Your clothes still come from sweatshops

16 August 2017

After an horrific sweatshop collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, Western fashion buyers could take heart from news that changes were under way. They weren't, says Maureen Benson-Rea.

When you buy a product or service, how often do you think about the working conditions in which it is made? For most of us, the answer is probably "almost never".

Last year, New Zealand had annual retail fashion sales of NZ$3.3 billion – and we have recently seen the arrival of global 'fast fashion' retailers such as Zara and H&M, which specialise in capturing current fashion trends and rapidly making them available for purchase.

Fast-fashion stores have made clothing so affordable that shoppers often overlook the real cost of clothes production, including the conditions under which they are made and the potential damage to people, society, and the environment.

Fast fashion is only made possible through companies moving production to low-cost countries, putting downward pressure on working conditions and environmental standards.

This has led to catastrophic events such as the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh in April 2013, when a building that housed garment factories collapsed, killing more than 1000 workers trapped inside.

Our research into this incident has been published in a new book, Governing Corporate Social Responsibility in the Apparel Industry After Rana Plaza, which sets out to offer real solutions to the problem of ethical clothing production.

We have sadly concluded that current efforts – mainly consisting of anti-sweatshop activism aimed at reform – have come up short.

So, the solutions we offer range from creating new visions of public-private partnerships to improving the political power of worker unions, so that pressure can be put on Western consumers to demand more of their retailers.

The starting-point was the set of arrangements made between business and government after the Bangladesh factory collapse to ensure that such a disaster could never happen again. 

However, the book details ongoing factory disasters that are forcing companies, consumers, governments, and international institutions to acknowledge that conditions must be improved for workers in developing countries producing consumer goods for Western markets.

Our research gives multiple perspectives on how everyone involved can contribute to improving conditions. It also gives ideas about who should control and decide on the process of creating improved standards and ensuring that they work.

The options include:

• expanding and adjusting the current corporate-led model;
• reinforcing public regulation of factories, or
• developing a hybrid, cooperative model of public-private governance.

With regard to the ‘corporate-led’ model, suggestions for change include political solutions such as improving workers’ bargaining power and government representation in developing countries.

To assure compliance with the new institutional and enforcement mechanisms, a new governance framework is needed which is both cooperative and sustainable, with fiscal and financial support given to clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh.

It also needs to involve a wider range of stake-holders, such as consumers and NGOs.

Finally, more transparency is required in apparel supply chains, as new and increasingly-aware consumers choose to make more informed purchasing decisions, and even to reject products because of companies’ practices and reputations.

But what can we, as consumers, do right now?

Baptist World Aid Australia produces an annual report on some 160 clothing brands in Australia and New Zealand, evaluating them on their efforts to prevent forced and child labour, and worker exploitation.

We could make a difference by reading it and changing our purchasing behaviour.

Read the published article:

Maureen Benson-Rea

Maureen Benson-Rea is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Auckland Business School's Department of Management and International Business.

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