Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The real cost of clothing

Overhead view of collapsed Rana Plaza building, Dhaka, Bangladesh, which held several factories and thousands of workers
Rana Plaza collapse, Dhaka,
April 2013 (rijans CC)
(warning - distressing photo further down)

I was reading recently about the meetings held under the aegis of the ILO  in Geneva last month (details here)in an unsuccessful attempt to settle compensation for the Rana Plaza collapse victims (April 2013; over 1,000 dead, about 2,500 injured) and Tazreen Fashions fire victims (November 2012; more than 117 dead, over 200 injured). There's also the more recent - just over ten days ago - fire at the Aswad Mills in Gazipur, where 'only' about ten workers lost their lives.

And I started to wonder.

How expensive is cheap clothing?

On a forum I sometimes frequent, a poster stated a few months ago – apropos a discussion about what to make and sell at craft fairs and hand-made markets -

       I see really simple dresses in stores that are way too overpriced. 
      People are always looking for clothes that are unique and affordable.

I was incandescent with rage at the arrogance of this statement, but calmed down and decided that I should be more benevolent towards my fellow humans, and put the post down to mere (??) ignorance, so I responded in a more temperate manner than I actually felt, as follows:
Mass-produced clothing which is sold in shops is made, in the overwhelming majority of cases, by poor people in third-world countries being paid a few pounds a week, and whose workplaces seem not infrequently to fall down or burn up - or both! - with them trapped, sometimes even locked, inside. 
Why on earth would anyone think that a garment made individually by a skilled person in the first world would, should or could possibly be purchased for less money (which is what is usually meant by 'more affordable') than a garment which could well have been made by one of those poor, dreadfully-injured women still lying in a Bangladeshi hospital, or by a hungry child who should, by all rights, be at school or simply out playing.
Whether we buy a £2 Primark* t-shirt, or a £40 Zara t-shirt, can we say that either one is really overpriced?  

All too often, the cost is life itself.

Corpses trapped in debris of Rana Plaza building, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Destruction and death (rijans CC)
In order to cover the financial cost of improvements in fire, safety and construction to internationally-accepted standards in the garment factories it uses, Walmart (the world's biggest retailer) would need to add 10 US cents - 6p, yes that's right, SIXPENCE - to the retail price of a garment in a store. Walmart has refused to do this, citing, as I understand, 'Expense' as the reason. 

I find the thought of someone being forced to work in unsafe, unhealthy, even life-threatening conditions just so that we can casually buy cheap clothes to throw away, to be simply appalling. 

I KNOW it happens and yet I have still bought the jeans, the t-shirt. 


Because I could, and because I wanted to. No other reason more compelling than that.

We in the wealthy West benefit hugely from cheap labour in Third World countries, mainly in Asia. This labour is predicated upon cheap fossil fuels, global debt, central banks and a cavalier attitude to environmental damage and occupational safety, if either of the two latter are acknowledged at all. 

Of course, there are businesses, multinationals even, who see that it is in everyone's best interests to attempt to ensure that their workers - whether a department manager in a UK business place  or a lowly-paid seamstress in Dhaka - are treated in a fair manner and work in safe conditions. These companies are frequently members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which is also associated with international trade union organisations and NGOs. When I buy new clothing, which is increasingly rare these days, I buy either 'made in UK' (if I can find it and afford it) or else a brand which is a full current member of the ETI.

The ETI is not the entire, final answer, of course. Even the best of purchaser and retailer audits, requirements and spot checks might be thwarted by the greedy determination of corrupt officialdom working hand-in-hand with unethical factory management, especially when unorganised poor and migrant workers are cowed by bullying, but it's a start at least.

I'll finish with a Victorian cartoon which gently mocks two fashionable young women who are clearly at the forefront of fashion, technology and all things modern. 

I wonder if they ever concerned themselves, from the comfort of their clearly middle-class, liberated, 'Rational Dress' lives, with the plight of 'the masses' of the Industrial Revolution ...

19thC cartoon - two smartly-dressed young women talking about clothes

Gertrude:  My dear Jessie, what on earth is that bicycle suit for?

Jessie: Why, to wear, of course!

Gertrude: But you haven't got a bicycle!

Jessie: No, but I have got a sewing-machine!

* NB All credit to Primark; although  often reviled, it has - unlike almost all the other companies involved - stepped up to the mark in this desperately tragic situation, expressing frustration at how long it is taking to agree on victim compensation for the Rana` Plaza disaster, and in the meantime arranging 'emergency' payments to all (not just those working on Primark's production line) Rana Plaza victims or their families, of its own volition.

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