At Nukleus we are always looking for new ways to incorporate sustainability and transparency in our work. A recent trip to the UK provided us with some interesting learnings on pre-loved garments and labels.
In London, one sustainable fashion approach which has been popular with a select few locals for decades is now becoming mainstream...‘charity’ shops selling second hand donated garments to raise funds for (and the profile of) that organisation.
|Bargain hunting at Oxfam|
Price-wise, the only outlet which even comes near to charity shops, is the classic ‘made in an unregulated sweatshop in the Third World by people paid barely enough to live on’ chain.
We won’t promote them by naming names. However, following a vegan lunch on Oxford Street, with time to kill before a meeting, we decided to explore the chain’s huge new outlet across the road.
The first surprising thing was the sheer size of the store, three massive floors of cheap and sometimes quite nice looking items. Customers were stuffing laundry size shopping bags with, it appeared, three of everything in each colour. Snatches of excited conversation in a global medley of languages demonstrated that both tourists and locals were thrilled to be buying as much as they could carry. One big-capped gangsta-style youth told his girlfriend ‘You buy whatever you want’ with a touching pride that, here, at least, money was no object.
A dark-haired woman was trying on cardis in front of a mirror. She made the GBP20 (RM 100) item look stunning. The shop floor was awash with customers carting armloads of clothes to the changing rooms. Uniformed staff with serious faces and the focussed air of people who have been well-trained, strode among the racks of clothing, itemising, re-hanging, organising, pushing huge trolleys of clothes.
Above us, a vast flat-screen TV beamed the latest corporate offering, smiley attractive people, happy, glossy and well-styled, with a soundtrack of corporate chimes to encourage us to buy. A far-cry from the less happy, less smiley and definitely not styled workers who’d produced the garments to be consumed by those who already had more than enough, but who love a bargain at knock-down prices.
The atmosphere was intense. The colours muted and bang on trend. From funky to edgy, from classic to retro chic... reindeer or Santa suits for less than a fiver (RM2O). Dozens of styles of cute woolly hats and gloves - with ears, smiley animal faces, plain, decorated. Cardigans, dresses, skirts, tops, suits, shoes, jewellery...a cornucopia of consumption. But where does this stuff come from?
As part of our venture into global markets, Nukleus has become aware of labelling issues. While in Malaysia and some other Asian countries, labelling the country of origin is not necessary, in many other marketplaces, like Taiwan, it is mandatory. We like this transparent approach, as it enables consumers to make a more informed choice about the product they’re purchasing.
Checking a few labels on the shiney superstore garments, it was interesting to see that there was no ‘manufactured in‘ information - just Spanish and UK contact details. Which is odd, as a quick check of the company website is full of stuff about how great they’re being to the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed and injured so many workers producing their products. Lots of happy smiling workers here in the professionally made videos.
Universes away from the crushed bodies and ruined lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the pre-Christmas feeding frenzy of happy shoppers in London’s Oxford Street, it was hard to imagine that this company, and many like it, has the blood of so many workers on its hands. And that this exploitation continues.
A friend commented, ‘Yeah, that chain is fine if you want cheap s**t that falls to bits after a couple of washes, but charity shops give you better quality for cheaper prices.’
|Manager volunteer at Children with Cerebal Palsy|
She was right. In Oxfam, brand name clothing jostled for space with jewellery for a couple of pounds (RM10). In the Children with Cerebral Palsy shop a quick search produced a Marks & Spencer belt for a pound (RM5). The manager, a volunteer, assured me that all the money went to the charity. “I decided to help out because the charity is just down the road from where I live. The work they do for the children is amazing.”
And that is really part of the sustainable fashion equation, isn’t it? Helping create community and values, giving back, and an attitude which recognises our common humanity, and the need to behave in a responsible way to sustain life on this planet. And knowing where things come from and how they are made.
Is is possible to be sustainable with a few glossy videos and image-management CSR projects, when the fundamental operation is built on cheap female labour in one of the poorest countries in the world? Is this \ really about workers’ empowerment...or reputation management, created and delivered by armies of PR professionals on a minimum wage of GBP60,000 (RM300,000) a year? Plus bonus. Plus perks.
Three years ago, visiting one of the chain’s outlets in west London, we noticed a few small signs on the walls explaining how well their overseas workers were treated. Two years later came Rana Plaza. Now the signs are nowhere to be seen, while the labels are strangely mute on the country of origin, and the website has a whole section on ethical trading, asserting : (brand) was shocked and deeply saddened by the events in April, when the Rana Plaza building, near Dhaka in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,132 people. The building housed several factories, one of which produced for (brand).
Sourced from the cheapest possible location by a well-paid army of garment industry professionals. Did they really have no idea what was happening? And now, suddenly they know and care? But they don’t say where the garments come on the labels. Why? And is this exploitative game something anyone with values would choose to play?
Nukleus will shortly be including country of origin labelling in future products to ensure greater transparency and compliance with international regulations.