#15 responsibility
Gisela Burckhardt

Better Brands, Better Production?

Ever since the tragedy of Rana Plaza, poor working conditions have increased in visibility. But do the huge labels really keep their fair production promises?

High-Class Labels, Cheap Fashion – what has happened since Rana Plaza?

People buy and buy. Day in, day out we consume and clothes and shoes top our shopping lists. In Germany every individual buys around 14 kilograms of clothing each year, which translates to around 23 pairs of jeans or 140 T-shirts per person. Consumption has quadrupled since 1980. Young people in particular seem to succumb to shopping frenzy when faced with cheap clothes and accessories. Shopping is a popular pastime. And why not – it costs us next to nothing. Workers in the textile factories are paying the price for us though – with starvation wages, unpaid overtime and all too often with their lives. Respect for the seamstress’ craft has all but disappeared.

… it seems only one message is really getting through: cheap clothes = cheap production.

For many years now, FEMNET has protested this system of fast fashion. The Rana Plaza catastrophe along with numerous documentaries, talk shows and reports on the topic has raised awareness among European consumers to the disastrous conditions textile workers are subjected to. But it seems only one message is really getting through: cheap clothes = cheap production.

Are the manufacturing conditions for expensive brand-name products really better though? Do the large, high-priced fashion labels comply with labour standards and pay living wages? No, unfortunately, they do not. The collections of expensive labels are often produced under the same hazardous conditions as the discount lines, as FEMNET and Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) partner organisations on the ground continue to report. My own research for my latest book: “Todschick. Edle Labels, billige Mode – unmenschlich produziert“ (Deadly chic. Classy labels, cheap fashion – inhumane production), confirmed these reports. With the help of the RISE NGO (Research Initiative for Social Equity Society), one of our partner organisations, I worked in Bangladesh exploring production conditions for suppliers to high-quality brands such as Hugo Boss and compared them to cheap brands like H&M. The Hugo Boss name stands for expensive premium quality luxury fashion, H&M for cheap trendy clothes. What is behind these firms’ sustainability claims?

Expensive brand names – the case of Hugo Boss

There are around 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh that employ a total of between 4 and 5 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women, and it was initially hard to find people who worked on Hugo Boss lines. RISE ultimately succeeded in locating two factories.

…many sewers did not even have the security of an employment contract and were subjected to constant verbal abuse from floor supervisors.

The workers employed there suffered the same poor working conditions as their counterparts elsewhere. At a Boss supplier in Chittagong, for example, many sewers did not even have the security of an employment contract and were subjected to constant verbal abuse from floor supervisors. They struggled to plan their own lives, since they could be forced to work overtime with no advanced notice at all. The factory itself was so run down that parts had been recommended for closure.

After the catastrophe at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013 that killed 1,134 people and injured over 1,500, some quite severely, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety was drafted. Currently around 200 primarily European companies have since signed it, though Hugo Boss is still not a member. US-American companies also drew up a less binding agreement that also targets inspecting factories along the supply chain for structural soundness and fire safety. The factory inspection reports are published on the internet, a first step towards transparency that gives NGOs and others involved insight into the conditions at these workplaces.

Cheap brands – the case of H&M

H&M advertises with claims of sustainable production and fair working conditions. Inspections have shown, though, that employees on their production lines still work in horrendous environments: In the 12 factories inspected, five of which produce for H&M, there were no written employment contracts. None had a freely elected workers’ council and maternity leave was not properly granted. RISE polled a total of 115 workers in these factories.

Three-quarters of all H&M employees are part-time, since it is cheaper to employ students for ten hours a week than to pay experienced workers.

Unlike Hugo Boss, H&M at least publishes its list of suppliers. The company claims it pays workers a “fair wage”. It fails to define what this really means though, only stating that seamstresses are allowed to negotiate their own wages – apparently on an individual basis without the support of unions or labour contracts. We need only look at how H&M operates in Germany, where it regularly targets workers’ councils, to understand the company’s attitude toward collective bargaining. This should come as no surprise: Their business model is based on a large number of hourly workers who often have to appeal to the courts to uphold their guaranteed rights. Three-quarters of all H&M employees are part-time, since it is cheaper to employ students for ten hours a week than to pay experienced workers. If H&M treats their employees so poorly in Germany, what must conditions be like for their suppliers in Bangladesh?

Sustainably in the fashion industry? Greenwashing vs. real change

H&M is not the only giant that has discovered the marketability of sustainability. But what is actually behind the claims made by all the different fashion companies?

…the sustainability claims of one third of the brands investigated completely lacked substance and were examples of greenwashing.

A 2014 report published by Rank a Brand assessed 368 brands on climate protection, environmental conservation and fair working conditions in production, and concluded that 63% of the brands evaluated offer information on the topic, an increase of 10% compared to 2011. Companies are reading the sign of the times. But the report also concluded that the sustainability claims of one third of the brands investigated completely lacked substance and were examples of greenwashing.
In the overall rankings, only ten of the 368 brands involved received the top rating of A. According to the report, Armed Angels, Bleed, Freitag, Hessnatur, Mud Jeans, Nudie Jeans, Pants to Poverty, Recolution, Greenality and Saint Basics were successful ecological fashion pioneers. Brands like H&M, Puma, Trigema and Jack Wolfskin were at least awarded a B, while Hugo Boss and the majority of most brands were assigned an E, the worst category. (Brands were only evaluated based on the information provided on their websites, no background investigation and certainly no research was involved.)

What needs to happen in future?

Instead of buying disposable fashion, we should buy less and more consciously.

More than two years following the tragic accident at Rana Plaza, public pressure is still high. The ongoing debate about protecting workers in the global clothing industry has resulted in some initial positive steps – such as the Accord or the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation’s (BMZ) Textiles Partnership – but a lot of parameters still need to change to ensure that working conditions in the global garment industry are fair and ecological over the long-term:

  1. Policy is needed to create framework conditions and pass legislation to force companies to take more responsibility and do their due diligence. Corporate responsibility for the entire supply chain has to be anchored in law. Legal guidelines must hold clothing companies liable for their entire supply chains. This includes setting the rate of compensation a company would have to pay victims of a building collapse like the Rana Plaza disaster and not leaving it up to how much the corporation is willing to pay (as is currently the case).
  2. Traceability should be required for all textiles and transparency created by publishing EU import documents and customs declarations. An electronic labelling system or a link between a label number and an online database would be viable options here.
  3. Purchasing companies should have to be transparent about the working conditions under which their wares are produced. This reverses the burden of proof, since companies would need to show that their goods were produced under ecological and fair conditions.
  4. The rights of workers in production countries have to be strengthened – this must include the freedom to organise, and the right to form workers’ councils and unions to represent workers’ interests. Purchasing companies have to ensure that freedom to organize is actually upheld by their suppliers and not just set out on paper.
  5. Consumers have to reflect on their own consumption habits. Today you can buy a T-shirt for less than the cost of a cup of coffee or a bus ticket; cheap clothes are the order of the day. Instead of buying disposable fashion, we should buy less and more consciously. There are a few seals like Fairtrade for cotton or GOTS for environmental standards consumers should look for. Companies involved in the Fair Wear Foundation want to improve working conditions in the textile industry. We need to hold ourselves and not just corporations and the government responsible for ensuring humane production conditions. As consumers, we can act responsibly too.

Photo: “Wardrobe!” by peddhapati
2013 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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