If I go to any fashion brand’s website, I can find a section which justifies their manufacturing ethics and supply chain. They will bombard you with information about how they check the health and safety of their factories, carry out inspections, that their pay grades are in keeping with international law and that they are doing everything they can to change the way clothing is manufactured abroad.
But do you believe it? And more importantly, do you care?
Those of us with an interest in the subject know that supply chains aren’t always that honest or that obvious. The majority of us would agree that some fashion brands deny using unethical working practices in order to keep their shops full at customer acceptable prices whilst stocking thousands of new styles every week. Even more don’t implement enough checks to deal with practices which are known to be going on, such as regulated factories passing on work to smaller bad practice factories because of the pressure to achieve order fulfillment.
The problem is that there is nowhere you can ask the right questions should you wish to and no guarantee that the answers you get will be the truth. And why would you expect that anyway?
All along the line from factory to shop, brands are sweeping under the carpet how they get their stock and turning a blind eye to possible breaks in their ethical practices. After all it’s about turn around and profit margins in the Western World.
Tesco recently said that ‘all companies have slave labour in their supply chain‘. And whilst that might sound like a sweeping generalisation, it’s probably true of most big companies.
For instance, if you come to me and ask me what the lifecycle is of a dress in one of my collections I can tell you that I honestly don’t know the life history of the base fabric. I can tell you where I bought it (in the UK) and I can tell you where the person I bought it from got it – factories based in the East Midlands. But that’s it.
I can tell you that my finished product was made entirely by me, within the four walls of my studio in Manchester for zero wages. That’s because I only get paid when I sell the product. That is the risk of any home based manufacturing business. There is no one paying me per hour or buying in bulk, because there is noone else in my supply chain. I don’t stock in shops. You come to me if you want to buy something.
From TKMaxx’s ‘designer stock‘ which is actually own brand under a multitude of pseudonyms to the reality that Rana Plaza was not a one off event that will happen again, the supply chain is riddled with problems.
Even Handmade in Britain has issues. Earlier this year the University of Leicester wrote a damning report on the state of our UK factories. Now, Leicester’s factories are making clothes for some of our well known UK brands. I know this because some of the base fabrics I buy come from these factories and I have seen the final products in high street shops.
Made in Britain isn’t necessarily any better than Made In Bangladesh. It’s down to the labels to ensure their supply chain is honest right down the line. If someone wants to ignore the rules, they will. And it doesn’t matter if the product travels 50 miles or 3000 miles, it’s still possibly to deceive all the way down the line. And that is a very sad reality.
Fashion Revolution is going some way to address these issues and get companies to stand up and be counted, but with such a complicated worldwide supply chain is it even possible to know the lifecycle of your clothing bar the label in the back? And this is the problem with fast fashion, and relying on imports. You (and that includes the brands themselves) have no way of tracking the full story.
If you buy something in a chain and it says made in Cambodia on the label, what is that telling you? Does it tell you how much the labourer was paid? Does it tell you that the factory who should have made it outsourced it to another smaller factory which has no rules whatsoever. Does it tell you that the factory did this because of the unimaginable pressure put on them by brands in the West to get stock turned over fast for greedy fashion hungry customers – many of whom have no interest whatsoever in how that garment got there in the first place?
Of course the problem with fast fashion also lies with us as consumers. We live in a world where we want everything cheaper, whilst complaining we don’t get paid enough. We consider conditions in factories abroad without thinking about processes and whilst still buying products at unfathomably low prices.
We campaign against conditions in the export of live animals and slaughterhouses but we still want burger meals for a fiver. In the same way we want jeggings for £3 a pair but wouldn’t dream of making them ourselves under those conditions, or for that kind of pay.
If you want things to be better you have to pay more for your end product. If you don’t want to pay more, you will have to get used to the knowledge that they will be made in horrible conditions, using underhand practices in countries who don’t respect the lives of others and prey on the weak and vulnerable. And all for something you may wear just a few times.