Category Archives: Ethical business
Last month’s factory collapse in Bangladesh revealed horrible truths about the clothes industry. There has never been a better time to choose your shopping carefully
On 24 April when the Rana Plaza factory complex on the outskirts of Dhaka fell down like a house of cards killing 1,127 workers, the fashion myth that we can have whatever we want, at speed, in bulk and at unprecedentedly “affordable” prices collapsed too.
In case you have been on the moon, it’s worth a recap on the consumer style phenomenon known as fast fashion. A business model that threw out the fashion industry bible, it turned six-month lead times into days and got us hooked on 30-50 seasons a year (the quaint autumn/winter and spring/summer showings of fashion weeks are now as culturally relevant as Gregorian plainsong). Allied to globalisation and free-market economics, fast fashion brands and retailers have outsourced production to low-waged economies, predominantly in Asia.
Fast fashion created its own set of moguls from Sir Philip Green of Arcadia to Amancio Ortega of Inditex and it has set a tone. Reformers (and there are thousands of us campaigning for the fashion industry we love to clean up its act) have consistently pointed out the flaws in this business model.
That the bulk of the risk has been shouldered by some of the lowest paid workers in the world has been made plain in the past three weeks. What happened in Dhaka last month was shocking, but also predictable. For the past decade, the world’s most famous brands have been flirting with disaster. Every month brings a fresh tragedy to the world’s garment districts, usually through a factory fire or collapse. As I contacted brands for this piece, a factory collapsed in Cambodia.
But this week campaigners for garment workers’ rights have brokered a significant breakthrough. At the time of going to press 31, brands had signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. The accord will sound dry to many fashion lovers. It is a contract between brands, retailers and trade unions in Bangladesh. It is a legally binding, five‑year pact that makes independent safety inspections of 1,000 factories and public reporting on them mandatory. It is also the first-ever multibuyer collective agreement. This is a historic moment for the campaign to clean up fashion.
But what should our next move be as consumers? In my dreams we all turn to those ethical brands that prioritise ethics and sustainability. But the reality of the postbag (even at the Guardian) is rather different. In the wake of this crisis, most concerned readers want to know: which are the ethical shops on the high street? Sam Maher, of Labour Behind the Label, says “Why not reward those companies for making a step? Choose the brand that’s signed over the one that has not.”
Every brand can direct you to pages of sustainability reports of varying sophistication and glossiness. One expert tells me that you need a degree in ethical sourcing to make informed decisions, and he’s not exaggerating by much. Since most of us don’t have these credentials, but want to do what we can, I have sought the views of NGOs and industry analysts and, with their input, created the short reports below.
These take their cue from recent actions and responses, and a good report is not a clean bill of health. Nor is it a general sustainability ranking: no marks for biodegradable bags, or displacing landfill waste through a textile recycling scheme. Really what we want to know, right now, is what will prevent another disaster such as Rana Plaza.
So we’re looking for vital signs. These include a promise to sign the new Bangladesh fire and safety agreement, and evidence of willingness to work towards a living wage in countries where legal minimum wages are set too low to ensure a decent standard of living. Also, brands that have buying offices and people on the ground are likely to be more committed. When things go wrong, NGOs look for fast response times in order to help the victims.
In addition, NGOs agree that the right to join a union and collective bargaining make a real difference. Finally, short-term contracts and orders cause a lack of stability, and leave factory owners without an incentive to reform the working environment.
This list is not exhaustive. Some smaller brands I approached were not able to answer my questions. But below, I offer you my estimation of some of the key players.
Praise has been heaped on H&M for being the first to sign the legally binding Bangladesh Safety Accord. Once H&M led the way as the biggest player in Bangladesh, it became obvious other major brands would follow. H&M appears to have shown willingness to be more transparent and released a partial list of its suppliers. Campaigners want to see equally decisive action on paying a living wage to workers.
It is widely acknowledged that Topshop has many good people with an appetite for ethical change; there have been some interesting ethical design collections from Topshop.
However, the analysts I spoke to couldn’t separate Topshop from parent company Arcadia. Arcadia had not signed the Bangladesh accord at the time of going to press, and never joined the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) – considered the first step to cleaning up the supply chain.
Insiders suggest Inditex is a mixed bag. It scores strongly for having compensated the victims of the Spectrum factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2005, and is known for having good relationships with trade unions, particularly in Europe. However, it isn’t clear what proportion of its clothes are manufactured in Europe. Reformers argue that Inditex has a charge to answer in that it was one of the key drivers of the new, faster fashion and the short-termism that is often bad news for workers.
Has a plan (“Plan A” in fact) and is praised by reformers for pushing forward without waiting for crises. It is known for stable, long-term relationships with supplier factories.
M&S is the only major retailer to have committed to ensuring its suppliers are able to pay workers a living wage in the least-developed countries, starting with Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka by 2015. But campaigners said they don’t yet know what M&S considers a living wage to be. They also want to see less emphasis on making garment workers more productive in return for better wages, and more emphasis just on better wages. M&S has signed the Bangladesh accord.
If we had undertaken this exercise a few years ago, Gap would have been top of the class. After being linked to a number of sourcing scandals, including so-called sweatshop production, Gap became something of an ethical trailblazer.
Campaigners complain Gap has run out of steam and its recent work on unravelling the supply chain is lacklustre.
It now attracts criticism for an over-reliance on its own audits and setting too much store by management systems. Gap has not signed the Bangladesh accord but has committed to new safety protocols of its own.
George at Asda (Walmart)
Walmart, owner of Asda, has worked on raising wages for garment workers, particularly after being singled out by campaign groups such as War on Want. This work tended to focus on increasing productivity.
Campaigners suggest Walmart is ideologically opposed to unions. Walmart has not signed the Bangladesh agreement, but will conduct its own inspections of suppliers.
Its super-cheap prices and big-volume orders mean Primark is blamed for making fashion disposable and everything else. It was the first brand to step forward and acknowledge production in Rana Plaza. The company is to be praised for getting a team out to Dhaka fast, coming up with a credible compensation scheme, and working with unions and agencies to provide food aid.
But there is little argument that Primark has many questions to answer and came late to the discussion on cleaning up fashion. But it has worked consistently with the ETI and was the first British brand to sign up to the new accord.
Another Spanish powerhouse of fast fashion, Mango had also placed orders with the Rana Plaza factory. Mango said these were samples, but must still take responsibility. Mango redeems some points, as it has signed the accord.
• Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? is published by Fourth Estate. Buy it for £10.39 at guardianbookshop.co.uk
I was in the Rana Plaza garment factory when it collapsed
My name is Nazma Akhtar. I’m 23. When I was 19 I left my village and made my way to Dhaka to work in a garment factory.
I came to Dhaka with my parents and two younger sisters. We had to leave because the river Dhaleshwari took most of our rice fields and my father couldn’t grow enough rice to get us through the year.
I started work at the Ananta fashions garment factory in Savar about 15 miles north of Dhaka. My starting pay was 2,500 taka (£ 20). My father worked as a night guard at another factory. Together we rented a small, two-room house in Savar bazaar, down the road from the factory.
I had to work more than 10 hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes, we had to work on our days off, if there was an important shipment to be made.
I was new and it took me a while to get to know how the circular knitting machines worked. The supervisors drove us hard. We were given targets for the day and if we hadn’t completed our quota, we would not be allowed to rise from our benches.
There was a line supervisor named Samad who used to abuse me when I made a mistake. He threatened to dock pay if I missed a stitch. Once I had diarrhoea and had to go to the toilet several times. He threatened to slap me.
In December 2012, I joined the Phantom Tac garment factory on the fourth floor of the Rana Plaza building in Savar. There my wages improved. I was good at my job, and nimble with my fingers and feet. I worked long hours, but enjoyed the company of all the other girls who worked at the factory. We were like sisters.
I always liked the look and smell of finished clothes. I didn’t know which companies we were producing for, but I knew the clothes I sewed would be sold in fancy shops in Europe and America.
On 23 April, we were working as usual when the factory manager asked us to come out. He said an engineer would inspect the building and we were being sent home. We didn’t know at the time that a crack had developed in the wall of the building. But when I went to work the next morning, everyone was talking about it.
I went to our floor supervisor and asked him for a day off, but he refused and started yelling at me. We had to keep working, he told me. If we missed our deadline, the buyer would cancel the order and we would have to go hungry, he said. Then, Sohel Rana, the owner of the building turned up. Rana’s men shouted that all the workers should go inside and start working. Otherwise, we would be beaten with sticks, they said.
We went inside and sat down at our benches. The whole floor was silent. We were filled with a strange fear.
I sewed about five T-shirts, then the power went out. I heard the generators start up with a roar and suddenly the whole building started to shake. Plaster fell from the ceiling. People started screaming.
We ran for the exit. But before I could reach the stairs, the floor collapsed under me. I fell and fell. I lost consciousness.
When I came to, I was in hospital. I heard that fire service rescue workers had pulled me out after eight hours. My right leg is broken.
Many of my friends and co-workers are dead.
• Nazma Akhtar was interviewed by Syed Zain Al-Mahmood