When Rana Plaza collapsed, claiming the lives of 1129 Bangladeshi garment workers in 2013, it was impossible for the world to ignore that there was something drastically wrong with the fashion industry. Spurred on by the tragedy, which would not only be recognised as the deadliest garment factory accident in history but also the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history, Baptist World Aid Australia embarked on its first Australian Fashion Report and Ethical Fashion Guide – an endeavour aiming to mitigate against the risk of forced labour, child labour and exploitation in garment-supply chains.
Four years on with the fourth report being published, for the first time thanks to Tearfund, now New Zealand fashionistas can shop ethically using its own version of the guide. “We talked about a partnership two years ago and came in at the end of the last report,” says education advocacy manager Murray Sheard. This year’s report includes 12 New Zealand owned-and-operated companies.
THE STATE OF AFFAIRS
After China, India is the second most common country for garment production and is globally the biggest producer of cotton. According to the report, modern-day slavery is alive in India. The Global Slavery Index comestimates over 45 million people are in slavery. More than 18 million of them are captive in India. But it’s one thing to read about the problems and another to actually see them, says Sheard who recently returned from a trip to the Tamil Nadu region in South India, an area that accounts for at least 80 per cent of all India’s garment exports. “I was so gutted. It really is mill after mill and factory after factory,” he recalls. While there Sheard managed to interview a number of women working at the mills, many have been lured to the industry under false pretences. “There’s a scheme called sumangali going on,” he explains. Even though dowry is illegal in India, it remains commonplace; as a result garment manufacturing companies entice adolescent girls and their families into a three-year contract which they promise will end in a lump-sum payout. “Women end up with these false promises. They end up working 12- to 16-hour days; we’re talking about girls who should be at school,” he says. The conditions within the factories are dire: there might be one toilet between 75 workers; workers are entitled to very little leave – if they take extra they’re often docked two days of pay.
Mass faintings due to the heat are common, and inhaling fibres from fabric can lead to health problems. “These girls go to the factory with the promise of marriage but unfortunately a lot of them come away with fertility problems. It’s a real betrayal,” he says. Poor wages remain a huge problem in the garment industry, and Sheard says many workers are tricked out of the money they get promised. “They’re often kept on apprenticeship schemes so factories don’t have to pay them properly or give them legal rights,” he says. It’s also not uncommon for women in India to be tricked out of their sum when their contract ends. “They call it soft trafficking; they haven’t been physically kidnapped but they don’t have any other option.”
While Sheard admits that changing the mindset of those that operate garment factories locally is always going to be a hurdle – a number of problems stem from India’s caste system – he believes demands for faster fashion from this side of the world are creating bigger issues afar. “There’s a sombre joke in India where garments are dyed: you can tell what colour is going to be in fashion in Paris by looking at the colour of the river.” And it’s not just colour trends that come with a price: once upon a time, brands released a mere two seasons a year – these days some industry giants are pushing out over 50 collections a year. Consumer-driven demand for more and more fashion has put pressure on every stage of the supply chain. “Companies are telling factories they need to produce more for cheaper. It drives the production facilities to find cheaper workers that they can work for longer hours.” Over the past few years, the cost to produce a T-shirt, for example, has dropped from $2 to $1.50. “That’s the cost for everything before it leaves the factory: the growing, the spinning, producing the fabric, dying it, cutting it, trimming it,” Sheard explains.
It’s no surprise that once the garments leave the factories, the price skyrockets. According to Labour Behind the Label – a campaign working to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry – garment workers are lucky to receive one to three per cent of the retail price of the garment. “If companies invest a little bit extra at the production end, it can make such a big difference without having a big impact on our wallets,” Sheard says. However, big doesn’t always mean bad – as 2017’s report proves. Inditex, parent company to Zara, received an A grade and rated particularly high on tracing and monitoring suppliers. In another initiative, a number of companies – including Inditex, Kmart, Asos, H&M and Topshop – have joined forces to forge ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation): a collaborative approach to improving wages for garment workers. “Fast fashion doesn’t have to create all these problems,” says Sheard. Companies such as Inditex tend to invest in longer-term contracts with suppliers so suppliers know there is steady work coming their way. “Other companies use brokers and end up jumping from factory to factory: there’s no security.”
VOTING WITH YOUR WALLET
Boycotting brands may initially seem like a wise approach to take but both Sheard and Tearfund project manager Claire Hart say it’s not the aim of the report, nor is it the way forward for the fashion industry. Hart says there’s a saying in India that goes: the only thing worse than a job in a sweatshop is not having a job in a sweatshop. “The garment industry is providing jobs for people in developing countries and is promoting economic growth,” Hart explains. The ready-made garment industry employs around five million workers in Bangladesh. In Cambodia, the garment industry accounts for roughly 80 per cent of the country’s total export revenue. “We don’t want to close these factories down,” says Sheard. “They are the best way for people to be pulled out of poverty.” But this only occurs if the conditions are right. “It’s not our message to boycott; we’re pushing for more companies to take accountability,” he says.
The leaps and bounds a handful of local and Australian companies have made since the previous report was published indicates that real change is already happening in the industry. “If you look at the difference between 2016 and 2017, 50 per cent of companies involved have improved their grades, and transparency has really improved too,” says Hart. Karen Walker came under fire when last year’s results were made public, but this year the homegrown label has been commended as one of the most improved companies with an overall grade of B+. Part of the process of the report, explains Hart, is having the research team sit down with participating companies and advising them on how they can improve. “There’s a real collaboration. We sat down with the Karen Walker team late last year to discuss their plans, and gave them advice on how they could improve their transparency and sourcing,” Hart says. She’s also eager to commend Kathmandu – which has managed to trace up to 80 per cent of their cotton suppliers – and Macpac, one of the report’s most improved companies. “It’s really great to see the upward trajectory the industry is on.” By 2018, Sheard hopes to see more companies moving up in the report. “We want more of them to engage. There were a few New Zealand brands that decided not to, but it gives them a platform to look at their supply chain in an ethical way,” he says. “If a company can tell a positive story about where they’re going, it’s good for them and it’s great for their consumer.”
Words by Nicole Saunders