Commitment or marketing: is there really an ethical awakening in the fashion industry?

In 2013, year zero of the ethical awakening in the fashion industry, absolutely everyone – brands, states, consumers – came to know about the dismal and perilous conditions in the factories that dress our shop windows. The current health emergency is exposing the seams of inadequate change. (Roberto Marín)

In February 2019, Spain’s fashion multinational Inditex put a new sweatshirt on the market with a promising slogan. Printed, in capital letters on a black background, is the word ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’, a slogan inspired by Aretha Franklin’s famous song, supposedly a nod to feminism, used by the brand as a watchword for its new ‘ethical’ fashion range. The textile giant’s new ethical turnaround was so celebrated, so seemingly sudden and radical, that a Swiss human rights NGO decided to investigate.

Public Eye took several of the sweatshirts in question and began tracing the supply chain back until it arrived at a couple of remote factories in Izmir, Turkey. What it found there had little to do with ‘respect’: indecent wages, excessively long working hours, precarious contracts. The investigation revealed that Inditex was earning twice as much from each of these ‘ethical’ sweatshirts as all the people making them put together. The garment being sold as a symbol of feminism was once again the product of the exploitation of dozens of women.

It is common knowledge. Since 2013, year zero of the ethical awakening in the garment industry, absolutely everyone – brands, states, consumers – has come to know about the dismal and perilous conditions in the factories that dress our shop windows. It was not until 1,134 people lost their lives when a building collapsed in Bangladesh that fashion multinationals began to take a degree of responsibility. The first step was the signing of an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, aimed at preventing further tragedies. Several brands went on to commit to be more transparent and vigilant, to make ethics part of their bottom line.

Seven years later and marketing hype has smothered any good intentions. At the same time as the major brands present their new ‘conscious and sustainable’ collections, they continue to put pressure on suppliers to lower their prices – pushing down wages in the process.

“There have been improvements in the area of safety, but in other areas such as wages or trade union rights things are just the same or even worse,” says Clean Clothes Campaign coordinator Eva Kreisler. As the latest report from this international network denounces, not one of the world’s major fashion brands is able to say that the people making clothes for them are earning decent wages.

The level of commitment is so weak that it topples at the first hurdle, as seen during the COVID-19 health crisis. As soon as the pandemic was declared, multinationals began cancelling orders, paying less than agreed or paying nothing at all, leaving thousands of workers without pay or out of work in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. In Myanmar, and other countries, the crisis has been used as an excuse to expel unionised employees. “The closure of factories in these places with miserable wages has left thousands of people on the street without a penny. Many have had to take out loans, to sell land to pay off debts. Many do not have enough to eat,” warns Kreisler.

Faced with strong international pressure, some brands stepped up and promised to pay what they owed, but others – 40 per cent according to the Business and Human Rights Research Centre – looked the other way. The health emergency has exposed the seams of inadequate changes in the industry, once again showing that respect for human rights rests on more than just a good advertising logo.

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Goodwill is not enough

We were not “morally prepared” for globalisation, said researcher Ángela García Alaminos, who specialises in social sustainability and decent work, in an article for The Conversation. She has spent years analysing the long and complex global supply chains that often span several developing countries, jumping from subcontractor to subcontractor, getting lost in sweatshops or even in private homes where there is no inspection or monitoring, and where slavery can still be found.

“It is true that the number of fatal and non-fatal accidents has declined over time. But the forced labour situation, involving violent and threatening conditions, has worsened, and was particularly bad during the years when our economies were in recession,” she explains.

The guidelines set by the United Nations are clear: multinational corporations have a duty to prevent and remedy these abuses. The problem is that this ‘duty’ has always been voluntary.

“I have been working with companies for 20 years and it is true that interest in the social impact of their activity has grown, but the majority remain indifferent to it,” admits María Prandi, a consultant on business and human rights issues.

Goodwill has failed. A recent study by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law showed that only one in three European companies had so far taken an interest in the working conditions of those who produce for them. It is in light of this that the UN has been working since 2014 on a binding due diligence treaty, an instrument that will hold companies legally accountable for the first time and compel them to closely monitor their supply chains.

The first draft was drawn up in 2018 and the negotiations have been ongoing ever since. The next meeting is due to take place in October. “There have been many attempts to establish agreements of this kind in the past but all have failed, due to the influence wielded by governments and lobbies,” cautions Prandi. “The treaty still has to be approved by a minimum number of countries, so the process could drag on even longer.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has also announced that it will adopt its own legislative initiative on due diligence in 2021, following the example of pioneering countries like France. Will it be enough to put an end to impunity once and for all? The trade unions have their doubts. “All businesses say they have due diligence processes but no one is providing any solid indicators. They have created something cumbersome, bureaucratic, financial statements full of speeches,” says José Carlos González, corporate social responsibility spokesperson for Spain’s CCOO workers’ confederation. “We don’t want any more statements or codes of conduct, what we want is concrete and comparable data, we want to know the real workforce figures.”

Sustainable is not synonymous with fair

The year 2019 marked a breakthrough in global awareness about climate challenge, and it finally caught up with the fashion industry – the second most polluting industry after aviation. It was consumers themselves who began to demand more environmentally friendly materials and less polluting processes from their brands, but real change is yet to come. The fact that garments are more ‘sustainable’ does not necessarily make them more ‘ethical’ or ‘fair’.

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“Consumers need to understand that when something is labelled ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘conscious’ it usually only refers to the origin of the raw materials, not the human factor,” explains Ignasi Eiriz, founder of Ethical Time, a platform dedicated to selecting and verifying brands that are truly responsible. This year they have created their own ‘Real Sustainable Fashion’ label.

“The criteria we look at are above all the wages, which have to be decent wages, as well as the safety standards in the factories, the sanitary conditions, the freedom to form or join trade unions and equality. We look at the suppliers of each brand, what certificates they have. We ask for total transparency,” he says. And that’s why they only work with small fashion companies, as gathering all that information from the big ones is much more difficult.

NGOs and trade unions have long called on multinationals to publicly acknowledge the precise location of the factories that produce their clothes – ‘Made in Bangladesh’ is not enough – but concrete data about the working conditions should also be published.

Clean Clothes Campaign has collected over 70,000 signatures since 2016 to demand just that: transparency. “There are companies that have opened up their supply chains a bit more as a result of the campaign, but most of the big brands still don’t make their suppliers list public,” says Kreisler.

Yet this information is crucial, first and foremost for the workers and trade unions themselves, who rarely know what brand they are producing for and therefore do not know who to complain to if abuses are committed; but it is also important for consumers, so that they can distinguish between real ethical fashion and pure and simple marketing. As researcher Ángela García Alaminos points out, “People are increasingly aware of the need for change, but they still don’t have enough information.”

Gema Gómez, a designer and trainer in sustainable fashion, admits that “there are still very few companies, usually small ones, that really trace the path of their garments, both backwards and forwards”, which means providing transparent information about how they are made, but also what they do with the waste afterwards.

There are a number of mainly young, smaller scale but more committed ventures that already “have sustainability in their DNA” and are using technology – such as QR codes – to enable all buyers to trace the origin of their products using their mobile phones. “The big brands are stuck in the economic model of the last century and that model is useless because it is not ethical,” argues Gómez. “Sustainability can only be viable if the weight of the big brands is redistributed among all the small ones.”

As was the case with the 2013 tragedy in Bangladesh, the 2020 pandemic has once again shaken the foundations of the fashion industry. This could be an opportunity, as the United Nations says, to start afresh and rebuild fairer and more stable supply chains or, at least, as Gómez points out, “to accelerate the changes that were already underway”.

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