Every single day we perform two simple acts: we eat and we get dressed. But while people are becoming increasingly careful about the food they buy, when it comes to fashion, the origin of the products is still a question that remains mostly unaddressed.
Over the past decade, along with cheap clothes we have also been sold a myth: that buying a t-shirt at two dollars is a democratic right of our times. The truth is that there is nothing democratic about the principle of buying clothes at unrealistic prices. The equation is simple: if we want more clothes on the racks faster, workers must produce faster. And if we want our garments to cost less, then production – including salaries – must cost less.
In what has become a global rush to ‘fast-fashion’, high street brands demand a weekly, constant turnover of new collections, stock is kept intentionally low to trigger impulse buying, and supply chains are expected to respond to the latest trends, switching production in a matter of hours. As a result, clothes are cheaper than ever, fuelling the earnings of the global garment industry, worth some 3 trillion dollars per year.
Last year, the collapse of a factory complex at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh - a factory that had produced garments for some popular Western brands - killed almost 1,200 workers. It was the world’s worst industrial accident in 30 years, and it highlighted the human costs of fast fashion, prompting the general public to begin to ask the important question: who is behind the clothes that we wear?
The answer is often linked to a complex dynamic, an exploitation mechanism which lies at the bottom of the modern supply chain, and which has its roots in poverty, negligence, and most of all, corruption, the grease that fuels modern day slavery. According to Walk Free, there are nearly 30 million people enslaved around the world, the highest number in history, and roughly equivalent to the population of Australia and Denmark combined. Sadly, human trafficking is a fast-growing business, one worth nearly £90 billion ($150 billion) a year, more than the GDP of most African countries, and three times the profit of Apple combined.
Slavery is a global issue, and one that goes well beyond the fashion industry. Recent reports have highlighted the plea of Nepalese builders in Qatar, paid 45p an hour on 20-hour-long workdays, and Burmese immigrants in Thailand who are trafficked, brutally beaten and enslaved at high seas to fish the prawns that end up on our plates.
Today, if you compare state GDP to net profits, global corporations are bigger and more powerful than many nation states. However, these trans-national entities have very little to be accountable for. Supply chains are becoming increasingly long and complex, and they are often outsourcing responsibility to third party certification schemes that in reality don’t guarantee much at all. The reality is that even when corporations want to do the right thing, often they don’t know what exactly goes on in their supply chains.
And then there’s corruption. Many of the factories in Bangladesh where underpaid workers lost their lives, as well as hundreds of Indian factories where young girls are the victims of bonded labour, have been 'ethically audited'. Some of these audits are nothing more than lucrative corrupted shams run by local companies, outsourced by big multinationals.
According to the UN, both governments and business share a principle of responsibly. In other words, states have an obligation to set fair legal minimum wages, and businesses must pay wages accordingly. But the UN framework also clearly states that if governments fail to set appropriate pay standards, businesses still carry an obligation to respect the human right to a living wage, and therefore must be ready to take initiative accordingly.
An increasingly global economy calls for international standards and regulations.
We have strict and well defined safety and regulation standards across the airline industry, why shouldn’t we have universal measures to keep slavery out of the supply chains?
But global regulation is certainly not the only answer. In fact, if we use the market as a force for good we could see change at a much faster pace. Governments can take years to pass laws, and then perhaps never enforce them, while major corporations have the capacity to immediately pay fair and realistic production prices, and to switch suppliers in a day, making a real impact across the market, and changing the lives of millions of individuals simply by virtue of deciding how to source and to retribute their workers.
A living wage is a human right, and it is crucial that consumers are fully aware of the power in their hands. We’ll know we are on the right track only when we will see a £5 dress as a red flag, and not as a bargain.
Slavery in the supply chain is one of the themes of the upcoming Trust Women conference in London, 18-19 November.