Cut-price ethics

With the UK’s big supermarkets still reeling from Aldi and Lidl’s winning formula of flogging cheap food, the German discount kings are now delivering what could be their killer knockout blow: super-cheap clothing.

This summer Lidl launched their women’s fashion range which sold out in a matter of days followed up with a foray into the men’s market this autumn which was just as spectacularly successful. And with jeans selling for just £6.99 and blouses for an indecent £5.99 it’s no surprise that this has been a huge hit with cash-strapped shoppers.

Aldi too have made moves into the discounted clothing market with special fashion promotions throughout their UK stores.But whilst Aldi and Lidl are busy tightening their grip on the UK, with 90% of their discounted skirts and shirts coming from Bangladesh and China, not surprisingly all this cheap clothing comes at a cost.

According to the latest survey from Labour Behind the Label, which campaigns for better working conditions for garment workers, both Aldi and Lidl need to be doing much more to ensure that the workers who churn out their cheap clothes are paid a living wage. Aldi are among those companies who are dragging their feet and, according to Labour Behind the Label, are doing next to nothing to ensure that workers are being paid enough to live on.

Lidl meanwhile are only doing slightly better and could do more, say Labour Behind the Label. Whilst Lidl acknowledges the need for a living wage, Labour Behind the Label believes that they’re doing little to make it a reality.“We need to see concrete action from Lidl to deliver real wage increases for workers across their supply chain,” says Hannah Smith from Labour Behind the Label.

In response Lidl issued Ethical Consumer with a statement that can only be described as a classic piece of corporate waffle. In it Lidl claim that they’ve implemented a “logistically challenging and innovative project to verifiably improve the actual wages of the local textile workers”.

Lidl go on to say that for the past three years all the workers in one particular textile company have received a bonus twice a year. Given that Lidl provided no details of how much the bonus amounted to, Smith is unimpressed by Lidl’s lack of transparency.“Whilst it’s great that workers are paid a bonus, why doesn’t Lidl give any more details?” asks Smith. “Does a twice yearly bonus compensate for the poverty wages they earn for the rest of the year?” Lidl then cites the work that they’ve been doing to improve the working conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh, something which Labour Behind the Label accepts is interesting.

Aldi and Lidl may be winning the battle of the supermarkets but it’s the garment workers who are losing out says Simon Birch.


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However Lidl add that bringing about change takes time, claiming that since the factories that make their clothes also produce clothing for a number of other UK-based companies, then what’s needed is a commitment from all these different companies.

Smith is again unimpressed with Lidl’s response. “How much longer can we legitimately say ‘change takes time’?” asks Smith. “While the responsibility for change does indeed lie with the clothing industry as a whole, the change process relies on a genuine commitment and willingness from key brands to stick their head above the parapet and show leadership on this issue.”

Ultimately, though, Aldi’s and Lidl’s business model means that workers’ pay and conditions will always come off second best. Their rock-bottom prices are the result of squeezing their suppliers and by only offering short-term contracts to garment factories.

“Without a long-term relationship there are few incentives to improve working conditions and practices plus suppliers are under continual pressure to secure the next contract,” says Smith.
“If Lidl and Aldi are serious about improving the pay and conditions of garment workers then they need to look at their own purchasing practices, the use of short-term contracts and their lack of willingness to take responsibility for paying workers a wage that affords them a decent life.”