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The Clothing Season: Beyond Ethical

September 21, 2011

Time to kick off the guest contributors with a challenging piece from Dave, writing from Pakistan:

Ethical clothing? Fair wage for workers, health and safety, environmentally-friendly inputs, sounds all very nice.

We talk about the need for good jobs, safe jobs, ethical jobs, but what about just the need for jobs? We talk about the need for health and safety, adequate lighting, work life balance, a good working environment, but what most of the poor want is a job, any job! People in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam are excited when a new sweatshop opens, because it means jobs, it means income, it means some money to send their kids to school, to buy medicine, to eat food.

Ethical clothing sounds like a great idea. But sadly much of it is a largely ineffective niche where a small handful of people get ripped off by manufacturers because they think the extra they pay goes on fair wages or health and safety, when most of it ends up as profit for the company – remember when Costa Coffee offered Fairtrade coffee for 10p more? 9p of that was Costa profit, only 1p went back to the farmer in Guatemala. And sadly sometimes the righteous desire for ethics in clothing manufacture is abated by the satisfaction of buying one ethical T-shirt rather than campaigning for widespread change. Rather we need to understand how we can build these ideas into the mainstream, but much much more so, how we can encourage pro-poor economic development such that people aren’t so desperate for a job, any job, that they would gladly work in a sweat shop.

How can we encourage ethical clothing manufacture into the mainstream? Yes having ethical brand champions can work, but we need everyone to play. We can’t enforce it in the source country, not in every country in the world, and voluntary practices around corporate social responsibility will only play around the margins. So we have to demand it as a body of consumers. Either we need to persuade all our friends to buy ethical clothing (good luck), or perhaps better we could demand that government forces retailers to adhere to it on our behalf. Our government demands certain minimum wage and health and safety legislation of retailers, so why not demand that all retailers in the UK require certain minimum wage and health and safety criteria on all the clothes they sell, on all the products they sell? Maybe clothes retailers could use an ethical traffic-light system on their labels like food manufacturers have to for theirs? Sounds difficult to enforce, and it probably would be, but more steps in this direction would be of greater significance than a few more of us buying an ethical shirt (although my wife does think I need some new shirts….).

But even this is just helping a few thousand workers. You want to change the game? Its all economics. How can we create a global economy that produces enough jobs so that people don’t have to work in sweatshops? Why do people in Pakistan (my country) work in sweatshops? Because being a poor farmer doesn’t put enough food on the plate. How do we help? Rigorous global standards will help a few in the sweatshops, or perhaps just move the sweatshops to an even less vigilant country. We need to help the farmer get better at farming so that he can feed his family without sending a son to the sweatshop. We need to help the farmer break out of the cycle of poverty he is trapped in because he owes money to the land-owner or the money-lender at unbelievable repayment rates that he will never repay, and sadly nor will his children, or their children. We need to help the farmer himself access higher-value markets so that it isn’t the mafia-run wholesaler who pockets all the cash, and with part of his profits buying guns in a country that really doesn’t need them. We need to reduce the trade barriers so that his farm produce (delicious as it is) can actually make it to your plate earning him enough money to survive, rather than his produce being sold at a pittance to the local market. We need a different set of global rules so that poor countries aren’t struggling and failing to compete with government-subsidised agriculture in the west, rules where American and Europeans aren’t made rich at the expense of poor Africans and Asians. We need to help governments in struggling countries get better at governing, so that they create the right environment for enterprise to grow, to create jobs, to build livelihoods. We need to identify and spread pro-poor ways of pursuing global development that have worked in some places (most of East Asia) and miserably failed in others (Pakistan for example).

Ethical clothing. Nice idea. But don’t be satisfied with buying a couple of clothes that make you feel good. Lobby government to force retailers to make all their clothes ethical, that is a start. But more, help the poor play fair in global economics, access to markets, access to finance, skills to grow more and better crops, remove ridiculous trade barriers, and (dare I say it on this blog) help globalisation work. Would that make a good slogan for an ethical T-shirt?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy in Germany permalink
    September 21, 2011 3:29 pm

    I agree with the article fully: the problems we see are symptoms of a bigger issue related to land distribution.
    However, I’m not convinced by the solution, somewhat predictably.
    I can’t help feeling that the solutions suggested, while sensible, rely on a global economy that has cheap energy to tansport this food from poor countries to us.
    Moving food those distances uses vast amounts of energy: to be fresh it must be flown, otherwise it needs to be carried by ship.
    Leaving aside the mounting evidence that we’re reaching the end of cheap energy, this is a business model that works far better for big business than small farmers, so wouldn’t it be better to build up a local non-mafia run market, rather than transporting food hundreds of miles to rich consumers?

  2. September 22, 2011 6:22 am

    My thoughts as well Andy. Building better local markets is a more sustainable option long term. One of the biggest problems for farmers everywhere is food wasted through spoilage, when that is tackled then earnings can increase.

  3. tony hodgson permalink
    October 17, 2011 3:38 pm

    My main comment is on maintaining old clothes. Till recently I have been driving a friendly dressmaker mad by giving her things to mend which really challenge her patience. For instance my bodywarmer was falling to bits so she got that together. I have had at least half my shirts’ collars turned and the bottoms of trousers and elbows of pullovers get patched. I have now found someone through the local LETS scheme (OLE) who actually enjoys mending.She has done darning for me but she drew the line at a pair of pyjamas which was split from top to bottom: that has relectantly gone into rags. I know you will be thinking that I or my wife should be doing it, but we don’t. Perhaps all this patchwork has contributed to a comment of a friend of ours that while my wife Judith looks as if she has stepped out of a bandbox, you…. Darn well Tony

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