What to wear
It’s no news that our voracious appetite for ever-changing fashions is having a devastating impact on both the environment and people across the globe. In the UK, the average female buys half her bodyweight in clothes each year and owns four times as many garments today as she did in 1980.(1)
But perhaps the tide is about to turn. In 2010, 82% of adults claimed to make their clothes last.(2) Market researchers Mintel think “the disposable fashion trend could have peaked and 2011 may see shoppers reassessing value for money and putting more emphasis on sustainability, integrity and durability.”(2)
In this special report on clothing we look particularly at the recent struggles of garment workers around the world, the majority of whom are women. The first sweatshop stories broke in the nineties but how much progress has been made since then?
At Ethical Consumer we’re calling for UK consumers to make 2011 the year when things turn around for garment workers by pulling out all the stops and supporting their fight for a better deal.
We also catch up with the latest environmental campaigns relating to the clothing industry and look at some positive examples of businesses which put people and planet before profit.
See also our buyers' guides to:
Why fashion is a feminist issue
By Ruth Rosselson
Ethical Consumer has covered clothes in its pages many times over the years. We’ve tended to concentrate on flagging up the issues of workers’ rights overseas, the rise of fast fashion and of the sustainability – or not – of the fabrics and the industry. Missing from all this is a gendered perspective. Yet, of all the products covered by us, clothing is the one area where we should be applying more of a gendered and feminist perspective.
It’s not just that the workers in overseas factories – or working from home - are more likely to be women than men. That’s likely to be the case for many products manufactured overseas. As Women Working Worldwide say, “the increased demand of the globalised economy for low cost, flexible and dispensable workforce often means a preference for female labour”.1
It’s also the fact that, more than any other product on sale today, clothing has a level of meaning to it far greater than just being items of cloth to cover our bodies. What we choose to wear means so much more. In many societies across the world, clothing is integral to gender identity; there is an acceptable uniform of clothing for men and women. These uniforms may differ between cultures but negative consequences for not adhering to them are global.
The clothes women wear are publicly scrutinised, debated and even policed in a way that men’s attire is not. This can take a variety of forms:
• Media approval (or not) for what women in the public eye wear. This isn’t just limited to women’s magazines but happens across the media.
• Verbal reactions ranging from cat-calling, name calling and teasing.
• Physical reactions from sexual harassment to stone throwing.
• Accusations that particular styles of dress are to blame for sexual abuse or physical attacks.
• Legislation to prevent women wearing the burka – such as in France.
This level of scrutiny and policing just does not happen to men’s attire – though that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen at all.
Then there’s the issue of sizing and body image – women’s shape and form – and how the fashion industry chooses women of a certain size and shape and promotes this as an ideal. Plenty has been written about this elsewhere.
When it comes to gender identity in 2011 UK, what’s considered by the media and popular culture to be feminine is actually so far from our natural state that even celebrities such as Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham have to spend an inordinate amount of time, money and effort on diets and airbrushing to fit (or to define) the mould. Part and parcel of this is the emphasis put on clothing. Popular culture dictates that a special occasion requires a brand new outfit. It dictates that we should be ‘refreshing’ our wardrobe and reinventing ourselves periodically. God forbid that we should wear the same outfit twice! Whereas there used to be four seasons of clothing, now fashion and seasons change almost by the week.
This means that the way that gender, particularly women’s identity, is currently constructed in the UK directly facilitates fast fashion, which is in turn responsible for the way that companies do business. As campaigners have said time and time again, it’s virtually impossible for companies to behave ethically if they’re asking for ever quicker turnarounds and ever cheaper prices. Asking companies to behave ethically, while they’re still supporting the idea that women need to keep up with the latest fashions, is like asking for the impossible.
As well as the way that our clothes are made, we need to move away from the emphasis on how a woman looks – whether she’s wearing a veil or a mini-skirt. This also means tackling and dismantling our artificially constructed idea of ‘womanhood’.
From the women making clothes who are barely paid enough to live on, to the women used to model our clothes; from the women punished for not dressing ‘appropriately’ to the women getting into debt to afford their clothing habit, fast fashion is a feminist issue.
This article is adapted from a blog written by Ruth Rosselson for London Fashion week: http://ruthrosselson.net/2010/09/15/fast-fashion-is-a-feminist-issue/
Ruth Rosselson is a freelance writer and editor http://RuthRosselson.net and tweets from @RuthRosselson
1 Women Working Worldwide website: www.women-ww.org/index.php/approach-a-methodology viewed 25/7/2011
Ethics on the High Street
Bryony Moore examines companies’ responsiveness to campaign pressure, and points out why consumers are well placed to make a difference.
One of the most interesting aspects of re-rating the clothing companies this time around has been comparing their performance against previous ratings. Ethical Consumer’s data, which tracks the Corporate Social Responsibility performance of these companies over a 20 year period, makes it startlingly apparent just how much campaigns shape corporate behaviour. Below, we pick out a few examples and hold them up for scrutiny.
In 2001, in response to campaigners’ calls, the European Commission produced proposals for a new system of Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals and, by 2007, legislation was in place that limited the harmful chemicals present in products. After this, many companies publicly stated their policies on reducing these substances.(2) However, until recently, the spotlight had moved away from chemicals somewhat, with Friends of the Earth and WWF both ending campaigns on toxic chemicals within two years of each other.(1) So in 2011 many companies appear to have taken their eye off the ball in relation to chemicals, with many of those on our score table opposite having no such policy at all. Read how we are supporting Greenpeace’s Dirty Laundry report and campaign, and what we are asking of companies, below.
The same goes for PVC – after a massive backlash against this toxic substance, companies responded by banning it from their products. Some companies, which had banned PVC in all sectors, not just clothing, are now using it again, and many of the companies on the scoretable above sell some products containing PVC. H&M commendably removed PVC from all products in 2002 but, fast forward to 2011, and products containing PVC are displayed on their website once again.
Below we look at the campaign against forced child labour in the Uzbekistani cotton harvest, and how companies are responding differently to this campaign and others, depending on whether they’re located in the USA or UK.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Companies’ responsiveness to campaign pressure means that as consumers we have the opportunity, as well as the responsibility, to make a real difference by supporting campaigns. See the workers’ rights stories below for a list of campaigns and organisations to get involved with.
How we’ve rated the companies
Supply chain management
Last time we covered clothes in Ethical Consumer magazine, we weighted our supply chain policy criteria, to reflect the importance of protecting workers’ rights in this sector which is renowned for its use of cheap labour overseas. This time around, partly influenced by these ratings, we have a newly-implemented set of criteria, now called ‘supply chain management.’ As well as a company’s policies, these take into account the efforts it is making to tackle difficult issues in it’s supply chain such as access to trade unions in countries such as China where they are illegal. Examples of best practice include working with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and employing specialists to monitor conditions.
In recognition of the fact that companies must go further than simply posting a policy up on their website, the new criteria reward those which are spending time and money investigating how these problems can be tackled. It will be interesting to monitor companies’ progress against these criteria going forwards.
Promising supply chain initiatives
The problems endemic in clothing supply chains are such that companies operating individually cannot hope to solve them. Here are just two examples of initiatives which seek to identify common problems and use shared knowledge to find solutions.
Made-By, a European not-for-profit organisation, supports fashion brands in implementing good environmental and social standards that can be developed and maintained within a commercial environment. In working with Made-By, a company’s supply chain is made publicly available on the organisation’s website. This level of transparency is key to improving sustainability and forms part of our new supply chain ratings criteria.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), is a coalition of several big-name brands*, plus manufacturers, non-governmental organisations, academic experts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They are working together to find a ‘common approach for measuring and evaluating apparel and footwear product sustainability performance.’ The Index which SAC seeks to produce will not be publicly available, however, although the coalition says that plans are afoot to produce a consumer-facing index. Ethical Consumer awaits further developments with interest.
*Including H&M, Levi’s, M&S, VF Corp and Wal-Mart of the companies in this buyers’ guide.
Click here for a comparison of the High Street companies’ policies.
Ethical Consumer marks down companies which sell animal products that have involved the killing of animals. Companies have received negative marks in this column for the sale of the following:
• silk (which involves the killing of silk worms)
• leather (a slaughterhouse by-product worth around 5-10% of the market value of an animal)(11)
• Australian merino wool (which often involves the use of the cruel practice of ‘mulesing’ – cutting a flap of skin from the animals’ rumps to avoid a summer infestation of flies and maggots).
In this buyers’ guide we have not marked down companies for the use of other wool.
We asked all companies for a cotton sourcing policy, recognising the huge environmental and social impacts of the crop. Large companies which are unable to demonstrate that they avoid GM cotton, or cotton originating from Uzbekistan, or which have no concrete plan to phase out non-organic cotton by a certain date, receive marks in our Genetic Engineering, Workers’ Rights and Pollution & Toxics categories respectively.
Ethical Consumer writer Leonie Nimmo recently appeared on Channel 4’s Dispatches to challenge high street jewellers’ claims that they knew where their gold came from. The programme ‘The Real Price of Gold’ uncovered the shocking reality of gold mines, including child labour, dangerous mining conditions and communities poisoned by pollution. Secretly filmed assistants working for Argos, Ernest Jones and Goldsmiths were found to be making misleading claims about how and where their gold was sourced. “Most companies have no idea where the gold they sell comes from”, says Leonie. “All they know is that it comes from banks, as admitted by a spokesperson from Signet, the biggest jewellery retailer in the UK. Companies need to take urgent action to ensure that their gold supply chains are not tainted by human rights abuses and environmental destruction”.
Companies that appear in this report that sell gold products but make no commitments to source responsibly lose half a mark in the human rights and pollution and toxics categories. Those that make no credible claims about responsible diamond sourcing lose an extra half mark in the human rights category due to the diamond trade’s fuelling of conflict in Africa.
Visit the Dispatches website to sign the pledge calling on the British jewellery industry to clean up its act.
The No Dirty Gold campaign is calling on British jewellery retailers to sign the 12 Golden Rules for responsible gold mining.
In ethically-sensitive Britain, we have a responsibility to act
In this globalised world it is sometimes easy to forget that a company in the UK can be a completely different creature to its namesake in the U.S. When it comes to corporate responses to campaigns, you can see very different results depending which side of the pond you’re on.
In June 2011, a report published by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights revealed that workers at a garment factory in Jordan had been routinely beaten, underpaid and forced to work excessive hours. In addition to this and bed bug infested dormitories without heat or hot water, a pattern of widespread sexual abuse of female employees was discovered at the factory, most of whom were migrant workers from South Asia.
A month later, the five major American brands which sourced from the factory – Hanes, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart – refused to discuss their ongoing relationships with the supplier, although all except Hanes expressed concern.
In an interview with US-based online magazine the Huffington Post, the author of the report, Charles Kernaghan, criticised the brands’ silence.(5) “When we first started with this I thought Wal-Mart and Hanes – they are not into human rights,” he said. “But we thought they would draw the line in the sand at these rapes. Instead, they’ve been virtually silent.” This failure to respond to such serious allegations would surely not have happened had the companies been based in the more ethically-sensitive UK or Europe.
Take another example - in rating companies for this buyers’ guide we asked all companies for their policies on sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, something the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has been campaigning around for years due to the regime’s use of forced child labour during the cotton harvest. ASDA displays on its website an outright ban on sourcing cotton from this country.
Meanwhile, its US-based parent Wal-Mart says in its 2011 Global Responsibility Report that guaranteeing a supply free from Uzbek cotton is impossible. We contacted EJF about this issue – they disagree, saying that the required papers for exporting cotton create a paper trail that can verify its origins.
This just goes to show that as consumers in a country like the UK, where companies are regularly held to account for their actions, we have leverage that should be employed both in the UK and overseas. Our campaigns should demand action not just from UK-based subsidiaries, but from their parent companies too, wherever in the world they are based. We want Wal-Mart to stop buying Uzbek cotton, not just ASDA.
Last December tax avoidance protesters UK Uncut targeted Arcadia Group, as its holding company is registered in Jersey, a tax haven.(3) Added to this, rather than being registered as Sir Philip Green’s (the public face of the brand), the company is registered under the name of his wife, Tina, who lives in 0% income tax zone Monaco.(4)
But Arcadia aren’t the only tax dodgers in this buyers’ guide – companies found to be owned by holding companies in tax havens include: New Look, Monsoon, Peacocks, Bonmarché, Matalan Ltd and River Island.
Other companies whose company groups were found to use tax havens are: John Lewis Partnership, River Island, MNG-MANGO U.K. Ltd, Uniqlo, Aurora Fashions, Gap Inc, Inditex, H&M, Marks & Spencer, TJX Companies Inc and Primark.(10)
Marks & Spencer, River Island and Arcadia have also been criticised for excessive director’s remuneration (total annual amounts over £1million).(10)
A disappointingly large number of companies on the table make no committment in their supply chain policy to paying workers a living wage, namely Wal-Mart, Alexon Group (no policy at all), MNG-MANGO U.K. Ltd, Fast Retailing Co. Ltd (Uniqlo), Gap, Benetton (no policy at all), H&M, Matalan, Marks & Spencer, TK Maxx, River Island and Sainsbury’s.
Taking Liberties, a recent report published by Labour Behind the Label and War on Want, exposed workers’ rights abuses in the garment industry in the city of Gurgaon, India, where many high street retailers have their clothes made. Abuses included poverty wages, discrimination and non-promotion. Companies named as sourcing from the factories studied were: Arcadia Group, Debenhams, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Monsoon and NEXT.(7)
Several companies were named as buying from sportswear factories in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where the International Textile Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) reported poor working conditions. These were: Tesco, Walmart, Levi’s, The North Face (owned by VF Corp), NEXT, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Marks & Spencer and Gap.(8)
Many clothing companies produce their own cosmetics ranges. If this is an issue close to your heart, look out for animal testing policies, as we found a large number of companies which had none at all. These are marked by a full circle on the table under Animal Testing.
Sainsbury’s get a worst rating for having a reasonable, but not best, policy for their own-brand products and also selling branded animal-tested products.
A boycott was called against H&M in March 2010 by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.(9)
1 An Issue and a Campaign – ‘Chemicals and Health’ and ‘REACH’, pdf document downloaded from www.earthscan.co.uk 2 ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/background/index_en.htm 3 www.ukuncut.org.uk/blog/press-release-nationwide-day-of-tax-avoidance-protest-tomorrow 4 www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1302973/Is-Philip-Green-right-man-helping-Chancellor.html 5 www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/21/american-brands-abuses-factories-jordan-labor-conditions_n_903995.html 6 Captured by Cotton, SOMO and ICN, May 2011 7 ‘Taking Liberties’, Labour Behind the Label and War on Want, December 2010 8 ‘An Overview of Working Conditions in Sportswear Factories in Indonesia, Sri Lanka & the Philippines’, ITGLWF, April 2011 9 www.bdsmovement.net, viewed by Ethical Consumer in July 2011 10 Ethical Consumer’s Corporate Critic database, July 2011 11 www.all-about-leather.co.uk, accessed on 29/07/11
Toxic waste and water shortages
Juliette Williams from the Environmantal Justice Foundation gives us an update on their Uzbek cotton campaign.
As we approach the start of the 2011 Uzbek cotton harvest, whilst we maintain our engagement with proactive companies on the child labour issue, EJF’s work has also turned to the use of water in cotton production. Cotton is the world’s thirstiest crop - in Uzbekistan, in arid central asia, one kilo of cotton can require up to 20,000 litres of water, amounting to over 20 billion cubic metres of water every year. 28,000 kilometres of irrigation pipes and canals channel water away from rivers and into the fields, resulting in an environmental catastrophe. Satellite images reveal that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, has been decimated and now just 8% of its original volume remains. An area of 40,000 square kilometres of the original sea floor is now left exposed as a dry and salty desert. Fishing communities that once thrived along the Sea’s edge are now left stranded inland, where the population has lost its source of income and is exposed to appalling health problems as a result of this new desert area. The same causes of forced child labour apply to this environmental nightmare - a Government that retains the use of Soviet-style cotton production quotas, which compel farmers to grow the crop, even where the environment cannot sustain it. As consumers, considering our ‘water footprint’ should be as important as our ‘carbon footprint’ and we should support companies that are pushing for changes and efficiencies in the way cotton is produced. An even better choice is to select organic cotton from West Africa or elsewhere, where the cotton is rain-fed rather than irrigated.
Visit the EJF website
Greenpeace campaigner Martin Hojsik (coordinator of the Toxics Water Pollution Project) sums up the organisation’s recent report on toxic water pollution by factories producing sportswear in China.
As much as 70 percent of China’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs are affected by water pollution, and the clothing industry is making matters worse by pouring hazardous chemicals into the mix.
A year-long Greenpeace investigation into toxic water pollution in China uncovered links between a number of major clothing brands,(1) including Adidas and Nike, and suppliers in China which were found to be discharging persistent and bioaccumulative hormone disruptors into Chinese rivers. The findings from the research provide a snapshot of the kind of toxic chemicals that are being released by the textile industry into waterways all over the world, and are indicative of a much wider problem that is having serious and far-reaching consequences for people and wildlife.
This is a global problem that requires global solutions. As brand owners, Nike, Adidas and other multinational companies are in the best position to influence the environmental impacts of production and to work together with their suppliers to eliminate the release of all hazardous chemicals from their production processes and their products. These companies need to take responsibility for the use and release of persistent, hormone-disrupting chemicals into our critical and life-sustaining waterways and use their influence to become champions for a toxic-free future.
Greenpeace have demanded that:
• Companies establish policies that commit to shift from hazardous to safer chemicals, accompanied by a plan of action with clear and realistic timelines
• These policies to be based on a precautionary approach to chemicals management, and account for the whole product lifecycle
• Companies make the data about which chemicals their suppliers use and release publicly available
Ethical Consumer is supporting Greenpeace in its call for companies to implement chemicals policies that apply to the entire manufacturing process. For this buyers’ guide, we have not rated companies on their chemicals policies, but our next clothing buyers’ guide (in approximately two years) will expect progress towards Greenpeace’s demands, above.
1 The list of the clothing and sportswear brands is at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/reports/Dirty-Laundry/
Ruth Rosselson asks is it ever possible?
When Ethical Consumer first started covering ethical clothing, there were just a few UK-based companies making or marketing their clothes under the umbrella of ‘ethical fashion’. Those that were producing ethical garments were often criticised for having a very narrow appeal. Few of the brands designed and sold clothes that could be described as fashionable.
Fast forward to 2011 and it’s a completely different story. As we’ve become more aware of the ethical issues within the supply chain, more and more companies are producing, designing, and selling ‘ethical fashion’. Meanwhile, the profile of ethical fashion grows year-on-year as a variety of celebrities, models and actors take up the cause. London Fashion Week even has its own ethical fashion showcase, Esthetica.
While it’s positive that there are more options available for the concerned consumer, there’s something fundamental that this trend fails to address: fashion is an industry that thrives on transience, consumption and disposability. The fashion industry’s survival and success is down to one main concept: fashion styles come and go. What’s ‘in’ this autumn, will probably be ‘out’ next autumn, requiring you to buy a whole new wardrobe – whether or not you need one. The rise of fast fashion has meant that this turnover happens more rapidly than ever before.
For ethical fashion companies to directly compete with the high street, they need to buy into the idea that fashions will change from season to season, and year to year. But can a company really call itself eco-friendly, sustainable or ethical if it’s still trying to shift a whole new season of clothes every few months? Can it really call itself ethical if its clothes are so on-trend that no one will want to wear them this time next year? Or even this time next month? It’s a tricky business.
The Ethical Fashion Forum has a list of criteria for ethical fashion. However, although it addresses environmental, sustainability and animal rights issues, there is not a criterion for whether clothes are designed to be durable – in both manufacture AND design. The fact is that ethical fashion is an oxymoron. If it’s ‘fashionable’, then almost by definition it’s transient and disposable (unless that style comes back in fashion).
There are a number of companies producing ethical clothing which concentrate on producing classic styles, stylish clothes and staples. Perhaps the way forward is to throw out the idea of ‘fashion’ altogether, and develop instead a discourse around ‘style’, which is something that is more enduring than transient? Perhaps new terms altogether are needed?
Whatever we decide to call it, ethical designers need to consider the longevity of their designs – as well as the durability of the garments – so that they’re wearable season after season, year after year.
Ruth Rosselson is a freelance writer and editor http://RuthRosselson.net and tweets from
Why wool is my fibre of choice
Beate Kubbitz runs designer label Makepiece, which uses wool from her own flock, and is knitted within the community in Calderdale.
Sheep which are extensively farmed (i.e. outdoors) on a hillside in the UK experience general peace and tranquillity. There are rules and regulations on welfare and the inputs, and impacts on wildlife are relatively low. Even non-organic sheep rearing isn’t intensive in the way other mainstream farming (like chickens and pigs) is.
My sheep are Shetlands – a small, almost feral-looking sheep, which is often used for conservation grazing. I try to farm with low inputs. Making hay provides the majority of the winter feed so I don’t have to source much additional, non-local foodstuff.
There are few suppliers of ‘vegetarian wool’, where the sheep are never involved in meat production. My sheep are dual purpose, so as well as their wool being suitable for knitwear, the majority of my lambs will be sold for specialist meat (they’re a slow growing breed so they have longer lives than conventional butchers’ lamb).
Due to a long-term decline in wool price, for economic reasons farmers have concentrated less on breeding for a fine fleece. Other UK breeds still produce fleece for fancy yarns and clothing but even rough fleece is useful in carpets, futon fillings and in insulation where it’s naturally fire resistant – and renewable. The recent interest in wool has gradually pushed up the price of fleece and this should re-engage farmers with fleece qualities in their sheep.
For me, wool as a by-product of farming for food is a plus – you’re not using land that could be producing food or textiles. However, it shouldn’t be ignored that sheep are CO2 emitters and while in the right place they can be used for conservation grazing, in the wrong place they can cause soil erosion. It’s a personal choice, but I wouldn’t place wool ethically below petrochemicals or energy and solvent intensive plant fibres just because sheep are eaten.
Beate suggests you look out for organic wool, and the British Wool Trademark (which means the wool has been locally farmed and probably been spun in the UK or Europe). www.makepiece.com, 01706 815888.
Going local – Pamela Ravasio traces the journey from sheep fleece to designer knitwear.
It is old news that the wool industry in Britain and across Europe is a shadow of its former self. British breeders are in fact caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the price paid for each fleece by the British Wool Marketing Board is but a token and hardly, if at all, covers the costs(1) incurred for shearing or transport. On the other hand, it is against the law for breeders to simply dispose of wool as they please - the most cost efficient way usually means burning or burying it.(2) It also has to be recognised that most British sheep are not bred for their wool but for their meat and as such, some of the wool is not the quality required for high-end fabrics.
Yet although the European ‘big wool industry’ has probably been lost for good to other countries further east, the tide has started turning and breeders and producers are starting to take charge of their wool’s fortune again. In the course of the past two or three years a trend has emerged and changes to the British and European wool landscape have become palpable. As a direct consequence, small mills - or ‘mini mills’ - are cropping up across Europe, and their minimum quantities for processing can be as low as a single fleece. Some guarantee full traceability down to the individual sheep, others ‘only’ down to the flock.
The British and European wool industry, in short, is slowly recovering some of its former glory and production capacity. The markets the mills are catering to are the breeders of small rare breed flocks, as well as crafts people and designers committed to buying local. With waiting lists as long as nine months the mills are evidently in high demand!
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the Award winning eco fashion Blog ‘Shirahime’.
Woolfest is a celebration of natural fibres, especially all aspects of wool, wool products and wool crafts. To find out more, visit www.woolfest.co.uk
Getting Britain making things again
A new clothing factory in the UK owned and run by its workers – Giles Simon from Co-operatives UK reports.
Over the last twenty years there has been a slow decline in the British manufacturing industry. But with rising energy costs and a growing interest in buying local, there seems to be a turn amongst consumers – individuals and businesses – towards buying UK manufactured products.
Riding the wave of this interest is Midshires Clothing, one of a relatively small number of UK clothing and garment manufacturers.
Based in Kettering, Northamptonshire, Midshires Clothing is even more unusual because it is a worker co-operative, a business owned and run by its employees.
The factory was established last year by workers from a former garment manufacturer in the area and people from a nearby worker owned co-operative, Brightkidz, which supplies high visibility clothing to schools and local authorities.
Alison Holland, a founder member of both Brightkidz and Midshires Clothing, says “Brightkidz was looking for a UK manufacturer for its products, but couldn’t find any that could provide what we needed. Then the opportunity of opening a factory with local workers came up and we jumped at the chance.”
The co-operative is developing its range of products. Many it produces directly for BrightKidz, primarily high visibility clothing for children and cyclists. In addition, it manufactures workwear and specialist garments for the healthcare sector.
Recent work – which demonstrates how co-operatives are often the first to support one another – includes producing bags for Lincolnshire Co-operative, a large customer owned co-operative in the East Midlands; and shirts for the Woodcraft Folk, the participative, co-operative movement for young people.
Because of its unique nature, Midshires is also branching out into manufacturing for a small number of ethical fashion labels. As Alison says, “As a UK based business with our workers in full control of the business and the profits, we see ourselves as one of the most ethical garment manufacturers in the business.”
The close relationship between Brightkidz and Midshires has its advantages. Not only does it allow Brightkidz to produce clothing it needs quickly but, because they are now based next door to one another, they can co-operate with one another.
Midshires is a new and growing enterprise that Alison rightly thinks is part of a bigger picture: “The great thing is that there is a history of garment manufacturing in Kettering and around, so there have always been people with skills but without any jobs. We can now start to offer people jobs and play a small role in getting Britain making things again.”
There are a small but growing number of UK based manufacturers who are beginning to benefit from a change in how people want to shop. What makes Midshires Clothing nearly unique is that it’s a UK clothing manufacturer where the workers don’t just have a job: together they own and run the business.
Change is in the air
Now is the time to stand up for those who sew your clothes, says Bryony Moore.
The past year has been a momentous one for workers’ rights. Bangladesh’s garment-making workforce, the majority of whom are women, are commonly paid far less than the cost of living. In December 2010 they were forced to take to the streets in a series of protests against their working conditions. Police and companies fought back, turning peaceful protests into violent battles in their attempts to quash the uprising, leaving dozens of men and women wounded and some dead.
The Bangladeshi government has a vested interest in keeping trade unions out of garment factories, since the garment industry produces nearly 80% of the country’s total exports.(1) Companies are attracted by its highly competitive prices, maintained by the pittance paid to workers.(2)
The minimum wage was almost doubled at the end of 2010. However this fell short of the 5,000 taka workers and their trade unions had been asking for and only amounted to half of a living wage of just over 10,000 taka, as calculated by the Asia Floor Wage Campaign.(4)
Bangladesh is by no means the only place where such revolts have been occurring. Anti-union activity is rife throughout most of the countries which produce our clothes. A recent report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) counted the killings of trade union activists around the world in 2010. It makes for depressing reading. The worst countries appear to be Colombia and Guatemala, with 49 trade union activists killed and 20 escaping assasination in Columbia, and ten killed in Guatemala. Other murders were recorded in Bangladesh, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Pakistan, the Philippines, Swaziland and Uganda. In Iran a trade unionist teacher was hanged after a trial which violated basic standards of justice, according to the ITUC.(3) This death toll represents nowhere near the numbers of workers killed while quite literally fighting for their right to be paid a decent wage.
It is imperative that companies with purchasing power do all that they can to remedy this situation. Workers without access to trade unions are powerless, but companies can use their position to make a difference. For this reason, one of the criteria in our newly-revamped supply chain management category is that companies engage with NGOs to aid workers in their access to trade unions. And one of the best ways to get companies to act is through consumer pressure. See below for a list of campaigns you can add your voice to.
Workers’ rights campaigns
Labour Behind the Label (UK)
War on Want (UK)
No Sweat (UK)
International Labor Rights Forum (USA)
Child labour is a common problem across many countries in the garment industry. However, a recent report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) highlighted a particularly disturbing incidence of the practice.5 Many young women and girls are recruited into the garment industry in India under so-called Sumangali Schemes. The Tamil word Sumangali refers to a married woman who lives a happy and prosperous life. Sumangali schemes sign up female workers on three-year contracts, with the promise of a lump sum of money at the end, which the girl’s family often then use to pay her dowry – still a general practice in rural India, even though it was banned in 1961.
SOMO’s report revealed numerous abuses occurring at four garment factories in Tamil Nadu. The promised lump sum is not an additional bonus, but is the girls’ wages, held back from them until they completed their contracts. SOMO argues that this makes it a bonded labour scheme. And that’s if they’re lucky enough to see the money at all – the report found that in some cases the amount was cut short, or even not paid at all. Having such leverage over the girls, the three-year contract was often extended over longer periods. Many of the girls staying in hostel accommodation provided by the company were only allowed out of the compound once per month and 72-hour working weeks and mandatory overtime were common.
Since the report was published some of the factories concerned have taken steps to address these issues, but there is still work to do. SOMO urges companies not to cut and run from suppliers found to be operating Sumangali Schemes, but to use their influence to improve the situation. Tirupur People Forum (TPF) and the Campaign Against Sumangali Scheme (CASS) are working to eliminate this practice.
MAP Foundation’s work in Thailand
The MAP Foundation is a grassroots NGO in Thailand that supports migrant workers from the surrounding countries, particularly Burma. There are an estimated three million migrant workers working in Thailand, both legally and illegally. Many of these migrants are concentrated in the North along the border with Burma. This is also the hub of Thailand’s garment industry.
Many of the garment producing factories, based in such towns as Mae Sot, produce clothes for major transnational corporations under conditions that would be illegal in western countries. Cramped work spaces with little ventilation are common and workers will work for up to twelve hours a day to earn a meagre wage, often as little as 100 baht a day (£2). In many cases workers will live in dormitories in the factories to save just enough money to both live and send some home to their families. They often avoid travelling outside alone for fear of arrest and deportation, regardless of their legal status.
MAP works to raise awareness among migrant workers of the limited rights available to them and to support them in fighting for justice. Through workshops MAP brings workers together to discuss conditions, learn about rights and justice, and develop collective action strategies. Currently, MAP is developing a campaign based around garment production. ‘Made by Migrants for Export’ raises awareness among Thai garment workers of their value to the global supply chain. MAP build on their experience in the work place to develop strategies to combat ‘sweatshop’ exploitation. Working with groups in the west such as No Sweat and Labour Behind the Label to foster international solidarity, the aim is to present a united global front in the campaign against exploitation in the garment industry that can then be transferred to combat exploitation in other sectors.
Jay Kerr is an activist with the anti-sweatshop campaign No Sweat in the UK, currently living in Thailand working with the MAP Foundation supporting migrant workers.
This is the story of Miamo, one of the thousands who cross the border from Burma to Thailand every year looking to earn a decent living and send some money back to their families and who end up working in the sweatshop conditions of Thailand’s garment industry.
“I knew that the wages would be very low, but I hoped that maybe they would increase if I worked hard. I started in a knitting factory earning about 70 baht a day. After five years I now earn 90 baht a day, still only half the legal minimum wage. The factory makes deductions from our wages for the living quarters (we stay in large dormitories with only a mat for a bed), for electricity and for food. In high season we regularly work 10 hours a day, and only after that 10 hours do we get paid any overtime. The owner keeps our work documents so we don’t go outside because without documents we could be arrested.
After we learned about our rights, we tried to negotiate for proper wages and better conditions but the factory owner threatened to call immigration and have us deported. One day, however, the factory foreman beat one of the workers and we could no longer tolerate the conditions so we went on strike. It was very frightening because the factory called in the police but we stood our ground. We were nearly all deported but we managed to get some support from media coverage and from NGOs. Eventually an agreement was made. We would get clean water supplies for showering, the number of toilets would be increased and overtime would be paid at a better rate, but our daily wages remained the same! The leaders of the strike did not dare go back to work for fear of retribution and they could not get a job in Mae Sot as the employers had blacklisted them, so they had to use brokers to take them to work in other areas of Thailand.”
For more information of migrant workers in Thailand visit www.mapfoundationcm.org
Asia Floor Wage Campaign
The AFWC is calling for a single minimum living wage figure to be paid to garment workers across India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Thailand and Bangladesh. The campaign aims to stop wage competition between garment-exporting countries and halt the race to the bottom on pay.
There is another way...
Bishopston Trading is a clothing company with a difference. In 1978 a group of residents of Bishopston in Bristol twinned their community with the South Indian village of K.V. Kuppam.
Their intention was to promote friendship and mutual understanding between two very different parts of the world.
Several years later, Carolyn Whitwell, the group’s secretary, received a letter from a village leader in K.V.Kuppam which moved her profoundly. The letter thanked the twinning committee for all their support, but made the simple assertion that as skilled craftspeople the villagers wanted work not charity.
With this in mind Carolyn set up the Bishopston Trading Company as a means of providing employment for the village of K.V.Kuppam by utilising the traditional handloom weaving that was one of the major crafts of the area. Most garment workers in the global South end up in sweat shops in cities because they have to move out of rural areas to find work. Alongside poor pay, this often results in housing issues, with conditions in factory-supplied accommodation or urban rented accommodation often being poor.
The Bishopston Trading project is specifically designed to create secure and fair employment for the villagers using their own skills and keeping them in their own community. The company is a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation. The clothes they sell, made with certified organic Fairtrade cotton, provide work for a team of 213 cutters, tailors, craft workers and hand finishers, plus a further 260 handloom weavers. Workers enjoy a ‘provident fund, retirement gratuity, sickness benefit and health care’ and have been working with Bishopston since 1985.
1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-10779270 2 http://www.laborrights.org/creating-a-sweatfree-world/sweatshops/news/11145 3 http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/06/08/idINIndia-57559920110608 4 http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/urgent-actions/item/843-bangaledesh_wage 5 Companies mentioned in this report were: Deisel, GAP, Inditex (Zara), Marks & Spencer, Matalan, Next, Primark, Tesco, Timberland (owned by VF Corp), Tommy Hilfiger.