim to promote. Last minute orders create excessive overtime for workers forced to meet a deadline. Demands for cut-price deals translate into high-pressure production targets and low wages. Smaller orders placed just in time for shop display encourage factory managers to hire workers on short-term, insecure contracts.
Clothing companies say the problem starts with their customers, who are simply not willing to pay for better conditions. But if we customers do care, it is hard to show it. We lack the information needed to make ethical choices.
Many of Britain’s biggest retail names have joined the Ethical Trading Initiative, which brings together companies, trade unions and NGOs. One can see which retailers are on board and which are not. French Connection, Top Shop and Bhs, for example, have not yet joined. But the ETI is still a learning, not a rating, organization, so membership in no way means a perfect score.
A rating scheme may emerge in which clothing companies choosing to join agree to an independent audit in randomly selected factories every two years. Factory workers could rate their employment conditions and managers the company’s purchasing practices. The result would be an ethical score, printed on every price tag. Of course, only the more progressive companies would sign up but that would be a start in letting consumers know which ones they are.
In the absence of an ethical scorecard, some suggest boycotts. That is no solution. Garment workers would lose their jobs, making their families suffer. It is not obvious who to boycott or where to shop instead.
So what is the ethical thing to do? For a start, buy “fair trade” labelled products to let retailers know that you are aware, you care and are ready to pay for it. Most fair trade products are foods but some leading clothes brands plan to launch such lines this year.
Support online campaigns and mass actions, at the web links below. In March, Oxfam and allies will be launching a consumer-led campaign calling on leading brands to clean up their acts. Be part of it.
Do not underestimate the power of the personal letter. Write to the chief executives of your favorite brands and ask what they do to ensure decent labor standards throughout their supply chains.
Raise the issue on the shop floor: ask shop assistants if their company has a code of conduct on labor standards and ask to see a copy of it.
Pose the question as a shareholder, too. Any member of a pension scheme can ask fund managers which retailers they invest in and how they ensure those firms are not profiting at the expense of decent jobs for the people making its products.
Above all, don’t be apathetic. Ethical trade has come a long way in the past 10 years. Although we cannot yet vote with our wallets, we can at least demand the information we need so that one day we can. Keep trying on the clothes – but start asking the ethical questions, too.
#183 Kate Raworth is a policy adviser at Oxfam and author of Trading Away our Rights