What do your clothes say about you?
People often speak of fashion as a form of expression, with clothing having the ability to communicate so much about our culture, beliefs, values and experiences. After the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh, which highlighted an industry ridden with exploitation, it is hard not to ask the question - what do your clothes really say about you?
Having recently left our work in the humanitarian sector, Nick and myself set off to launch Alice & Whittles. Our goal was to address poverty and inequity through the creation of transparent and ethical supply chains for fashion (which is what we did.)
We endeavoured into this project knowing that rapid changes in fashion dictate a severe form of just-in-time production - the consequences of which are well known – exploitative labour practices resulting in severe conditions for workers around the globe.
THE INFORMAL GARMENT SECTOR
We spent months in India learning the ins and outs of the garment sector. What we discovered along the way was just how many garment workers in the region fall within the ‘informal’ garment sector – a litany of unregistered commercial establishments made-up of reservoirs of migratory workers who travel to urban centers from less developed regions of the country in search of work. The majority of these workers are minorities and members of the Dalit (formerly “untouchable cast”).
Exploited for their cheap cost of labour and inability to unionize, these invisible members of the global supply chain exist in the murky territory of contracted and sub-contracted garment orders from domestic and international buyers alike.
In order to keep overheads low and minimize risk of loss associated with uncertain orders, factories commissioned on behalf of international buyers will further subcontract orders into this ‘informal’ sector, where workers exist completely beyond the reach of any labour laws, social security and and ethical industry standards.
The growth of the informal sector has burgeoned in recent years. While some workers have benefitted from the economic opportunities that the informal sector presents, many more are exploited for scant pay and subjected to harrowing working conditions. Most are bonded labourers, sometimes children, working 7 days a week, 13 hrs a day in dilapidated factories with no sanitation facilities. Many of these workers will fall prey to loss of vision and the mobility of their hands due to the fine detailing of the work.
Business’ acting in the region play a major role in establishing structures and practices that perpetuating poverty and exploitation. It is possible that major chains and retailers are unaware of how many workers from the informal sector are actually involved in fulfilling their orders, or may turn a blind eye to the working conditions of this segment of their workforce.
However, under the UN Guiding Principles, businesses of any size and operating in any region have an obligation to act responsibly and with respect for human rights. Their responsibility is to both avoid infringing on the human rights of others and to address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved. The principles necessitate proper due-diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address impact on human rights.
Turning a blind eye to blatant infringement of human rights, poverty, absence of legal safeguards or poor enforcement of such laws should never be exploited for corporate gain.
It is clear that the decisions of brands and retailers to seek low cost, unregulated environments in which to carry out production has contributed to a situation where workers lives are being placed at risk. The purchasing practices of brands, which are often characterized by short term, unstable relationships, constant price cutting and short lead times also contribute to a lack of investment in the safety conditions within factories and attempts to produce more than the capacity of the factory allows for – thus outsourcing to smaller units that fall in the informal sector.
WHAT CAN CONSUMERS DO?
How can we as consumers ensure that these practices do not continue to perpetuate:
Demand more from global brands: Transparency, Accountability, Respect and Remedy.
Most importantly as consumers we must place as much importance on the process as we do the end product. Support brands that make their supply chain transparent and take the efforts to treat the people behind their production with respect.