OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — The miserable conditions endured by many of the people who make our clothes are no secret — Charles Dickens mined the subject some 170 years ago. So why does the fashion industry continue to turn a blind eye to unsafe factories, meagre wages, sexual exploitation and other abuses that are still omnipresent in the garment industry today?
That question was repeatedly raised by participants in a salon discussion at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, held at the end of November. The salon centred on "how to protect the people who make our clothes?" was one of five such gatherings designed to spark discussion and debate about some of the most important issues facing the industry today. The wide-ranging conversation, held under the Chatham House Rule ensuring anonymity, allowed participants to be honest and voice their disagreements.
“Why is the world so change-resistant? It’s not as if we don’t understand the scale of the problem or the depth of the cruelty that can be done to people,” one salon participant said. “Geographic distance is being used to excuse people’s complicity. It’s something amounting to... crimes against humanity, when people know full well what is going on.”
The collapse of the factory complex at Rana Plaza that killed over 1,100 workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 was the deadliest garment industry disaster in history. The international outcry that followed resulted in some real changes to how the fashion supply chain operates: over 200 brands signed an accord to prevent the manufacturing of clothes in unsafe conditions in Bangladesh, and many of the worst factories were shut down.
But momentum on other fronts quickly stalled. For instance, already-low worker wages have failed to keep up with inflation in Bangladesh, while factory owners and the government have teamed up to thwart the formation of unions. Activists and ordinary workers have been intimidated, beaten and even killed for advocating basic rights; just last week, at least 5,000 workers lost their jobs following widespread strikes and demonstrations demanding higher pay. The accord itself hangs in the balance: a Bangladeshi court has ordered the country’s government to take over enforcement from foreign monitors, a step advocates say will defang the programme.
And that’s just in Bangladesh; salon participants identified persistent abuses from one end of the supply chain to the other, from the use of forced labour to harvest cotton to low wages and long hours for workers in Western stores and warehouses.
The salon participants identified a few key drivers behind the persistence of sub-standard conditions for millions of workers in the fashion supply chain. They knocked each one down as an excuse for inaction.
When pressed, Western brands often claim they are ignorant of abuses occurring in their supply chains. Often, these brands apply strict zero-tolerance policies to their immediate suppliers, but fail to monitor who those suppliers then hire to perform the work. One participant recalled after the Rana Plaza disaster sitting with board members of an international apparel brand that prided itself on being a global leader in transparency, only for those same executives to realise days later that some of their clothes were, in fact, made in the factory that collapsed.
Another participant noted ignorance wouldn’t fly as an excuse in any other part of their business, adding that since worker safety is seen as purely a cost rather than a source of profits, it’s often viewed as a low priority. The participant cited the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark’s 2018 survey, which found two thirds of the international apparel brands and retailers scored a 30 or less (on a scale of 100) for their approach to worker conditions and human rights. The survey found companies scored best on their response to serious allegations and worst on preventative measures such as internal policies, governance and due diligence.
One participant said luxury brands are bringing more production in-house, allowing them to exert greater control over worker conditions. With luxury brands charging astronomical prices and raking in profits, there are fewer excuses for these companies to fail to protect basic human rights, another person noted.
“I have no sympathy for luxury products not to be compliant,” they said. “With the margins in luxury, you would think you can afford to do that.”
Often consumers are blamed for not caring about how the people who make their clothes are treated — and that by purchasing $1.50 T-shirts they are creating a market incentive to exploit workers in the developing world.
Consumer demand for cheaper clothes and the rise of fast fashion are also contributing to worker exploitation. One study last year found that the quickening pace of clothing production and falling apparel prices have contributed to a 6.5 percent drop in real wages in Bangladesh since the end of 2013.
“If we look at consumer research we see that everybody says the right thing,” one participant said. “But if you look at their behaviour, at the till, you see differently.”
That argument drew some of the sharpest critiques from salon participants.
“At the heart of this industry is marketing, creating my longing for that garment,” one person said. “Don’t tell me you can’t create a longing for a garment that doesn’t involve the killing of people. This is not acceptable.”
Salon participants had a few ideas about how to shake consumers and the industry out of their indifference.
First, brands need to be held responsible for problems in their supply chains. The accord signed after the Rana Plaza disaster showed even Bangladesh’s sprawling network of factories could be policed with the right incentives, salon participants said. The agreement made brands legally liable for worker safety, created a mechanism to shut down factories that failed to address safety issues, and formalised labour representatives’ role in ensuring adequate conditions. However, Bangladesh’s government is attempting to undermine key elements, including international monitoring on factory floors, and not all brands have signed on to a successor agreement after the original expired last year.
With consumers, all agreed that education was key. Society is built around unexamined consumption, which allows disposable fashion to flourish — why children might own five winter coats today when their grandparents had one is never asked, one person said.
Consumers aren’t taught the right questions to ask even if they want to shop ethically. Most people might know by now that a $1.50 T-shirt was likely made in less than ideal conditions, but do they know to give a $30 T-shirt the same scrutiny? Do they know to question the environmental toll of their consumption habits?
“At school it’s not central — people are just not interested,” one participant said. “Where is the chapter on this? It’s not there. The parents have to do this, society has to do this, we all have a responsibility.”
Other solutions may come with time. Participants said they were hopeful about Gen Z, as younger consumers appear to be more concerned than previous generations with the origins of the clothes they buy. Members of Gen Z are also more likely to incorporate the brands they wear into their identity, and so they theoretically would care more about what those companies are doing behind the scenes.
They also grew up in the digital age, with bad actors exposed instantly online and information about bad brands disseminated globally.
“Things are moving and changing at a pace we’ve never seen before,” one participant said. Five years from now, they said, "if we sit around same table," it will be like "a given” that human rights must be factored into the fashion supply chain in a meaningful way.
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering in November, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.