22 Apr

Who Made My Clothes? And Other Important Questions

Asking questions is the first way to begin change.

Kubra Sait

The beauty of Fashion Revolution Week is that we all wear clothes, and we can all participate in the campaign. All we have to do is ask our favourite brands key questions that ensure the lives of garment workers are protected. So what are those questions? and why are they important?

Who Made My Clothes?

This is the first question we ask on Fashion Revolution Week. Before Rana Plaza brought the world’s attention to the plight of garment workers, many of us didn’t think about how or where our clothes were made. Asking Who Made My Clothes? is the first step, and it works on two levels. One, we as wearers of fashion make the connection between what we’re wearing and the people who stitch the clothes together. Secondly, we literally demand brands reveal the source of their products. No longer do we accept opaque supply chains, where clothing is sourced according to the lowest cost and fastest turnaround with no knowledge, or even regard for how these things are achieved. If we want an ethical fashion industry, transparency is key. We want to know who made our clothes, in what countries, even down to which factories. Once we know who made our clothes, we can ask the next four important questions.

Are They Safe?

A key change to come out of the Rana Plaza disaster is the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord.  This agreement saw dozens high street fashion brands sign up to a regime of improved standards, inspections and training. The groundbreaking thing about the Accord is that it is legally binding, meaning brands that fail to improve standards risk being fined. While the Accord, has achieved “an unprecedented level of safety”, labour organisations are alarmed at the Bangladesh Government’s attempts to end it, without any new arrangements being in place. At the end of 2018, the Accord went to court to stop it’s Dhaka office being closed down. The case has been adjourned until May.

Of course Bangladesh is just one of the high-risk countries that produce our clothing. In the year before Rana Plaza, almost 300 people were killed in two factory fires in Pakistan. While conditions in some Cambodian garment factories are said to cause mass fainting episodes.  Asking clothing brands if their workers are safe means ensuring suppliers have a strong code of conduct and factories are audited. Also look for brands that use SA-8000-certified factories, or ones that are audited by the Fairwear Foundation.

Are They Empowered?

Most of the worker rights enjoyed in many countries – such as the eight-hour working day – only came about after hard-fought battles by trade unions. Collective power is real power, but the right to join a union and organise in your workplace is not guaranteed for many garment workers. Unions can help enforce safety standards, working hours, pay and conditions. They provide a channel for workers to raise disputes and represent otherwise disempowered employees to management.

Unions have been fighting hard to improve conditions for garment workers in Cambodia –  where three workers were killed during minimum wage strikes in 2014, after police opened fire on them. Six union leaders were recently criminalised over their involvement in the strikes. The workers had been demanding a minimum wage of $160 a month, when the government was only offering $100.

Ask your favourite brand what they are doing to empower workers.  Are they meeting with unions or collective bargaining groups? What are the outcomes of those meetings?  Are workers able to access an external grievance procedure?  If they are a large brand, what are they doing to influence policy, such as minimum wages in high-risk countries such as Cambodia? Positively engaging with unions in these countries is a powerful way brands can improve worker safety and rights.

Can They Afford To Live?

This can be a tricky one. The legal minimum wage of a country is not the same as the living wage. The living wage is often determined by labour organisations and independent researchers and can be different in different parts of a country. For example the living wage for London is 10pounds 55 per hour, while in the rest of the UK it’s only 9 pounds per hour.  That’s because the living wage takes into account the cost of living in a particular place, including the cost of housing and food. We know that many garment workers work extremely long hours and still live in poverty. They are not earning a living wage, even if it’s technically legal to pay them so badly. The Global Living Wage Coalition has lots of information on living wages for different regions and campaigns such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Oxfam’s What She Makes push for living wages across the industry. There are also various Fair Trade schemes around the world that ensure people are paid a fair price for what they produce – whether it’s textiles, raw materials, clothing or other products. This is also another area where unions come in, as collective organisations can determine local wage demands more effectively.

Are They Free?

In 2018, a report by the Walk Free Foundation, estimated 40 million people worldwide were trapped in modern slavery – including forced labour – with 71% estimated to be women and girls.  It also found that fashion was one of five key industries responsible for using slave labour.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, modern slavery has been able to flourish because of the complexity of supply chains. It says “up to 94 per cent of the global workforce of 50 major corporations is a hidden workforce because responsibility has been outsourced many times over.

Thankfully things are beginning to change. A number of countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia have passed legislation to combat modern slavery in supply chains and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, requires companies doing business in California to disclose their efforts to combat human trafficking. These laws put the onus on brands to do their due diligence and ensure their businesses are free from slave labour. A group of British High Street brands have also recently announced a new initiative to tackle modern slavery.

Modern slavery is  a complex problem, but transparency is key to begin tackling it. To eliminate modern slavery in fashion, we need to shine a light on supply chains. We need to ask – who made my clothes?

 

When Good On You rates brands, we look at their public statements to see if they are addressing issues around workers rights, empowerment and safety. You can also contact brands directly using our mobile app. The more people asking the right questions, the more things can change for the people who make our clothes around the world.

Editor's note: feature image via Fashion Revolution for Fashion Revolution's 2019 photoshoot by Lulu Ash and styled by Ellie Witt. Good On You has big plans for ethical fashion in 2019! To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offers code or affiliate links.

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