Top fashion brands seek to improve conditions for sweatshops.


Levi’s, Nike, Adidas, H&M, Timberland, Puma and many other top fashion brands, organisations and suppliers have got together to launch a new initiative to improve the plight of workers in the fashion industry in Asia, South America and other parts of the world.

The ‘Social & Labour Convergence Project’ (Facilitated by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition) is an attempt to do away with a hap hazard array of different schemes and audits and create one standard of ethics across the board. By having one system that asses supply chains it will be more efficient, more transparent, save money and redirect funds into improving conditions for workers.

It is a response to demands from the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development and several European countries for a standardised, global approach to improving the working conditions of apparel factory workers.

The fashion industry has come in for a lot of flack about their associations with sweat shops over the years, and despite their denials that they really didn’t know what was going on, consumers don’t buy it. They should know, after all, they have a moral responsibility to check and improve the working conditions and safety of the people who manufacture their clothing and other products.

Ran Plaza

In April 2013, the 8 storey Rana Plaza factory complex disaster in Bangladesh highlighted the grim reality of working and living conditions of thousands of garment factory workers worldwide. 41 people, were charged with the murder of 1129 workers, including Sohel Rana, the owner of the complex, his parents, the owners of several factories in the building and a dozen corrupt government officials. Another 2,515 were injured, many seriously.

Bangladesh’s garment industry is worth over $25 billion annually making it the biggest after China, yet workers get as little as 38 euros a month.

The factory, reportedly, supplied many brands including Benetton, Bonmache, El Corte Ingles, Monsoon, Mango, Matalan, Walmart (owners of Asda) and Primark. Back in 2011, Walmart had rejected reforms that would mean retailers would pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve safety standards. Following the disaster they declined, along with 14 other American retailers, to sign up to a new Accord on Factory & Building Safety in Bangladesh.

What was really shocking was that the building has started cracking and despite other businesses evacuating it, fashion workers were forced to return to the building on threat of loosing a month’s pay.

The disaster created massive publicity, did a lot of damage to fashion brands and retailers, resulted in protest outside shops and boycotts.

It also spawned consumer-awareness and activism campaigns: Fashion Revolution Day, the hard-hitting web series Thread and Sweatshop, plus documentaries such as The True Cost.

It’s not rocket science to work out if procurement squeezes the supplier something has to give and human exploitation happens. You don’t need a degree in finance to know that, so it’s unbelievable when brands sound surprise and don’t take responsibility.

Only this week the food retailers have come in for criticism for being involved with the exploitation of migrant workers on fruit farms, because they were forcing prices down (see Marketing )

Global exports of textiles and clothing are around $800 billion, while £640 million is spent on social compliance audits every year in China alone.

Many will hope that this initiative is genuine and not a PR smoke screen, but I suspect we will continue to se stories appearing over the next few years that will shame well know fashion brands.

Of course the real solution is to manage the whole process and take out the dubious middle men (who are often locals exploiting their own people) and pay a decent wage directly to staff. The wage is such a small percentage of the final price it would make little difference if they added a few pence to the RRP.

Hopefully the Social & Labour Convergence Project will actually achieve real change in Bangladesh and beyond, before we see another disaster.

Chris Arnold is creative partner of Creative Orchestra Advertising and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer.