The Made in Italy label is a source of pride for every Italian. You see, Italians have fashion in their blood and style in their DNA. It's not surprising that more than 4 million of them tuned in to watch the RAI3 documentary Schiavi del Lusso, or Slaves of Luxury, on Sunday evening which revealed a slimy world of underpaid immigrant labour, huge price mark-ups, and what was portrayed to be undue influence from American heavyweights like Anna Wintour.
This is not the first time that the industry has come under attack in recent months. The Dana Thomas book De-Luxe and the WWF Deeper Luxury report have called into question the ethical and environmental practices of major luxury companies. While the first two have only seemed to generate a discussion within the luxury industry itself, RAI 3's televised approach seems to have struck a real chord with end consumers. Since the television show was aired on Sunday, many Italians have been up in arms and have stormed the RAI 3 website with comments of indignation and Italian bloggers have been propagating the dicussion.
The most damning of the revelations in the documentary had to do with Italian manufacturing by major brands such as Prada, Ferragamo, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace. Behind these huge names are thousands of people who work as subcontractors in small manufacturing facilities dotted around the country. (In the same way that parts of Italy are known for certain types of food, other parts are also known for specialised cottage industries in various luxury manufacturing disciplines. San Maoro Pascoli, Riviera del Brenta, and Fermo/Macerata are known for shoes, Prato is known for knits, etc.)
With increasing pressure to compete with Asia on cost, some of these independents have been cutting corners, buckling under the pressure of the major brands who want to be able to keep some of their specialised manufacturing at home, but only at the right price. In response, some of the small companies started importing illegal Chinese labour in order to reduce costs.
Most of the named brands refused to respond to RAI 3's questions, except Prada, which deserves some credit for joining the debate, but which still needs to help solve the problem as opposed to making excuses. Prada's Tomaso Galli told Rai:
We have two different kinds of inspectors, those who check quality and those who control the working conditions of the suppliers. But we're not the police and our inspectors do not have an unlimited access to all areas and documents. Regrettably, situations like the one described in the show, which we agree are unacceptable, may occasionally occur notwithstanding our controls, but they are odd and the show did not bother to mention what the overwhelming reality is.
Fair enough. The tele-journalist could have told a more balanced story, but if Prada and others agree that these situations are unacceptable, then they must take responsibility for them and ensure that they don't happen. If they are going to put their name on the product, they must be able to stand by it.
While some companies like Brunello Cuccinelli have had success with self-imposed ethical codes, others like Prada have clearly failed. The best response instead would be to define clear and enforcable industry standards, to which all the major players sign up and which are transparent to consumers. An external organisation made up of representatives from these companies could then take responsibility for policing the codes and upholding every company and manufacturing facility, large or small, to the same standards. This should be as much a part of saving Made in Italy as many of the other initiatives being undertaken by Italian Institute for Foreign Trade.