Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business
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Time to stop shirking over too cheap t-shirts

August 2014

Is it a chicken and egg situation this whole cheap t-shirt, cheap labour, ethical fashion debate? Do we as consumers have to turn around and say we don’t want to buy £3 T-shirts and stop buying them or should businesses stop selling them? Surely responsible, sustainable business practice dictates the latter?

I recently watched the BBC2 documentary Clothes to Die For which retold the horrors of the Rana Plaza disaster and also explored the untold stories of some of its survivors. There were 2,515 survivors in fact (1,129 perished) and the programme highighted the fact that though they lived to tell the tale, they remain scarred both physically and psychologically. Some can never work in the garment industry again – an industry which is a key employment route for many Bangladeshis. One woman spoke of her rescue, quietly, eloquently and calmly relating the fact that she had to amputate her own arm as the doctor couldn’t quite reach her. Another told how she was forced to work that fateful day because she couldn’t afford to forego the £1.25 that day’s work would generate.

In an attempt to educate my two sons – 14 and 12 – on the ethics (or lack of) of the cheap t-shirt, I made them watch it too (despite the BBC iplayer warning it was suitable for those 16 years+).

The younger of the two was struck by the ‘greed of just one man’ (Mr Rana) while the older could see that it was also the greed of big clothing companies who were equally to blame. The daughter of one of Bangladesh’s very first garment manufacturer for the West appeared on the programme saying that if companies paid just 5 cents more per garment, factories would be able to pay the living wage to their workers. My son couldn’t understand why the companies won’t pay. At 14, that’s ok he doesn’t understand. But what about us grown ups? We understand only too well and still the £3 t-shirts exists.

Indeed, despite the 1,129 Rana Plaza deaths, worldwide condemnation on safety standards, poor wages and labour conditions since April 2013, big brands are still not doing enough.

As Ethical Performance went to press, Matalan still had not contributed to the official Rana Plaza compensation fund (it maintains it has donated to charity instead) and at a recent People’s Tribunal, convened annually as a court to assess human rights in the garment sectors of Asian countries, H&M said it was working towards a living wage “though it had never tried to calculate a figure” and a representative of Adidas commented that : “No factory is perfect.”

What is going on? If we’re all believing in the shared value concept which involves “creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. (Porter and Kramer). And that “Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress”, isn’t it time the fashion industry and its myriad retailers around the globe actually started making some real progress? Isn’t it time the fashion business stopped shirking their responsibility to the real people who make their clothes, our clothes.

Global | Human rights


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