How ethical are your clothes?

Most of us are dimly aware that some of the clothes in our shops are made in sweatshops. If we think about sweatshops at all, we think uneasily of poor people in overcrowded, unsafe and probably unsanitary conditions in far off countries. We don’t like to think of ourselves as contributing to that, but it’s hard to know how to avoid it. And most of us are blissfully ignorant that similar scenes are happening in Australia, every day.

So how do we buy ethically? Short of growing our own cotton and making the clothes from it ourselves, how can we buy attractive, fashionable clothes and be sure that we are not exploiting the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised in the process?

It’s a difficult business. There are a large number of ethical problems with the clothing available in our shops. There’s the fabric the clothes are made from – if it’s synthetic, is it sustainable, and environmentally sound? If it’s natural, is it fairly traded? Then there’s the manufacture of the clothing. If you buy Australian made, secure in the knowledge that Australia has labour laws, and minimum wages and entitlements, and generally reasonable working conditions, then surely these are ethical clothes? Unfortunately, it turns out that buying Australian made is no guarantee of … well, of anything, actually. The Brotherhood of St Laurence’s ‘Ethical Threads’ report found that Australian clothing workers are routinely getting paid as little as $6 per hour, and some are actually getting as little as $2.50.

The legal minimum wage in Australia is currently $14.31 per hour, so how can this be? These workers get no annual leave, no superannuation, no sick leave, and no work cover. They provide their own workplace and equipment, and frequently their whole families work all hours of the day to scrape together enough work just to survive. Due to poor working conditions and inferior equipment, these workers are 3 times more likely to suffer work related injuries than factory workers.

How is this possible? I’m going to try to explain the problem, but you’ll have to concentrate – it’s like a magician’s sleight of hand, only harder to follow. Company A sells t-shirts. They contract company B to do the “CMT” – cut, make and trim the t-shirts. Company B farms out the work to companies C, D, and E, all three of which often farm out work to each other, depending on how much work there is this week. Company C farms out the work to Company F, which hires outworkers, or homeworkers, to do the actual work. And this is a relatively simple supply chain. They are routinely much more tangled and difficult to trace than this one.

Once the work reaches homeworkers, they are paid a piece rate, rather than an hourly rate. That is, they are paid a certain amount for each garment or task that they finish. There is some room for conjecture about how the piece rate translates to an hourly rate. There are often sham contracting arrangements in place, where the company that employs the homeworkers argues that they are sub-contractors, not employees, and that they are therefore responsible for their own leave, work cover, superannuation etc. Homeworkers are often migrants who don’t know that their rights and entitlements are legally the same as factory workers. The union often doesn’t know who they are or how to find them. And even if the homeworkers become aware of their rights, they are afraid that if they speak up and demand them, they will lose the work.

Out of this quagmire comes the “No Sweatshop” label – a joint union and clothing industry initiative that aims to map the supply chain and encourage clothing companies to sign on to the “HomeWorkers Code of Practice” (HWCP). Complying with the code only requires that companies meet their legal requirements. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Unfortunately not meeting the legal requirements is standard practice in the clothing industry.

Companies that have signed up to the HWCP have mapped their supply chains, and know how many outworkers are being employed to make their garments. They are committed to ensuring that these outworkers are being paid the correct hourly rates, as well as receiving all the standard annual leave, sick leave and superannuation entitlements that most of us take for granted. These companies earn the right to apply the “No Sweatshop” label to the garments for which the supply chain has been fully mapped.

The HomeWorkers Code of Practice ensures that the supply chain is transparent, and that the workers right down at the bottom of the chain receive at least the minimum legal conditions.

Tommy Clarke, National Program Coordinator of the No Sweatshop Label, says “With such complicated supply chains, fashion houses can easily lose sight of who is actually making their garments. Other times, it’s more a case of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ or ‘hear no evil, see no evil’. It’s a convenient ignorance. Whereas with the Code, we’re asking the fashion labels to take responsibility for their entire supply chain.”

Clarke admits that asking companies to meet their legal entitlements is not setting a particularly high benchmark. “Unfortunately the clothing and fashion industry both overseas and here in Australia is so riddled with exploitation, that we are willing to recognise the ethical credentials of companies that are putting in the effort to tackle exploitation by making their supply chains transparent.”

And that’s just the manufacture of the garments. What about the fabric itself? The cotton trade, for example, is notorious for, among other things, the use of forced child labour. Uzbekistan, the third largest cotton exporter in the world, only agreed on September 12 2008 to stop using forced child labour to pick its cotton. It had previously argued that the children “volunteered” to work 11 hour days in the fields picking cotton for less than $2. There is some doubt as to how effectively and honestly the ban is being implemented. As well as slavery, the cotton trade is rife with problems such as unsafe pesticide use (workers are frequently not given any protective gear when they apply the chemicals, many of which are banned in Australia), and subsidised farming in industrialised nations that often leave small farmers in the developing world without a livelihood.

To tackle the concerns about the ethics of cotton, Fairtrade Labelling Australia and New Zealand (FLANZ) released Fairtrade Certified Cotton in Australia in November 2007. Cameron Neil, Australian Operations Manager for FLANZ, explains that Fairtrade certification carries with it a number of conditions. “For any product that carries the Fairtrade Certified Cotton label, the cotton growers are smallholder farmers organised into some sort of cooperative or collective, and they meet the minimum social and environmental standards that are in the generic Fairtrade rules. They have some democratic form of governance so that when they are getting paid the Fairtrade premium they have some way of democratically deciding how it gets spent, and they are accountable for that, and they are inspected on that every year.”

However, it is only the cotton that is certified, not the fabric, or the clothing itself. Neil says that the Fairtrade system internationally has put the problem of fully certified Fairtrade clothing on hold for the moment.

Because Fairtrade certification means that producers are paid a fair price and a fairtrade premium, the question of fairtrade clothing is more complicated than it looks. There are so many steps in the supply chain, from growing the cotton, spinning, ginning, weaving, and dyeing the fabric, to the making of the garment itself, that applying the fairtrade premium at every step risks making the end product economically unviable.

The Fairtrade labelling system is really set up for simple agricultural products, such as coffee, rice, and quinoa, which have a fairly straightforward supply chain. It doesn’t map easily to the sort of complicated supply chain that goes from the cotton seed through to the finished garment.

To begin to address these issues in Australia, FLANZ requires that companies wanting to sell products made from Fairtrade cotton must be signatory to the Homeworkers Code of Practice (HWCP) for all of their Australian manufacturing, not just the products carrying the Fairtrade Cotton label. Neil says, “We’re using the label as a pull factor to get people to clean up their supply chains. Part of our long term vision is that the Fairtrade Certified Cotton label becomes so attractive that more and more businesses are willing to engage with the HWCP because they want to use the Fairtrade Cotton label.” Clothes made from certified Fairtrade cotton outside Australia must have independent evidence that basic International Labour Organisation conventions are being met.

Unfortunately there is not a lot of Fairtrade Cotton clothing available yet, and in the absence of a Fairtrade clothing standard, some manufacturers are creating their own ethical business models. Daron McFarlane, of Ecowear, a Melbourne-based clothing designer, retailer and wholesaler, argues that you don’t have to be Fairtrade certified to be doing the right thing. In business since 1991, McFarlane has gradually evolved a relationship with his suppliers that he describes as a win-win. “If you treat people well, they’ll do a better job and you get a better product. It all comes back in a karma kind of way. I don’t feel like I need to have someone tell me that I’m fair trade, because I know I am. I don’t have anything to prove.”

Ecowear’s clothes are largely manufactured in factories in Nepal and China. McFarlane doesn’t audit the books and check up on how much the workers are paid in his suppliers’ factories. He says it wouldn’t be feasible to check up on all the details. But he is sure of the character of his suppliers. He pays higher prices and encourages his suppliers to treat the workers well. McFarlane argues that he can tell a lot from meeting the workers, seeing the conditions they work in, the way they are dressed and the way they respond to him. He is confident that they are being treated better than most of their compatriots.

As well as requiring his suppliers to pay his workers better, McFarlane has set up a health fund for the workers in one of the Nepal factories, through the owner of the factory. For one of his other suppliers he pays a levy on each piece which is paid to just-one.org, an organisation that helps street kids in Nepal by setting up cottage industries and giving the families a sustainable livelihood.

McFarlane uses organic cotton where he can, and also produces a lot of hemp and bamboo clothing. He uses more environmentally friendly dyes. Although he admits that not all of his products are sustainably produced, McFarlane says he works hard to find the win-win. “Even for the things that I do that are not necessarily eco-friendly, I try to make sure there’s a strong ethical vein running through everything that I do.”

The trouble with Ecowear’s ethical credentials is that we have no way to verify them. All we have is Daron McFarlane’s word for it, and it could be argued that he plays somewhat fast and loose with the terms “fair trade” and “sustainable”. The other problem is that McFarlane himself can’t be entirely sure that his ethical endeavours are operating precisely the way he believes they are. Some of his clothes are made by outworkers in Nepal, and if we can’t be confident of the conditions for Australian outworkers, how can we be sure of conditions in distant Nepal?

Perhaps McFarlane is naïve, and I am naïve for believing him. Despite the lack of hard evidence, though, I find myself believing that Ecowear is making a difference in a disturbingly unethical industry. Personally, I would rather buy my clothes from a company like Ecowear that seems to be trying to do the right thing, than from a chain store that I can be fairly certain is exploiting people, somewhere along the line.

The range of unquestionably ethical clothing is currently so limited that we have to make these sorts of judgements ourselves. As Cameron Neil puts it, “With the information available to me today I make the best choice I can, knowing full well that I may get information tomorrow that means the choice I made was the wrong one, and I’ll have to do better next time.” According to Neil, the key is to ask questions. “We’re encouraging people to look for independent sources of evidence. There are a lot of people out there who are very genuine about what they’re doing. But it’s so hard to tell the difference between those people and people that are dishonest, who are making claims without any ability to back it up whatsoever, and who have no credibility.”

So how do we buy ethically? Neil’s advice is simple. “Talk to people with credibility – World Vision, Oxfam, Fairtrade, Fairwear – and say ‘give me a list of where I can go.’ and just go to those places. Find places that have some credibility and take your business there, until the system gets better and the information is better.”

Tommy Clarke says that the best thing we can do is to speak up. “Ultimately it will be up to consumers to be the driving force. So I recommend getting vocal and letting clothing companies know that there is a market for ethical garments made in Australia.”

It’s either that or start growing your own cotton.

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2 thoughts on “How ethical are your clothes?

  1. excellent blog posting. It’s great to read more people shedding light on the sweatshop side of clothing. Hope to see more on this topic. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Pingback: Week in Review: Week 3 | Global Action Through Fashion

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