Enough Fashion Victims

If teachers want their students to feel inspired about engaging with global issues, and not demoralized by them, it helps if they can also give students the opportunity to be part of meaningful change.  Preferably something beyond the obligatory, slightly predictable, bake sale.

One area where young people can make increasingly large (and for their age disproportionate) impact is in the global supply chain – specifically regarding the way in which corporations manage the human rights conditions of their workers. 

The recent Rana Plaza tragedy of 24 April 2013, in which an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed, was the worst industrial accident in Bangladesh’s history (1,100 dead, and many more horribly injured). 

Sadly, it was also supremely predictable.  This disaster was part of a long chain of preventable industrial accidents, which have occurred with depressing regularity in the garment industry.  The dire working conditions are fueled by international demand for ever faster, cheaper fashion, local lack of political will, inefficiency or corruption surrounding building standards and working conditions, and general poverty which forces Bangladeshis to take on such work.   

These accidents, until now, have tended to inspire little change.  There is devastation for the impacted families, a handful of international news stories and then… more workers take the place of their injured or dead colleagues, working under similar conditions, until the next accident.

Rana Plaza stands out this time – not only because of the horrendously large death count, but also because of the frightening callousness surrounding the circumstances.  After dangerous cracks appeared in the building the day before, workers were made to return to work or risk losing a month’s pay.  

Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, dismissed the tragedy, saying “accidents happen” while her Finance Minister remarked that the disaster wasn’t “really serious.”  

This is illustratative of a culture which accepts garment workers' dire working conditions as the norm, indeed what is required to get and keep manufacturing contracts.  Many politicians do not want to scare off the garment industry - 80 per cent of Bangladesh's exports come from clothing production.  

If the Government is not where Bangladeshi workers can turn for help, then where?   

Interesting work has been done for years by labour rights organisations such as the Fair Labour Association (FLA), or industry specific NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, who have long recognized that global corporations have more power to ensure developing country workers’ safety and dignity than many local government labour laws likely ever will.  This has resulted in wins such as Nike’s massive improvement in their sports supply chain.  

Rana Plaza’s collapse has been a catalyst for the signing of the Bangladesh Safety Accord - the first-ever, multi-buyer collective agreement. It is a legally binding contract between brands, trade unions and retailers, requiring independent safety inspections of 1,000 factories, with subsequent public reporting on their standards. This could be a huge step forward. The furore has also encouraged the Bangladeshi Government to change its intial approach to the disaster. The Government has now agreed to make significant changes to labor laws that will make it easier for garment workers to form unions, and will ramp up factory inspections to ensure the basic safety of workers.

In addition Muhammad Yunus (Nobel laureate founder of the micro-lending pioneer Grameen Bank), asks that the clothing industry agree to a minimum international wage. This would mean an increase in pay to 50 cents an hour - garment workers now average around 25 cents an hour. Retailers, who commit to this agreement, would be able to advertise this so buyers could feel good about their clothing choices. He says; "We would put a special tag on each piece of clothing. The tag would say: "From the happy workers of Bangladesh, with pleasure. Workers' well-being guaranteed".  He also proposes a 50-cent surcharge on exported garments – a small amount to the consumer, which would yield $1.8 billion annually for a fund to assist Bangladeshi garment workers with pensions, healthcare, decent housing, and other social needs. He calculates that this salary increase and surcharge would provide radically better pay and conditions without having a material impact on the final cost of clothing.  

In my experience, when children understand how little extra is required in order to improve the human rights of the people who make their clothes, (or harvest their cocoa and so on), the majority tend to want to support companies and initiatives who respect such rights.  

But how do students identify which companies to support? The problematic ones to avoid?

As noted by Lucy Siegle of The Guardian, “Every brand can direct you to pages of sustainability reports of varying sophistication and glossiness. One expert tells me that you need a degree in ethical sourcing to make informed decisions, and he's not exaggerating by much.” 

To help consumers through the maze of information, she has compiled a list of the current status of various fashion labels as assessed by NGOs working in the field. http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/2013/may/17/ethical-shopping-high-street-fashion  

It is hoped that this list is not static - the borderline companies on this list will improve as they realize they are under increasingly scrutiny.

But what can teachers to help students improve human rights in their clothing supply chain, beyond the bake sale? Here are a few ideas:

1. They can engage students in discussion and analysis...of corporate supply chain standards by looking at both the company reports but also reputable NGO analyses of their actions on the ground, many of which are available online. (See some links below.)

Some of the key things NGOs say consumers should look for are listed in the above-cited Guardian article.  For example, is there a promise to sign the new Bangladesh Safety Accord?  Is there evidence of willingness to work towards a living wage (many countries have a legal minimum wage which is too low for people to live on.)  Do brands have representatives in the producing country to ensure decent working conditions?  If things go wrong, how do quickly and effectively do companies help victims? Do workers have job stability and the right to collectively bargain – these give factory owners an incentive to reform the working environment. 

2. Identify brands which students assess are doing well. Students can support them by wearing their clothes and encourage their peers to do the same.

3. The flip side is for students to identify labels with a poor human rights supply chain and simply refuse to buy their clothes.  They can also write to the company/s directly, sign petitions or make their voices heard virally through social media.

4. Lastly, teachers may also want to discuss the desirablity of the “fast fashion” culture - (the “cool today, gone tomorrow” approach to clothing where there can be 30 – 50 “seasons” in a fashion year).  Students may want to debate the consequences of this throw away, cheap clothing culture and discuss whether better quality, more long term clothing choices might not one day be considered a cooler choice from an environmental, supply chain and looks perspective? 


It is becoming obvious that our increasingly internet savvy, social media enabled kids, armed  with purchasing power, can pack a hugely positive punch on human rights in the supply chain - beyond any change young people in the past could imagine.  

On a more prosaic note, one only needs to look at the millions of hits the #FitchTheHomeless movement has received in the last few days, to see that the stance a company takes can cause an instant and huge viral backlash.  

Whether in defense of uncool kids, fat moms or more importantly, safety standards for those millions who make our clothes, this viral feedback loop between young consumers and producers is getting faster and more powerful.  In the end, it is a very real way in which student inspired positive change in the supply change is likely to come about.  

If companies are found lacking, students can voice their concerns directly, virally or simply choose to buy clothing from companies they respect.  Moving country and removing jobs from the poor, as Disney is doing now in Bangladesh, is not the way to escape this attention.  Rather companies may need to bite the bullet, pay workers that small amount more, and use their political clout to insist upon decent building standards and working conditions in the producing country. And, for some, despite themselves, they will become part of a better, more sustainable world.

* It should be noted that A and F have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord – at time of writing, one of only two US retailers thus far to do so (props to them for that!) 

Useful Websites:

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC)

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) works to improve conditions and support the empowerment of workers in the global garment industry. The CCC has national campaigns in 15 European countries with a network of 250 organisations worldwide. 

Fair Labour Association
The FLA works with companies to improve working conditions in their supply chain. They issue periodic progress reports so consumers can track their findings.


Ethical Trading Initiative 

Human Rights Watch -
Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. Their reports are rigorously researched and a great starting point for understanding the complexity of any human rights issue. 

http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/25/bangladesh-tragedy-shows-urgency-worker-protections

Avaaz
Internet campaigning website with over 21 million members (and counting). Recently very active in encouraging clothing manufacturers to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Also

See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/2013/may/17/ethical-shopping-high-street-fashion (NGO analysis of how various clothing manufactures stack up) 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/12/muhammad-yunus-bangladesh-appeal

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/business/global/investors-and-religious-groups-press-retailers-on-safety.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&_r=0

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cdf4cc44-b556-11e2-850d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2Tux4oDna

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/20/business/global/hm-led-labor-breakthrough-by-european-retailers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Fitch The Homeless - http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=O95DBxnXiSo

 

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