Fashion-Sweatshops in the developed world


It seems as if Green Fashion as in ‘good for the environment’ has taken over the sustainable fashion market. Warehouse uses organic silk and cotton, H&M has just extended its range of recycled and organic cotton fashion with a Glamour Collection, Zara uses 5% biodiesel and PVC free footwear, Mango has obtained a “Made in Green” Certification and Topshop publishes an understandable and accessible Responsibility Report. It seems as if there is great progress in the right direction.

But while it seems a lot easier to buy affordable clothing without exploiting the environment,  things don’t look as bright from the perspective of fair labour.

American Apparell, once the hero of fair wages, paying double the american minimum wage in its L.A. factory (and paying the american minimum wage in other countries) fell into disgrace after CEO Dov Charney was sued for sexual assault in 5 cases by (former) emloyees and harshly criticized for his  “over-reliance on oral sex during interviews over assessing  retail experience” as an industry insider said here. So, fair wages but sexual exploitation. Maybe not so ethical after all.

It doesn’t help that Wintour-Darling Alexander Wang has been accused for sweatshop working conditions in his New York studio and that a Channel 4 documentary from 2010 revealed poor working conditions including payment of half the minimum wage and illegal immigrant workers at a UK factory supplying the Arcadia Group, C&A and New Look.

The Documentary ‘Made in LA.’shows how sweatshop conditions are definitely not a thing of poor third world countries. Illegal South American workers are exploited by below minimum wage compensations and sometimes not paid at all. In one scene, one of the key figures in the documentary visits the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (a museum that shows the living conditions of poor New York immigrants) and tells the reporter that nothing really has changed since then: immigrant workers are as poor as in the beginning of the 20th century. Isn’t this a sad conclusion in face of all the progress we think society has made

The Arcadia Group’s Responsibility Report (to which Topshop belongs) looks clean at first but a closer look reveals that, while they are committed to not employing anyone under the minimum age requirement in the country of production or the age in their code of conduct (above 15) “whichever is higher” they also say : “If, however, local minimum age law is set at 14 years of age, in accordance with developing country exceptions under ILO Convention No 138, the lower will apply.” Isn’t that hypocritical? Why can’t the just say that they won’t employ anyone under 15, which is young enough anyway?

The Arcardia Group is by far not an isolated case: reading through the, now almost obligatory ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsibility’ reports, one finds vagueness, promises à la ‘we should’ and hardly any real committments à la “we have increased controls of labour standards by 15%’. Topshop even refused to join the Ethical Trade Initiative, despite the fact that most other High Street brands subscribed to it.

H&M has come under fire in a recent german documentary for child labour in one of the company’s sub-contractors’ factories. The Brazilian government has  listed 52 charges against labour law violation against Inditex, the mother company of Zara. In addition to this, 300 Zara employees staged a demonstration in Madrid in July 2011, complaining that 80% of the mainly female workforce were on temporary contracts. They earn €830 per month for a 40-hour week. This is Europe, not a third world country!

And there are also the hordes of interns in the fashion (magazine) industry, who often do menial task for no money at all. It has been argued that this could be described as modern-day-slavery and has made famous court cases such as the Harper Bazaar Intern, who sued the parent company Hearst for violation of federal and state wage laws this february.

The fact that there are protests is a good sign, but it’s really the question why this happens literally right on our doorstep that should be asked.

Appalling working conditions are wider spread in countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Phillippines as this report has shown: almost all of the surveyed factories breached labour law: there is wide gap between minimum and living wage and working conditions are generally appalling. The list of brands, which buy from the companies controlled by the report counts 83. Among them: Abercrombie&Fitch, Banana Republic, Speedo, Triumph, Mark’s& Spencer’s, Forever21, The North Face and Billabong and shockingly (!!!) Fairtrade.

Do we value the environment over human dignity? Is it just easier to be green than to be fair?

Women represent the bigger share of workers in the garment industry and therefore being the most common victims of unhealthy working conditions, excessive overtime and sexual abuse. Women are also the primary customer group of High Street and Luxury Brands, actually supporting  modern-day-slavery.

Something worth thinking about the next time we’re tempted to fill our bags at Primark & Co.


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