By Rhian Harris 
The recent news that an item of children’s clothing had been produced for the high-street clothing store Gap using forced child labour may be appalling, but does not come as a shock to most. Consumers have become increasingly aware of – and concerned about – the origins of the clothes they buy. It was in the 1990s that trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) first began to highlight the plight of factory workers in the developing world producing clothes for leading North American and European companies.

Like most other students living on a limited budget, I have often found myself heading to the perpetually-busy Primark in the Westgate centre, picking up tops for as little as one pound or a pair of shoes for just five pounds. Yet as I join the lengthy queue to pay, I have increasingly found myself pondering the ethics of my decision to patronise suhc budget retailers. The media often report appalling working conditions in the developing world clothing factories of big companies, and budget retailers have been laid with much of the blame. As I queued, however, I noticed a sign declaring Primark’s membership of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI): how, therefore, could working conditions be as bad as reported?

The Ethical Trading Initiative is a scheme involving trade unions, companies and not-for-profit organisations, aimed at encouraging companies to accept more responsibility for working conditions in their supply chains. Primark joined comparatively recently, in 2006, and published its Ethical Trading Strategy (ETS) earlier this year. It states unequivocally: “Primark is determined that our focus on providing value & quality for consumers should not be at the expense of people in our supply chain”. Before becoming a member of the ETI, Primark scored just 3.5 out of 20 in a review of the ethical standards of companies by ‘New Consumer’ magazine, although the publication later admitted that its results were unfair as Primark is part of a bigger company.

A flaw in the Ethical Trading Initiative is that its members are allowed to formulate their own Ethical Trading Strategy and there is no external body to decide whether they are fulfilling their own objectives. Membership of the ETI is not proof that the clothes sold in stores have been produced ethically. Clothing companies are becoming increasingly keen to at least ‘appear’ morally sound. This is because many institutional investors now have Socially Responsible Investment, discouraging investment in companies which cannot demonstrate appropriate working conditions. It would be naïve, however, to imagine that companies have suddenly ‘grown a heart’. Sales of ethically-traded products (such as those bearing the ‘fair trade’ logo), have increased by 40% over 2006 worldwide as the social conscience of consumers has developed.

The nature of the clothing industry has changed dramatically over the last decade. New clothing ranges used to hit the shelves just twice a year, whereas now stock is updated constantly, with new collections out every few weeks. The buzz in clothing retail is currently about ‘fast fashion’, where clothes seen on the catwalk are copied by high-street companies to have versions in their shops in just a few weeks; for example the George at Asda ‘Fast Fashion’ range. It is now fashionable to ‘boast’ that a certain item of clothing was ‘only a fiver from Primark/ Matalan/ Tesco’, rather than pretending that your Primark sweater is actually a Prada creation. Clothes have become so cheap now (women’s clothing prices have decreased by one-third in ten years) that consumers can afford to buy clothes much more frequently to keep up with the rapidly-changing fashions. Each item is often worn only a few times before being discarded. A quarter of clothes bought in the UK are from Primark, Matalan, Asda or Tesco, but only 10% of our clothing budget is spent there. Fast fashion and our excessive consumption of cheap clothes may delight the fickle industry, but the way it has been made possible is exceptionally fast production lines in clothing factories, which can have damaging consequences for workers.

‘Just-in-time’ production is now commonplace, where each part of a garment is produced only on demand, allowing strict deadlines to be met and improving efficiency, speed and cutting wastage costs. Companies now place smaller orders, more often. This reduces costs for clothing companies because they can react to consumer demand much more quickly and accurately. For example: if an item of clothing originally produced in a small quantity proves very popular, it can later be produced in larger quantities without losses if the item proves unpopular. This system, however, puts factory workers under great stress: they have to be very flexible, as they never know when work is coming in or how much work there will be. The term ‘feast or famine’ describes how there will be little work for a long duration and then a sudden huge demand, causing workers to suddenly have to put in huge amounts of overtime, often working more than 80 hours a week though rarely paid extra. Because work is not regular, workers also tend to be employed on a temporary basis, so they do not have the stability of a regular wage.

Media reports have made much of the often extremely low wages of factory workers, even when compared to other local wages. For example, Arcadia (the company owned by billionaire Sir Philip Green that includes Topshop/ Topman, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge) was recently reported as using factories where workers were paid just 22-40p per hour, about 40% less than the local average. ‘Labour Behind the Label’ campaigns for factory workers to receive a ‘living wage’ (the minimum required to cover basic needs, plus a small amount extra); a criterion definitely not met by the reported Arcadia wage. It was also reported that in at least one factory, workers were paid different wages according to their nationality, with Bangladeshi workers paid a lot less than those from Sri Lanka. Part of the problem is that the Arcadia group is not a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative. It has its own code of conduct, but this is of course self-regulated, if at all. Jane Shepherdson, who resigned as brand director of Topshop last year, was reported as saying that consumers cannot keep buying cheap clothes and “not ask where they come from”.

Clothing companies use their power over suppliers to force them to compete with each other. Primark, for example, only ever stays with suppliers for a short period, moving on when it finds a more economical alternative. Factories in the developing world often lack expertise or technology to achieve these cuts in cost/time of production, so instead they force their workers to work ever-longer hours for ever less money. International consultants Acona have said that “there are profound and complex connections between the normal commercial buying practice of a company, and its suppliers’ ability to meet required ethical standards.” In other words, if clothing companies continue to squeeze factories in this way, deterioration in workers’ conditions and rights is inevitable.

So what can we, as consumers, do to improve worker conditions? Well, foremost, there has been a rapid increase in the number of guaranteed fair trade and organic clothing companies in recent years. ‘People Tree’ was the first company in its field, a clothing company that works with small-scale production groups in other continents, using local skills such as embroidery and supporting local community projects, to produce clothing ethically and in an environmentally-responsible manner. Safia Minney, the founder of People Tree, boldly stated that company directors should be held “criminally liable for their overseas operations in the developing world.”
Leading high-street companies have begun to realise that there is a growing market for these ethically-produced clothes. Topshop recently launched a range of clothes made in conjunction with People Tree. M&S has also recently made its main range of basic women’s t-shirts fair-trade. Change is happening but it is minor, slow and rarely for the right reasons.

What can a concerned student do to help? The logical solution to this issue is a composite one. Consumers drive supply and need to take a stand, boycotting companies found to be violating workers’ rights. We need to support companies that adhere to fair trade regulations, and pressure groups such as ‘Labour Behind the Label’ in their attempts to change government legislation. Many consumers are still not aware of the awful working conditions their clothes are made in. So the issue needs to stay in the media, to boost demand for, and hence supply of ‘ethical products’. With some luck this article will encourage you to consider the true cost of ‘cheap’ clothes.