Cross-Examination: Modern Slavery and Fast Fashion, a Match Made in Heaven?

By Haya Khan

The legend goes that for every $400 Gucci design, there will be a version of it available to you for the affordable price of $14.99.

As University students, struggling graduates, new parents, or people from any other walk of life, it is not easy to purchase from a higher-end price range that guarantee ethical production of clothes from their suppliers. Therefore we automatically turn to the most cost-effective fast fashion brands, such as Cotton On, Mirrou, Glassons, Dotti and Jay Jays. It is easier to spend less and dispose and repurchase than to invest in a higher cost of ethically produced clothing. Similarly, it’s easier to overlook the production process when the product costs more and the  brand is socially recognised.

The discounted price that hides behind these cheaper options or  these well-known brands  is one of ethics. This does not necessarily mean that all Kmart products are not made by child labour or that Gucci products will be produced entirely ethically, but it does pay to be aware of the production process of the clothes and footwear you are purchasing. When you purchase a product from Cotton On and it says ‘Made in Bangladesh’, were the workers paid a living wage? Did they have the appropriate rights that a worker in New Zealand would? Were they of the legal age to be working and not serving child labour? What were the health conditions of the factory?

These are questions that we often don’t consider when we see the ‘Buy one get one 50% off’ deal on our favorite $30 pair of shoes.

Tearfund delves has researched ethical clothing and has devised four factors by which to rate companies, these being: Worker empowerment, Policies, Auditing and Supplier Relationships and Traceability and Transparency. Their study covered 114 companies that represent 407 brands. The companies were graded from A+ to F. Iconic New Zealand brand ‘Farmers’ gained a F rating. The website describes the process of assessment based on the stages of the supply chain: raw materials (for example, cotton farms), inputs production (production of fabrics) and final stage production (suppliers who put the clothes together). The purpose of the report is to ensure that companies can say with confidence where items of clothing are being produced and whether or not the workers making their clothing have been exploited. It aims to create transparency. The Ethical Fashion Report wants companies to trace their supply chains and find out where their garments are being made and allow the public to have access to this information.[1]  The 99 page report can be found here.

In 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,100 workers and injuring 2600. The Rana Plaza collapse symbolises what the cost of unethical production entails. Despite large structural cracks in the building and shops on the lower floor closed, the garment factory owners ordered the workers to return or they would be not paid. The result being the collapse of the building. The deceased and injured were producing garments for high-end brands, not solely fast fashion. Although this matter was addressed and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety was signed in 2013 [2]to ensure appropriate fire and building safety, this does not resolve the issue of ethical clothing production and New Zealand brands being ignorant (or willfully blind) of the treatment of workers in their supply chains outside of Bangladesh.

As a result of this calamity and the anger directed towards fast fashion brands which tolerated or ignored such working conditions, Hennes and Maurtiz (“H&M”), one of the most popular fast fashion brands, agreed to publish a list of their supplier factories. The event brought to light the cost of supporting brands, such as Primark, that use supply chains such as Rana Plaza without appropriate health and safety systems or wages.[3] In a 2013 survey by Oxfam after the conflagration, 83% of Australians wanted clothing retailers to publish the location of their suppliers and provide independent checks of the working conditions.[4]

However, would people stop shopping at their favorite Kmart if it had been established that they had been selling goods obtained from a supply chain that does not have appropriate working conditions? Would people stop paying $4.90 for a singlet that they can use and dispose, if they knew that the children that made it were not being paid sufficiently?

Codes of conduct in supply chain factories are not as efficient as the consumer power that wields to control brands. What consumers want to buy is what the brands will sell, so if there is a blanket consensus of disapproval in relation unethical production standards, as found by the Tearfund report, brands will adapt to meet their consumers’ demands.[5]

This is proven by the example of the Cotton On Group which rose to an A rating in the 2017 Tearfund report because of its conscious effort to ensure its workers are empowered, working in safe environments and getting paid a living wage. This has correlated with a rise in their clothing prices but this has not been detrimental to their business. The Tearfund Fashion report says that, “Cotton On Group has demonstrated continuous improvement since the first edition of the report. It is now the best rated, large multinational headquartered in Australia. This year, Cotton On Group receives an A grade, with its progress driven by several factors.” [6]They now are committed to ensuring they have greater knowledge of their supply chain, including knowledge of up to 70% of its raw materials. For example, Cotton On’s cotton is now being sourced from the Better Cotton Initiative. The report commends Cotton On for investing in substantial resource in supplier training for transparency.

While Cotton On seeks to improve its ethics, fast fashion companies such as Fast Future Brands are still rated poorly with a D- on the Tearfund report. They fail most aspects of the factors that were investigated as they continue to profit from consumers in search of a bargain, blissfully unaware of the development process. ‘Fast Future Brands’ that own brands Mirrou, Valleygirl and TEMT isnot being pressured to alter their production standards or because they continue to make profits from consumers that are willing to be ignorant. Hence, the power of the consumer spending acts as a heavier check and balance system than the legal systems in place for ‘modern slavery’ in Australia and New Zealand. [7]

The United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 may be a push in the right direction. It requires companies with profits over US $53.8 million in sales and operations in the UK to publish statements on their website regarding the measures they are taking to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains and to protect the millions of workers at risk. Such legislation can nudge companies to eradicate slavery in their production process and is indubitably better than having no legislation, but by acting in ignorance consumers are also supporting the deleterious system.[8]

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/07/26/fast-fashion-is-a-disaster-for-women-and-the-environment/#13623d931fa4

The “transparency in supply chains” requirement that in the Modern Slavery Act 2015,[9] theoretically, should make companies police their own actions on which supply chains they utilise to produce their goods. However, even with legislation in place, consumer pressure for fast fashion at cost-effective prices is what maintains modern day slavery in supply chains. Surveys show that in the UK, only 7% of nearly 2000 consumers paid attention to the ethics of the supply chain. Their main concern was regarding the price and the quality. [10]

What Tearfund are aiming to do is to increase this pressure on brands to be conscious of their supply chains and to make it a factor for the consumer in judging the brand. A higher price tag does not guarantee ethical production. The Tearfund report aims to prevent a recurrence of the Rana Plaza conflagration.

The way a company allows its manufacturers to treat their workers reflects how employees in New Zealand will be treated. A company that prioritises the empowerment of all its workers in the chain of production and distribution will probably also comply with the Health and Safety standards set for New Zealand employees, for the employees in their overseas factories.

Tearfund seeks to hold businesses accountable to their rating in the same manner restaurants  are judged on their ratings. By allowing brands to profit and flourish without an ethical production system, we contribute to a culture of modern-day slavery that is not limited to third world countries where the production is outsourced.

As consumers, it is important to make informed choices. You might just pay a few cents more on your clothing, but it could mean the difference between an enslaved child or a healthy adult working a living wage.

_

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

[1] “Ethical Fashion Guide 2018” Tearfund https://www.tearfund.org.nz/EthicalFashion#ctl00_plcMain_ContentPlaceHolder_lt_ContentWebPartZone_TEARFund_ContentBlock_TwoColumns3_TEARFund_ContentBlock_TwoColumns3_RightColumn_zone_TEARFund_ContentAnchor_TheContentAnchor.

[2] “Rana Plaza: a Man-Made Disaster That Shook The World” (2013) Clean Clothes Campaign <https://cleanclothes.org/ua/2013/rana-plaza>.

[3] “Rana Plaza: a Man-Made Disaster”, above n 2.

[4] “Aussie shoppers want action from clothing retailers before more lives are lost” (24 June 2013) Oxfam Australia <https://www.oxfam.org.au/media/2013/06/aussie-shoppers-want-action-from-clothing-retailers-before-more-lives-are-lost/>.

[5] Nikas Egels-Zanden and Henrik Lindholm “Do codes of conduct improve workers’ rights in supply chains? A study of Fair Wear Foundation” 107 Journal of Cleaner Production 31-40 at 38. <https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/science/article/pii/S0959652614009196>.

[6] “Fashion Report 2018” (2018) Tearfund <https://www.tearfund.org.nz/getattachment/Get-Involved/Ethical-Fashion-Guide/FashionReport_2018_with-TF-Logo_FINAL_compressed.pdf.aspx>  at 12.

[7] “Fashion Report 2018”, above n 6, at 71-91.

[8] “Act vs Action – Legislation not enough to combat modern slavery” (2015) AOF http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/ps/i.do?&id=GALE|A463785363&v=2.1&u=learn&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&authCount=1.

[9] Section 54.

[10] “Act v Action”, above n 8.

Featured image: <https://qz.com/1083816/greenpeace-warns-against-the-waste-of-fast-fashion-advocates-true-materialism/>.