Let’s be real! How many of us have ever thought along these lines: – ‘oh I hope this gorgeous orange Ted Baker dress has been made with products that are environmentally friendly’- before proceeding to put the item down because we are not sure? Nine out of ten of us ladies out there may not be able to say so confidently.
In recent times, the major fashion chains, following scandals, have implemented several strategies to assure us that their products are not damaging the environment or are not being produced at the detriment of their indirect employees (usually citizens of developing countries where wages are very low, labour law is lax and people are desperate for work). Although, it is not wrong for them to assure us that they are becoming more ethical by using products that are environmentally friendly etc, three questions spring to mind; firstly, are they really as conscious as they may have us believe? Secondly, are their efforts making a difference? Thirdly, are we as a society really mindful or care about the effect of consumerism?
If we take the fashion chain, Hennes and Mauritz (H & M) for example, its motto for sustainability is ‘People, Planet and Profit’. The Planet part has seen it use materials, supposedly eco friendly materials, such as organic hemp to make its recent ‘Conscious Collection’ (I’m not so sure about this, as it evokes the sensation of my newly purchased top reeking of an illegal substance) Nevertheless, the collection also boasts an array of pieces made from eco-fibres ranging from organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
The Profit part is where H & M and other stores have, in the recent past, come under fire; as they are accused of using cheap labour in countries such as Bangladesh; to make clothes at low cost in Far Eastern countries whilst gaining huge profits in the West. It is recorded that the Average monthly wage for a garment factory worker in Bangladesh is $43 (the lowest in the world) in Naira this is approximately 6,970. The figure is obviously appalling; doing a mental calculation of the cost of bare necessities in Nigeria, it is evident that such a wage can only be sufficient for a day let alone a month.
It is clearly in a bid to quiet the critical voices that such firms embark on CSR initiatives such as the conscious collection amongst other projects. The H&M strategy also involves ensuring the development of working conditions in the countries that produce their stock.
So can we really say that these schemes are a genuine response to the working & environmental conditions or a means to silence public outcry? With regards to the use of cheap labour, current reports as shown in British newspaper, the Independent (April 14, 2012) demonstrated that the working conditions in such countries are still the same and that the problem may be more complicated due to the fact that the retailers subcontract to factory owners in such countries; who do not care about their employees’ work conditions and only pretend their factories are in good order when it’s time for inspections. It’s evident from this report that things may take a while to change despite the efforts of the big retailers.
However, it further demonstrates that our insatiable need, as a society, for clothes is what sustains the industry and compels mass production which can be linked to the work conditions problem. The demand is more than the laborers, so the sub contractors can afford to be nasty, as there will be someone else waiting to take the job. What’s the way forward? I must confess I am not strong enough (don’t judge me) to take what may arguably be a lasting solution i.e. to boycott shopping in totality. It seems the first step in the ethical direction could be to ensure the companies that abet such conditions should feel the effects of a backlash. As stated by a commentator of the UK’s Independent newspaper ‘a company’s biggest asset is its brand and reputation’. Feeling that its customers are turning their backs on their products may just cause a retailer to sit up and make changes where necessary. Look likes we have the power to make the change we want to see.