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Monday, 14 October 2013

CAN FASHION EVER BE ETHICAL?

Six months on from the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, consumers are  being treated to a canter round the media opinion paddock of what big brands are or are not doing to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.

A piece from the UK's Guardian newspaper examines how some brands are addressing the issue of dangerous working conditions in Bangladesh. Not enough is the verdict. When it comes to monitoring working conditions and auditing the supply chain, these global brands with vast revenues struggle to address fundamental issues, wringing their hands in despair - it’s the middle man, public pressure to get new designs out for the next season, whatever, they just don’t know what’s going on!


 It appears to come as some kind of a shock to the highly paid management teams at the Gap, Arcadia/Topshop; Wallmart/Asda/George et al, that factory safety records are falsified. Duh! And that workers are under extraordinary pressure to meet deadlines by working excruciatingly long hours. In unsafe conditions. That workers are locked inside and emergency exits are locked or blocked. Of course there are no unions (unorganised labour is cheaper) but, gee whizz, what can the H&Ms, the Gaps, the Top Shop/Arcadia Group possibly do? They’re complying with the laws of the land...

There are sound economic and social reasons why mega brands use workers from the global south to produce their expensively hyped products. Women and child workers have less economic and social power in places like Bangladesh and India. Desperate for any kind of income, they are forced to accept what they can get. 

Working conditions are unregulated and therefore bad (kids working in firework factories in India), women are the bottom of the pile (women sit on the ground while men are in chairs in Bangladesh, Indian women eat last, after their male relatives) and unions are more or less forbidden. Corporations are in business to turn a profit, so why would they seriously seek to address these issues?

Gap, Arcadia/Topshop; Wallmart/Asda/George etc have advertising and marketing budgets of mega millions of pounds/dollars/euros. They pay fantastic amounts to supermodels to make their throw-away products seem desirable, aspirational and on-trend.

They jet teams first class across the globe to shoot ad campaigns on idyllic beaches, and hang out in five star designer hotels. They think spending RM 1000 (£250) on a pair of shoes is a great idea. So are they the kind of people who are really going to care about some poor Bangladeshi woman, scraping a living to support her family, living in a slum, uneducated...unfashionable (polyester saris - yikes!), not aspirational and anything but bang on trend?

Intelligent people can make up their own minds about the answers to these questions.

At Nukleus we believe that ethical fashion STARTS with the values and ethics of sustainability and social and environmental justice. It's not something you can tack on as a piece of CSR gloss to make consumers feel better about clothing that has been produced by modern-day slaves. It’s about fundamental values of fairness, justice, equality and stewardship, and translating those values into systems which honour them.
Modern society is built on consumption, a perpetual cycle of work, buy, consume, die seen as essential to the ever-increasing economic growth which politicians, business leaders, and a large proportion of humanity itself, say is the only way forward for human progress. But is continuous growth possible in a finite space? Or has consumerism become a kind of cancer on the body of the planet?

The fashion industry is a key driver in global consumerism, fuelling high street shops and malls, designer boutiques, high end, low end, on-trend, accessible, wearable, designer, boho, classic. Feeding on and promoting our desire to impress, look good,  and fit in. And changing every three months to ensure we all buy this season’s must have look as we scrabble to keep up with the diktats of anorexic fashionistas.

It’s cheaper to produce the garments in substandard factories in Dhaka than elsewhere for a reason. No building regulations or safety standards. No workers’ rights or unions. A culture where women have little or no autonomy and are therefore forced into low-paid, insecure jobs, in conditions which would not be tolerated in more affluent countries. A bureaucracy and businessmen who will follow the money when it comes to decision-making, rather than values of ethics, fairness and decency.
By cutting costs, a cavalier attitude to health and safety, decent working conditions and basic human rights, the Gaps, Wallmarts (Asda’s George label in the UK) H &Ms, Arcadia Group (Top Shop) produce hugely profitable disposable fashion.  And part of the disposability is the invisible non-people who toil to produce these must-have, to-die-for fashion goodies, subsidising transnational profits with their health and lives.

Six months on from the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse,  Wallmart/Asda/George, among others, has still not paid compensation to victims and their families. Why not? Because profit at all costs is their guiding value? Because Bangladeshi workers are disposable? Invisible? Powerless? Because in the David and Goliath battle of Bangladeshi garment factory workers versus one of the richest corporations in the US, there is no contest? Is this all just a coincidence when global brands decide where to produce their product... or a fundamental reason?

And six months on from Rana Plaza, our Facebook feeds are full of reports of a fire in another garment factory in Dhaka, which claimed the lives of yet more innocent workers. Lessons, it would appear, have not been learned, and more unfashionable, disposable, powerless and innocent people have been killed.

Where profit at all costs is the driving value, anything can be justified in the name of the bottom line. Is this how we want to live, wearing clothes metaphorically stained in the blood and tears of the workers who’ve made them? Can we feel good if we know that our fashion is based on others’ pain?

Some of us think not, and here at Nukleus we are trying to make a stand...for our values, for people and the planet. Because we believe in equality, fairness and justice...for everyone and the planet, not just the privileged few. We are doing are best to make this happen at every stage of our production process...from seed to shop, and we truly appreciate the commitment and energy of all involved in this process, including you, reading this blog. Thank you for caring.