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Making fashion fairer

Making fashion fairer

This week two global fast fashion giants come to town. Fancy a bargain, but care about the people who made your peasant blouses and hoodies? Someone has to pay for fast fashion. Too often, it’s clothing factory workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and other developing economies. Despite international efforts to reform the industry, reports keep coming of fire-trap factories, 12-plus-hour days, and child labour.

A new book on improving working conditions and human rights for clothing workers argues major fashion brands, governments and consumers all have a role to play.

“One of the most pressing issues for international businesses is managing the quality and ethical standards of supply chain partners – from the cotton field to coat-hanger,” says Dr Benson-Rea, senior lecturer in Management and International Business at the University of Auckland Business School.

"Governance Reforms in the Apparel Industry after Rana Plaza", out early 2017, is co-edited by Dr Benson-Rea and Professor Andy Hira of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

After the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, which killed 1136 workers – mostly women and girls - and injured over 2500, Western clothing companies vowed “never again.” Western brands put together two agreements to build safety and human rights into their supply chains.

The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety includes over 200 apparel companies, two global labour unions, several local unions, and NGOs. It legally binds companies to spend money to improve garment factory conditions. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety requires the roughly 500 factories involved to be inspected, and provides financial contributions for renovations and training.

Real progress has been made, and more workers are being paid a minimum wage. But there’s a way to go yet, with fresh allegations by NGO watchdogs that many factory workers still endure dangerous conditions. And while most fashion companies now know their suppliers at the final stage of production, many remain unaware of their raw material suppliers.

An Australian survey, commissioned by NGO Baptist World Aid, gives companies a simple letter grade based on their policies, supply chain, monitoring and worker empowerment. In its 2016 report, Zara scored A, H&M scored B+, Glassons and Topshop got C+, and Karen Walker got C (showing price is no guide).

Christina Stringer, an Associate Professor in Management and International Business at the Business School, wrote a chapter in the new book on fashion brands’ international obligations.

“Western brands must continue to step up to the mark and take action to ensure their supplier firms improve working conditions,” she says. “Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses are responsible for ensuring due diligence of their supply chains.”

Alongside the “corporate-led model of reform”, we need action from national and local governments and greater transparency for consumers, the book argues.

“Consumers need to let companies know that they support safety initiatives so far but must do better,” says Dr Mike Lee, a senior lecturer in Marketing at the Business School who also contributed a chapter.

Consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets by choosing not to buy so much or by recycling, he says.

“Consumers can choose to reward or punish companies with their consumption and anti-consumption behaviour, but many consumers are cynical of corporate social responsibility (CSR), particularly when enacted by large multinationals. Some consumers see CSR efforts as a marketing ploy, while others are torn between wanting to do the right thing and not being sure whether their efforts will actually trickle down to workers or not.

“Greater transparency is vital: consumers want and need to know where their money goes and how exactly ethical programmes in governance work.”

On a brighter note, research by PhD student Miriam Seifert, has found that even though ethical fashion brands made in New Zealand are more expensive, the businesses can be financially sustainable and profitable in the long-run because of their loyal customer base, their eagerness to be transparent and their devotion to doing what’s right.

Dr Benson-Rea: “If we are going to save and improve the lives of low paid workers in developing countries, consumers and company shareholders are going to have to pay more for new clothing.”


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