Many of us today are, at least in some way, aware that the fashion industry is a cruel mistress. Anyone who has seen The True Cost, the eye-opening 2015 documentary on fast fashion, will already know a bit about the dire working environments this business promotes. Perhaps you hoped that, by now, conditions might be better.
Well, it turns out, you would be right … but only sort of.
The 2018 Apparel and Footwear Benchmark by KnowTheChain reveals that 19 out of the 43 companies – the largest global players in the industry – it assessed, have made significant improvements since the platform compiled its 2016 report. However, at the same time, less than a third scored over 50 out of 100 points. The research considers seven factors, including recruitment policies, traceability, purchasing practices and mechanisms in place for workers to voice their grievances.
A mammoth industry
Around the world, between 60 and 75 million people are employed in the textile, clothing and footwear sector. More than two-thirds of them – an average of 68 per cent – are women. The problem is, it’s also a US$3 trillion (Dh11.01 tr) industry. And not enough is being done to ensure that these massive corporations are earning the big bucks in fair and humane ways. “For the apparel and footwear sector, forced labour is real,” the report says, “and the impact on workers’ lives is too important to ignore.”
So, how did we end up here? There are a few reasons. The culture of picking up cheap clothing in an era of throwaway trends is well-established among shoppers in wealthier, developed countries. Global fair trade agreements have made it easier for brands to make their products where labour is cheaper. The need for an ever-revolving runway of must-have new-season looks never dies. And high-street brands offering catwalk-worthy clothes at a fraction of the price prevail. With demand picking up and competition getting fierce, brands have therefore looked to reduce costs across the board, and essentially ended up with “globally complex and opaque supply chains”.
'I need to know workers are paid a wage'
"By and large, my biggest issue is the lack of transparency when it comes to working conditions in the fashion industry," says Abu Dhabi blogger and staunch sustainability advocate Nada El Barshoumi (also known as One Arab Vegan). "In order to be able to place my trust in a brand, I need to know that their workers are paid a living wage, are able to unionise, and that they are not subjected to any physical or psychological harm as a result of the work that they do."
Brands we can ultimately trust, it seems, are Adidas, Lululemon and Gap, which scored 92, 89 and 75 respectively. Adidas, in particular, got the highest amount of points ever seen in any of the KnowTheChain’s benchmark reports. This is due to practices such as training 100 of its suppliers across Asia in ethical employment practices.
However, overall, the average score remained shockingly low, at 37.
Recruitment policies are particularly crucial, as it’s at this point in the process that workers are most vulnerable to exploitation. Sadly, 18 of the companies scored a big fat zero for lack of action. Many of the companies assessed by KnowTheChain could not even disclose their policies and practices, either because they don’t have any or they don’t know what they are. As we said, supply chains can be incredibly complicated, especially if recruitment agencies are involved, rather than the company hiring workers directly.
What we can do
So what can we do about it on a personal level? Is the answer to just boycott all these big-name brands? El Barshoumi doesn’t think so. “On the one hand, you’re voting with your proverbial dollar every time you purchase something from a brand, but on the other hand, the garment workers who make a lot of the clothes sold at fast fashion retailers, desperately need their jobs.
“Ultimately, boycotting is not the answer. When sweatshops close, garment workers will often end up in far less favourable situations as a result of extreme poverty, without anyone having addressed the original issue of improving their workplace standards. It’s a lose-lose situation,” she explains.
But before you hang up your ethical hat and go on a bargain-friendly shopping spree, El Barshoumi offers tips on things we can do, like calling into question your consumption habits. “A popular mantra among conscious consumers is ‘buy less and choose well’. This means you should purchase new items as and when you truly need them, invest in higher quality pieces from ethical brands, and take proper care of what you do own,” El Barshoumi advises.
Secondly, she says, you can stand up for what you believe in (fair rights for workers) and email these brands or message them on social media, demanding better accountability and more transparency. “I firmly believe that constant dropping wears away a stone and that our collective consumer voice is the most powerful tool we have.”
As more of these reports and revelations about the fashion industry come to light, it might be easy to feel apathetic and pessimistic, but you shouldn’t, El Barshoumi advises. “I believe that conscious consumption is on the rise, and educational activism through initiatives like Fashion Revolution is opening eyes to what really goes into delivering racks and racks of clothing to once-beloved high-street stores.”
But we still have a long way to go, she adds. “In order to affect real change, we need people to stand up and speak out to the brands they’ve known and loved for years. They need to know their consumers won’t stand to purchase from a brand that commoditises its workers.”
That doesn’t mean you need to clear out your wardrobes or stop shopping in malls, but you should think twice when buying something you don’t really need. And, like we’re all starting to do with our food, pay attention to the labels. We all have a responsibility to stop modern slavery – and in an age of social media, viral posts and a rising number of ethical brands, we have never been in a more powerful position to do so.