Ethics of the Garment Industry Series

We always write about how important we think it is to shop ethically. It could be second hand clothes, fair trade jewellery or buying meats that have been raised ethically.

There are many reasons for this:

  • We like recycling
  • It’s good to know something has lasted such a long time
  • That it has been enjoyed before, that it is being used to its fullest
  • It’s fun looking for unique products that no one else will have
  • It’s important that there is a story behind our belongings
  • Recently I bought a pair of earrings for my mum. It was made from glass found in Bangladesh from broken windows. It’s so cool knowing there is a use for everything you find
  • It is also because we don’t enjoy the greed that is produced from living in a consumerist society

One reason we dislike fast fashion is because it is unnecessary. Oh So Ethical might love shopping but we don’t like the greed that fast fashion produces. I remember when I worked in a clothing store I was told that every week we get new clothes. At first I thought this was really good but I soon realised how silly this was. Why do we need new fashion so often? Are we that shallow? Fast cheap fashion can make people search high and low for a bargain, but never once consider where the clothes came from. At Oh So Ethical we put ourselves in the shoes of people working unfair hours, with unfair pay and no rights. We put that before what we want to wear.

Whilst we want to promote recycling and fair trade, we don’t want to ignore the work that brands do to be more sustainable and ethical. If we applaud their efforts it will encourage them to move further into the direction of respecting human beings rather than dressing them in cheap pretty clothes.

In a series of posts we will be examining what businesses have done since the Rana Plaza collapsed, asking:

  • How have they helped those affected?
  • How do they ensure garment workers are treated well (pay, hours, rights)?
  • Do they care about the environment?
  • What is their social impact?

We can start with Primark. Growing up and not having a lot of money, I saw Primark as a great place for a shopping spree. Primark is enormous and you can find anything you want there.

In his book the Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook writes “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west”.

When I realised that the clothes that I had could have been made by someone that has just died making more of these clothes I couldn’t go back. However, since the collapse Primark have made an effort to become an ethically conscious brand.

How have they helped those affected?

  • Primark was the one of the businesses that took fast action after the collapse. They set up helpdesks near the factory site immediately after the collapse in order to help victims, workers and families
  • They gave emergency food parcels to over 1265 households
  • They have worked with local partners in Bangladesh to give long term and short temp help in the form of compensation, financial support and food aid
  • They are also working with the industry to make garment making safer
  • In May 2013 they signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, initiated by the IndustriALL and UNI Global Unions
  • In June 2013 they began inspecting building structures

A Primark spokesman said “We want everyone, especially the workers themselves, to be confident that Primark products are produced in safe factories”.

How do they ensure garment workers are treated fairly?

Primark states that most factory’s pay the same wage regardless of whether the worker is making clothes for a luxury brand or a value retailer.

They emphasise that their low prices don’t mean that they pay low wages.

I always wondered how they can pay a good wage to someone whilst charging so little for clothes. If a shirt is £2.50 how much of it goes towards the person who made it? Primark say that they are able to charge so little because they don’t spend money on expensive adverts, they get good deals by ordering large amounts of supplies and have their clothes made efficiently, for example by sourcing fabrics close to the factory.

And what about safety?

They do not place an order with a supplier until they are inspected against the code. Factories are inspected internally and externally. They also ensure that workers are of legal working age. Their suppliers have to follow a code of conduct where there are good working conditions; workers are treated well, know their rights, learn how to budget and get paid a fair wage. They are also working towards helping workers earn a living wage.

Do they care about the environment?

Primark joined Greenpeace’s Detox campaign and was recognised as a leader on the issue.

Energy saving– They work to reduce the energy used in stores by using green technology like low level lighting.

Environmental Impact– They are working with Our Cleaner Production programmes to help textile factories reduce and respect the natural resources they use.

Farmers– In 2013, Primark started a program in partnership with CottonConnect to help farmers learn better techniques on how to reduce the amount of water and pesticides they use, and how to improve the cotton they grow in order to earn more money.

What is their social impact?

Charity– They have almost raised 3 million euros by donating clothes to be recycled and used it to support disabled terminally ill children and research into birth defects.

Education– Primark also working towards showing communities how important education is for children

Women’s Health– As women make up 80% of the workers Primark has partnered with Business For Responsibility on an initiative that provides health education and access to healthcare. They select a group of women to be coaches in each factory and train them on health needs. These women can then support and train other women. Factories have begun to sell discounted sanitary towels and created links with local clinics and hospitals. As we’re women we can imagine how hard it is not to have things that we consider basic necessities like sanitary towels or have birth control. It does make us respect Primark for the effort they put into women’s livelihoods.