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Social burden: The cost of cheap clothes and consumers' power to change it

Would people pay an extra €5 per product to ensure foreign workers’ safety and wellbeing?

shutterstock_414062893 Source: Shutterstock/Have a nice day Photo

JUMPERS, COATS, GLOVES – Christmas is shopping season for all kinds of products, and clothing is often the first place people turn to when buying for their family and friends.

Prices of clothes are also getting very cheap in the last few years, with the emergence of stores like Penneys, and the adjustment of competing retailers to retain their customers.

But there’s a price to this race to the bottom, and further than that – there’s a hidden message for every consumer as they head out Christmas shopping.

‘Cost of a €2 t-shirt’

2013 was the first time many people witnessed how the glamorous fashion industry makes its profits.

In April of that year a clothing factory building collapsed in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh - killing more than 1,100 people.

As bodies were pulled from the rubble, people turned on the clothing industries that outsourced their production to businesses like this one.

They accused retailers of pressuring small producers to lower their prices so that they can lower the cost of their clothes.

“Tragedies like these shouldn’t happen for the sake of a €2 t-shirt,” says retailer Carol Doyle. “These are people who should be benefiting from jobs, their kids able to go to school, not risking their lives.”

Carol runs BelleEtik in Cork, a shop which sells natural and ethically sourced clothing. She’s not mad on the term ‘ethical fashion’ to describe FairTrade fashion, as she says the term is heavy and overwhelming, and fashion is meant to be fun and exciting.

shutterstock_360486908 Source: Shutterstock/MaximSob

“My shop is a shop like any other, but we work under FairTrade conditions.”

She says that it’s up to each individual store to decide how to proof themselves against this, and says store owners may genuinely not know what conditions their producers are working under.

“Every store is in charge of its own supply chain. But when we outsource production we seem to be outsourcing responsibility as well. The more we put pressure on the producer – and it’s hard for them to turn down big contracts –  the more we’re actually squeezing out of people.

“We’re in a race to the bottom at the moment to make things cheaper and faster.”

Rana Plaza

After the Rana Plaza disaster, many whose clothes were made in the factory were slow to provide assistance. But Primark very quickly paid out €13.4 million in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“We knew we were there,” said  Paul Lister, the head of Penney’s parent company Associated British Foods. ”Some people who haven’t paid wouldn’t have known they were there or would dispute they were there. That could be for a number of reasons. You may genuinely not know you were there.

These people were making clothes for Primark and a lot of other people.

“We were able to help immediately. Food was the first aid people needed. After that, they needed short-term payment. We paid three months’ wages to everyone in the building, which later turned out to be nine months’ wages.”

Penneys has an ethics team that aims to ensure that systems are in place to ensure that workers aren’t exploited.

“We’ve got 1,700 factories around the world,” says Lister. ”In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have any issues – it’s not a perfect world. It’s not done.”

Chocolate and bananas

Carol’s geography teacher sparked her sense of social duty: she began her retail experience with the FairTrade label in Germany – selling bananas and chocolate.

“When I returned to Ireland nearly 14 years ago I became more engaged in global trade. I met different NGOs here, and ended up meeting women who worked in clothing production – eastern european workers, and a union organiser in Thailand, for example.

This was all during the Celtic Tiger and I really got bogged down by shopping. I wasn’t comfortable in the clothes I was wearing.

When asked if shoppers care about the social cost of cheap clothing, Carol says that information is key.

“I think we don’t know – we’re only in the shopping environment but not the production conditions. We might sew a hem on a skirt or trousers, but as consumers we’re really disconnected from the process.”

Siobhan O’Brien of the Pattern Design Studio has worked in the fashion industry for over 20 years – starting at a time when Ireland was thriving with fashion houses, designers and manufacturers.

Within a five-year period, all but a hand full of manufacturers were left. The Enterprise Board brought the larger fashion houses to Eastern Europe to introduce the designers to the manufacturers, and thousands of jobs were lost in Ireland as without the bigger designers they could not keep their doors open.

She says that efforts to automate the clothes-making process might solve some of the problems, but we’re a far way away from that.

“If the process is automated, large amounts of garments could be cut as well as other separate operations, but machinery cannot take a garment and sew it together more efficiently than a human can!

She adds that 3D printing experiments are attempting to recreate garments, “but we don’t want to wear plastic garments: we like soft and warm fabrics, so the closest we have to that is the knitting machine”.

shutterstock_332766272 Source: Shutterstock/Tomsickova Tatyana

If people were told that all products and clothes would rise by €5 to ensure workers are getting paid, would they be willing to pay that?

“I’m sure they would. We talk about brands’ responsibility, but consumers also have a responsibility, and there’s a power in that we’re part of the process.

“Every little we spend makes a difference. Realising that power and taking it back by asking the questions like ‘How do I know is this being produced fairly?’

“I’m in that area myself, of thinking about what I can do, and it can be overwhelming and exhausting. But I think more and more people are questioning, and brands trying to figure it out too.

“As lovely as it is to go as local as possible and shop in small, independent shops popping up around the place, remember that we’re part of that voice that influences the industry – - and a bit more pressure is needed.”

O’Brien agrees that there is a power that the consumer has in the clothes process:

“Something has to happen. If we all do something like we have seen in other industries we can start to slowly change what we have started. The industry will not change if it doesn’t have to, so unless we want them to change nothing will happen.

“The alternative is we all go nude but this is not really an option!”

Read: Ireland’s favourite books for 2016 have been announced

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