Top by new ethical fashion brand, sketch london.
Left-leaning newspapers have been running a series of articles ever since the Bangladesh garment factory collapsed. The death toll has now sadly passed 500, mostly women, but why are consumers and fashion brands being made to bear the majority of the guilty burden? That fingers have been pointed at some brands was inevitable and fashion is regularly targeted for being a poison of the world: the very sick and visible face of capitalism and greed. In Bangladesh and India the tragedy is being reported as a corrupt failure of building regulations not a story about Evil Fashion Brands.
The usual suspects of British ethical fashion have been carted out with the usual snippets of condemnation and hissing at the likes of Primark, GAP and so on. Will consumers care they ask? Can they afford to I ask? This could be a long article so please get a cuppa or a glass of wine. I promise you will learn a thing or two.
I speak as the designer for a British Ethical fashion brand that has a good reputation. Apart from fashion qualifications, however, I have a business background that allows me to see the world from a rose-tinted fashion dream and simultaneously the real world as it is where we have to pay for things with cash instead of bartered goods and services. I also speak as a person that spends half of my time in India, a country that competes in the garment industry with its neighbours (Bangladesh and China more than Pakistan). I will also convey the experience of some of my good friends in India that include (lefty-punch-bag) garment manufacturer/exporters.
Britain loves to shop. For some it is a hobby, for some a passion, for others it is a necessary evil. Britain is also barely clinging on to a healthy economy and a living wage is currently being campaigned for. If you happen to be on minimum wage, or one of those new zero hour contracts, are you to walk around in rags or clothing from charity shops, hand me downs or do you stitch your own from curtains? No, you will go to Primark and other local markets and brands touting cheap clothing in your affordable price range.
If you are on a decent wage with children are you also confined to rags or can you buy your children cheaper versions of fashionable and cute clothing splashed across fashion magazines and newspapers (including leftie ones)?
If you are a teenager or a student, also heavily marketed to by the media, are you only allowed to participate in fashion if you have wealthy parents? No, you will go to Topshop, Primark, Zara and so on to spend your allowance with the maximum stretch on cheap throw away fashion so that you too can be On Trend. We know what is on trend as the media gladly inform us what designers have decreed.
Even if you earn mega bucks, by enlarge we know that leggings are leggings are leggings. Even if you can afford a pair for £90 as opposed to £9.99 in H&M are you evil for buying the cheaper ones? Of course not!
Where there is a demand there is a supply, fashion is a business just like any other. Primark would be empty instead of open until 9 or 10pm almost every day if it was regarded a disgusting exploiter of people. People that buy from these brands are not evil that disregard the plight of workers from developing countries, are low-wage earners in Britain less exploited? I think it is only a matter of proportion.
Miuccia Prada was interviewed for a magazine recently and remarked that people balk at her company’s very expensive prices and criticise endlessly. She pointed out that this is the hypocrisy of people that go on about ethical fashion and that Prada pay their skilled employees great wages and so the price of garments must be high. From my experience of the ethical fashion industry in Britain, ethical fashion ambassadors and buyers want low prices but a good conscience. They want to feel like they are making a difference without following their conviction through and paying a higher price for a garment despite what they advocate. Even some celebrity flag bearers of ethical fashion do not want to pay for the dresses they borrow for events.
Because of successful campaigning in India and from outside pressure, there is a minimum wage in India and there are plenty regulations, fire safety and building controls. If you have a compliant factory like my friends do (this means complying with Western regulations that are audited regarding labour and work conditions) then you will struggle to find business and cover your overheads as you are priced out by even less developed countries like Bangladesh. The quest for making a profit is not a sin, most of us need to earn a living. As India becomes more developed and organised, the conundrum is that business from the west then moves east to Bangladesh as it is disorganised and without minimum wages or safety standards. Luckily for my friends growth has come from within India itself as younger generations assert their buying power.
The demand for fashion provides millions of jobs (from factory workers in Bangladesh to people working for retailers in Britain), fashion promotes innovation and entrepreneurship and yes the dirty P word – profit. The nasty, mean exporters are just ordinary people with families, not Disney villains that must be pelted with rotten tomatoes.
Cheap fashion exists and is here to stay because all of us buy it, we all love a bargain. Whether we only buy basics such as leggings, vests or tights or entire seasonal wardrobes, people that rage against the machine are hypocrites. Had the building not collapsed in Bangladesh, no one would have cared about the ethics and work practices inside it. The building did not collapse due to fashion brands and the demand for cheap fashion, it collapsed due to poor construction and generally accepted corruption. Garment workers are not slaves they go to work every day, like we do, in exchange for payment and garment workers are themselves consumers of cheap fashion.
After the tragedy Enemy No.1 Primark launched an initiative to raise funds for the victims. The company didn’t need to do that and I think the action is more than a token gesture to tick a Corporate Social Responsibility box. Rather than make consumers feel guilty if you care about these issues, I think governments need to be lobbied whether it is our own or Bangladesh’s for better working and living conditions in both countries.
I don’t deny that some factories exploit people but in my experience of India they are the exception and not the norm.