Back to school
You can now buy a whole school uniform for less than the price of a dvd. What the blazers is going on? asks Ruth Rosselson.
In 2014, supermarket giant ASDA announced that it was selling a school uniform for less than £10 – including shoes.(2) At such low prices, it’s no wonder that consumers and journalists have started asking questions. “I don’t understand how they’re able to bring it down year after year,” says Mark Rogers from ethical school uniform company Clean Slate.
ASDA pointed to its membership of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to reassure that the school wear was ‘ethically sourced’.2 Yet Sam Maher from Labour Behind the Label (LBL) and Paul Collins from War on Want have expressed doubt that ETI membership was proof that the garments were ‘clean’, explaining that research has repeatedly found over work and under pay in factories used by ASDA and other ETI members.(3,4, 29) “We want more proof” said Collins.
“They might be making ethical claims, but the reality is that we’ve seen no evidence.”(5) If companies are really sourcing ethically, then they need to be a lot more transparent about it, he argues. Collins believes that retailers need to publish more details about the factories, including exactly how much workers were being paid, rather than making vague statements about ethical trading.
ASDA isn’t the only one pushing prices down. Woolworth quickly followed suit by announcing that it would sell trousers and skirts for £2,(1) and other retailers also cut the prices of their school wear in a bid to compete. Mark Rogers thinks that it’s likely that ASDA and some of the other retailers are using uniforms as loss leaders – a much criticised tactic used to get consumers into the shop.
The trouble with these kinds of tactics is that when prices are cut other retailers will follow. So, even if ASDA itself was absorbing the cost of the low prices, it’s unlikely that all other retailers can and will.
More often than not, it’s the suppliers that are taking the brunt of the cuts, says Dominic Eagleton from Action Aid.(6) Factory managers in Bangladesh told Action Aid that by the end of 2006, Tesco was paying 5-10% less for clothes manufactured in Bangladesh than it was in 2003-4, even though minimum wages and living costs had risen.(4) Action Aid found that this meant that workers were suffering as they were “forced to absorb buyers’ demands for lower costs”.(4)
When we did a shop survey for schoolwear, we looked to see where clothes were being made.(7) Primark, Woolworths and Waitrose made this hard by not including country of origin information on their schoolwear. Indeed, we didn’t find any country of origin information on any of Primark or Woolworth’s products. All those three have received a lower rating from us for this lack of transparency, as we assume that, without labels telling consumers otherwise, at least some of their products could have been made in oppressive regimes such as China and Vietnam.
When we looked at the other retailers, our survey found that most items had been manufactured in Bangladesh, China, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam are on our list of oppressive regimes, giving companies a negative rating for sourcing from there. Although Bangladesh isn’t on our oppressive regimes list, the situation for workers there is pretty dire, as it is in many other countries not on our oppressive regimes list. According to LBL’s Sam Maher, there are two million factory workers in the Bangladeshi textile sector, mainly producing low-cost clothes for companies like ASDA, Tesco and Primark.
90% of these workers are women. “Their earnings are so low that they can’t even afford to send their own children to school, let alone buy them a uniform,” she says.8 What’s happening with cheap school uniforms, she continues, is that parents on low wages in the UK are subsidised by low-waged workers overseas producing their clothes, while in the middle of it, the companies are making massive profits.(8)
Last year, workers in Bangladesh tried to press for a national minimum wage of £25 a month – which, according to Maher, wasn’t even in itself a ‘living wage’. The government finally settled on a minimum wage of the equivalent of £13.27 a month – just over half what workers were asking for.(9)
When War on Want did its research into factories in Bangladesh supplying Tesco, Primark and ASDA last year, it found workers on less than 7p an hour working in excess of 70 hour weeks.(3)
Paul Collins believes that since then, very little has changed for those workers, despite rhetoric from the companies that those clothes are being made under ethical conditions. “We would know from workers if there was a significant change in conditions,” agrees Maher.(8) “Unless companies can prove to us that workers are working in decent conditions, then it’s unlikely that just because they are ETI members workers are being treated fairly and being paid enough”.
Bangladesh relies on the garment export business, explains Collins, but this means that our retailers wield enormous amounts of power, knowing that factories will compete for poor business, rather than have no business at all.(5) “The problems workers face in Bangladesh are not unique,” points out Maher“it’s just that Bangladesh is the low-cost clothing capital of the world. But it’s likely that these conditions are similar in many other countries”.(8)
Codes of conduct ratings
We asked all the companies in this report to send us a supply chain policy addressing workers’ rights at their overseas suppliers. No mainstream company provided us with a policy that would receive a top rating. This rating requires companies to ban forced labour and child labour under 15, set a maximum working week of 48 hours with a maximum of 12 hours voluntary overtime, independently monitor factories, ban discrimination in the workplace, allow or facilitate union membership and pay workers a ‘living wage’.
ETI membership does not qualify for a top rating because we require companies to name independent monitors and because the ETI’s base code falls down on the issue of living wages. The ETI code, like many others, pledges to pay workers “prevailing industry norms” or “legal minimums”. Although these codes do also state that this should be a ‘living wage’ they do not quantify exactly what this means in practice, or how such a wage is worked out. Most companies therefore just settle for paying industry norms or legal minimums, neither of which add up to what workers actually need to live on.
But, can companies afford to up those wages and still ‘compete on the high street’? Dominic Eagleton believes that, yes, they can.(6) In some cases, he points out:
“labour costs are such a tiny percent of the overall retail price [retailers] can afford to absorb the cost of increasing wages”.(6)
“For some products, you could even double the wages for workers and it wouldn’t mean much for the supermarkets,” he says.(6)
In other cases, just a small price rise of less than a pound an item, if filtered back to the workers, would be a significant improvement. Paul Collins meanwhile points to Tesco’s massive profits and the vast amounts of money paid out to company directors.
“Do they need £2.6 billion pound profits?” he questions. “Their chief executive stands to gain £11 million if the planned Tesco expansion into America is successful. Meanwhile, we’ve got poor rural women producing clothes in the hope of earning enough money to send some home, and finding that they hardly have enough money to feed themselves”.(5)
If companies are really competitive, he argues, then they should take the lead and start paying decent wages, and producing tangible evidence that they’re doing so.(5)
What is a living wage?
A living wage is one which “enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as allowing for discretionary income”.(10) Labour Behind the Label (LBL) say that the living wage should be “enough to provide for the basic needs of workers and their families.” A living wage should mean that workers would not have to work excessive overtime just to raise their income above subsistence level.
As it stands now, companies claiming to pay ‘living wages’ still pay workers so little that “they cannot adequately feed and educate their family”.(10) An important step toward the negotiation of a decent, living wage, is union membership, allowing workers to negotiate their own pay, rather than relying on companies overseas to set the standards for them. “A living wage is more than just an aspiration: it is a right” say Action Aid. “...workers have a right to earn a living wage within a reasonable number of working hours. Their children have rights too: to grow up in dignity, spend time with their parents and go to school”.(4)
School uniforms offer companies an opportunity to really show that they can source responsibly. Unlike fashion ranges, which are subject to fast moving trends and seasonal changes, school uniforms are standard clothing items. This means that some purchasing practices which lead to ethical principles being compromised could be tackled. The time between order and delivery could be longer, taking off the pressure for factories to push their workers into working such long hours.
The way that companies use ‘reverse auctions’ to choose suppliers could also be addressed. This is a tool used to drive down prices, as suppliers are asked to put in public bids online undercutting each other until the buyer receives the lowest price. Action Aid argue that prices in such negotiations are not based on what is reasonable “but what other suppliers have supposedly offered”.(4) Companies could instead establish long-term relationships with suppliers and work to set prices that would enable them to offer a reasonably priced item, without making compromises on ethics.
It’s not just in clothing manufacture that workers are exploited. An Environmental Justice Foundation (EFJ) report “White Gold, the True Cost of Cotton,” published earlier this year, found that child labour was rife in the cotton industry. In India, it claimed that over 100,000 children worked 13 hours a day.(11) Environmental degradation is also a big issue, as is pesticide use, which has a heavy toll on all workers in the industry, especially children. Cotton is, argues EJF, “the dirtiest agricultural commodity,” utilising “more insecticides than any other crop in the world”.(11)
A study in India found that children in cotton production areas performed badly “in tests to assess mental ability, memory, concentration, cognitive skills, balance, and co-ordination.”(11) Deaths as a direct result of pesticides are not uncommon. “In one season, one area in Benin reported 37 deaths and another 36 cases of serious illnesses, due to cotton pesticides.”(11) Chemicals used on cotton also pollute drinking water causing further problems. Cotton is also a very thirsty crop, requiring six pints of water for each single cotton bud. In Central Asia, the water demand for the irrigation of cotton fields has contributed to the draining of the Aral Sea, described by the United Nations as “one of the most staggering disasters of the 20th Century”.(11)
The EJF is calling for better labelling of cotton products, as currently only the country of manufacture (if that) is given. This means, says EJF “that unless the product is labelled as organic or fairly traded, we are left in the dark about the conditions of the cotton production.”(11) Better labelling would allow consumers to make more informed choices.
Fairtrade cotton is one positive choice that you can make, as certification means the cotton production has met Fairtrade principles. Unfortunately, at this time, the certification only applies to the cotton production and not to the working conditions of those manufacturing the clothes. Marks & Spencer is launching a range of Fairtrade cotton schoolwear, including shirts and polos. We hope that where it leads, others will follow. Some of Clean Slate’s items are also made from Fairtrade cotton.
Genetically modified cotton
The promise of genetically modified (GM) cotton was that it would reduce pesticide use and increase yields. However, Friends of the Earth International published a report in January 2007 which concluded that GM cotton has improved neither yields nor the quality of cotton fibre and that GM cotton has not reduced pesticide use after all.(12) FOE’s report warned of “the increasing power of a few biotech corporations and agribusinesses,” claiming that this was affecting farmers, who were “being harassed and sued by companies like Monsanto for doing what they have been doing for centuries: saving seeds”.(12)
The environmental problems associated with transgenic cotton are also worrying. Resistant weeds are rapidly becoming a problem for some growers and in some cases in the USA, farmers have been “forced to purchase and apply much greater quantities of [the pesticide] Roundup, to switch to more toxic herbicides in some cases, and also to abandon erosion-reducing conservation tillage practices”.(12)
Before collating this research, we contacted all the companies to ask them for their policy toward genetically modified cotton. The only company to respond on this issue was Marks & Spencer, which said that it was “developing a cotton strategy and looking at how it could grow more sustainable sources of cotton”.(13) Because of the prevalence of GM cotton all retailers were assumed to be likely to be selling cotton which had come from genetically modified crops. All organic cotton products, and since January 2007 all certified Fairtrade cotton, are GM-free.
When looking at the labels of many schoolwear and other children’s clothing items, you might notice logos of DuPont and Teflon, which is used as a fabric protector. The problem with Teflon is that certain ingredients “never break down in the environment, and can build up in the body over time.”(14) The chemicals concerned, ‘perfluorochemicals’ (PFCs) and Perfluoroctanoaic acid (PFOA), have been found in wildlife ranging from polar bears to dolphins and in laboratory studies have been “linked to multiple types of cancer... and birth defects.”(14) DuPont has agreed to reduce use of PFOAs and will phase it out by 2015.(15)
In the meantime, the US-based Environmental Working Group advises consumers to minimise exposure to PFCs and PFOAs, and avoid clothes with Teflon coatings.(14) Consequently, companies using Teflon receive a criticism under our ‘Pollution and Toxics’ column. Clean Slate is the only company that has an explicit no-Teflon policy.
Although there are a lot of ethical issues to think about when it comes to school uniforms, we should not forget progress made so far. Next is producing certified organic schoolwear items and these receive a product sustainability mark. Marks & Spencer has a range from recycled plastic bottles, which receive a product sustainability mark, as do its items made from Fairtrade cotton. Although these standards do not address workers’ rights in the supply chain, they are still positive initiatives and we hope to see other companies follow suit in addressing environmental issues.
The retailers are not just rated on their policies, but also on the products that they stock. For example, they will receive marks under Habitats and Resources for stocking non-FSC certified wood, and under Factory Farming for selling meat products not originating from organic or free range livestock.
In addition, companies receiving fewer criticisms are not necessarily any ‘cleaner’ than those coming out worse on the table. It’s just that they may not have been investigated or come under as much pressure from campaigners. Indeed, given that most Adams clothes are made in Bangaldesh, China and Vietnam as well,(7) it’s likely that its workers are not faring any better than those producing clothes for other stores. As a result, in this particular sector, the ethiscore is not always the best indication of the better performing companies.
According to War on Want and Action Aid, the time for voluntary initiatives has passed.(4,5) Despite ten years of initiatives such as the ETI, workers in supply chains are still being exploited. Both groups are calling for government legislation prescribing legally enforceable minimum standards. None of the campaigners are calling for boycotts of companies, arguing that workers need poorly paid jobs, rather than no jobs at all. Instead, they argue that we should continue to pressurise companies for better standards and more transparency, and that we should also pressurise the government to take more action.
Public debate on uniforms
Many schools restrict where parents can buy their uniform from– stipulating certain specialist retailers or school shops. Last year, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) called such restrictions “a tax on parents,”(1) finding that restrictive selling was costing parents an extra £45m a year.(1) In February 2007, Which? set out to find out whether there was any difference in the quality of schoolwear items between high street and specialist stores. It found that in three out of four cases, the material used was similar, with “little or no difference between the garments after testing”.(1)
As a result of the OFTs review, the Department for Schools and Families (DfES) is looking at its guidance, and is likely to continue to urge schools to make uniforms available from more outlets.(1) However, OFT and DfES have both ignored the ethical issues about how those garments are sourced and what they’re made from. We hope that this report will help parents feel more empowered to use ethical information, as well as cost factors, when making their shopping decisions.
At Ethical Consumer, we try and encourage consumers to favour companies which are performing better when it comes to ethical issues, in order to encourage those lagging behind to catch up. This is why we are recommending Next and Marks & Spencer, even though neither company is free of criticisms. Both are offering environmentally positive products and both fared well in Labour Behind the Label’s research last year. However, although we want to reward the positive steps they have made, we don’t want to give the impression that by recommending them, they have (to date) successfully addressed issues of living wages and union membership for workers in their supply chains. They have not.
• Visit the Environmental Justice Foundation website, www.ejfoundation.org and read about cotton farming in its two major reports available to download. Get active through the site by voicing your concern about child labour on cotton farms.
• Read War on Want’s report on low cost retailers at www.waronwant.org 0207 549 0555
• Get involved with Action Aid’s Who Pays campaign at www.actionaid.org.uk/whopays 01460 238000
• Write to retailers asking them to start adopting more transparent policies on the issues discussed in this article. Retailer addresses are listed on the centre pages
• Buy second hand where you can. Clothes swaps, jumble sales, freecycle, ebay and charity shops are good places to go for children’s school wear.
1 Which? February 2007, School Uniforms
2 BBC news website, “Store unveils £10 school uniform” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6707519.stm 31/5/07
3 See War on Want “Fashion Victims, The true cost of cheap clothes at Primark, Asda and Tesco” Published December 2006 and
4 Action Aid “Who Pays, How British Supermarkets are Keeping Women Workers in Poverty” April 2007
5 Conversation with Paul Collins of War on Want, 9/7/07
6 Conversation with Dominic Eagleton of Action Aid, 9/7/07
7 Shop surveys in Manchester in June & July 2007
8 Conversation with Sam Maher of Labour Behind the Label, 9/7/07
9 Labour Behind the Label website, www.labourbehindthelabel.org/content/view/144/74/ 17/10/06
10 Labour Behind the Label factsheet, “living wage” www.labourbehindthelabel.org/content/view/72/66/
11 Environmental Justice Foundation “Pick your Cotton Carefully” downloaded from ejfoundation.org 2007
12 Friends of the Earth International, “Who Benefits from GM Crops, an analysis of the global performance of GM Crops 1996 – 2006, Executive Summary, January 2007
13 Questions and answers from M&S, June 2007, emailed to Ethical Consumer
14 www.ewg.org website, www.ewg.org/node/19261 2006
15 www.epa.gov/opptintr/pfoa/index.htm updated 22/5/07
16 www.cleanslateclothing.co.uk viewed in July 2007, 17 Observer, 23/4/06
18 Clean up Fashion, Labour Behind the Label, September 2006
19 Clean Clothes Campaign press release 20/6/06, 20 War on Want, “Growing Pains, the human cost of cut flowers in British Supermarkets”, March 2007.
21 InMinds website, www.inminds.co.uk/boycott-israel.php visited 11/7/07 22 Matalan supply chain policy, downloaded in July 2007
23 Mothercare undated environmental policy document, downloaded from www.mothercare.com in July 2007
24 26/4/06 CSR Asia Weekly
25 Guardian, 21/10/05
26 Guardian, 30/6/07
27 BUAV press release 23/5/07
28 Conversation with BUAV, 11/7/07
29 Guardian 16/7/07