Photo credit: Edwin Lee, via Flickr
The horrific news story about the collapse of a clothing factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing hundreds of people, has raised some questions in my head about where we get our clothes. Clearly, these are questions we (all of us in the West) should have been asking all along, just as we do for all the ‘cheap’ things we buy, from food to books to gadgets.
Anyone who knows me will know that I wear cheap clothes. Clothes are functional things, as far as I’m concerned – they keep me warm and protect those around me from indecency. I don’t care about fashion. People who pay huge sums for specific brands or designers are, in my view, just not very bright. Since I quit my job and left London, price has, by necessity, become the main factor in my choice of clothing. I no longer have the money to be choosy.
My four year old son has just secured his place in the state primary school that we wanted and so we’ve started looking at what he’ll need to be wearing come September. The school has a uniform, so he’ll need black or grey trousers and white shirts. They’re astonishingly cheap in the supermarket – £4 for two pairs of trousers, £6 for four shirts. Can they have been ethically manufactured? Surely you could only get that sort of price for sweatshop-made clothing. Enter the minefield that is ethical clothes shopping. This Guardian article from 2010 gives you an idea of the complexity bundled up inside that word ‘ethical’ (and that’s even if you ignore the tangential debate on whether or not school uniforms themselves are morally defensible). Cheap is not necessarily evil, is the gist. Or consider this from Alex Hern in the New Statesman who finds that there are sensible people offering coherent arguments for why sweatshops are not necessarily unethical anyway.
And, if you search for “ethical clothing” online, you enter into a parallel retail universe. If the marketing messages of companies describing themselves as making ‘ethical’ clothing are anything to go by, shoppers looking for ‘ethical’ goods are a demanding bunch. They want to maximise their ethicality (is that a word?) It has to be, as one retailer described their products, the most ethical clothing.
‘Our clothes are made from 100% organic hemp, harvested by hand by farmers who we don’t even haggle with – we just pay them whatever they ask. The fibre, unbleached and washed by hand in a nearby waterfall, is transported, carbon-free, by muesli-fed organic llamas to a factory made entirely from recycled oil tankers where unionised indigenous tribeswomen, working a four-hour day twice a week for $40k a year, assemble our clothes before heading off next door to collect their children from the school we built in 2009 and which has pioneered the teaching of compassion. T-shirt for a 4-year old: £65.’
No retailer has actually said this, but it’s not that wide of the mark. And I’m not really bothered about a lot of this stuff. I know I should care about whether or not the cotton is organic, but I can’t honestly say that I do, much. It’s lovely if, just by buying some boxer shorts, I can help to save the world, but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. I just want to buy clothes made by people who are paid a fair, living wage and who are not putting themselves in constant physical danger just by showing up to work.
I know that, to some people, this half-heartedness will be inexplicable. Something is ethical or it isn’t. You can’t just pick and choose your ethical considerations, discarding some in favour of others. It doesn’t work like that. I understand that point of view and have some sympathy with it. But I can’t help feeling that there must be some kind of halfway house – something in between the budget high street retailer that’s not really interested in anything other that reducing its costs and the ultra-ethical fundamentalists who spend their evenings fretting over whether or not buttons represent some aspect of the Euro-centric patriarchal hegemony.
What I was after, I concluded, wasn’t something ethical so much as not-unethical. And then I realised that what I was searching for was a company that simply displayed the basic, minimum level of human decency that we assume we would all get from anyone else we encountered in the world but which, for some reason, some large corporations find requires extra effort.
Isn’t it odd that we, as a society, have become so accepting of a business that effectively says: “we just sell clothes; if you want clothes not made by people who’ve just been killed in huge numbers in the rubble of their own workplace, you’ll have to go to a specialist supplier”? Isn’t it odd that providing your staff with a non-lethal working environment counts as corporate social responsibility – an add-on, for which you gain extra Brownie points? By “odd” I mean nauseatingly wrong and incredibly anger-inducing.
Maybe I’m over-reacting. Sainsbury’s does have a Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade, as do other retailers whose clothes my son wears – including H&M and Marks & Spencers. They each emphasise different things and use different language, so it’s hard to compare them or even evaluate them if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Primark, one of whose suppliers was in the collapsed building in Dhaka, appears to take ethical trading quite seriously with a whole section of its website devoted to it. ”Primark has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry’s approach to factory standards,” they said in a statement today. Not quite the same as actually checking that current factories are safe, and refusing to use them if they’re not, is it?
Ultimately, of course, it is down to us. We all need to raise our expectations of the businesses we buy from. We don’t need to demand muesli-fed llamas – but a basic, minimum standard of ethical behaviour by every business is, actually, not a lot to ask for.
In the course of my research, I emailed Sainsburys, H&M and Marks & Spencers to ask if any of their clothing was manufactured in the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka; if they require their and their suppliers’ factories to have third-party certification for ethical standards; and if not, whether any of their factories have such certification anyway. Feel free to do the same with any clothing retailer you use. I’ll post the responses I get as updates to this blogpost.
Update (27 April): I’ve had replies from Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencers. Here’s what Sainsbury’s said:
Our customers want to be confident that the people who make and sell our products are not being exploited, or exposed to unsafe working conditions. Our Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade covers the employment practices we expect from our suppliers, both in the UK and abroad. As founder members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, our Code of Conduct is consistent with the ETI Base Code and national and international laws. We pride ourselves on having good supplier relationships and work with them to support our ethical trade goals in the following areas.
We were the first supermarket to implement a voluntary code of conduct that went beyond the obligations contained in the previous Supermarkets Code of Practice. We have consistently supported the strengthened and widened Grocery Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP) which came into force in February 2010 following the Competition Commission report into the grocery market. We have made significant investments to implement GSCOP throughout our business.
Our Supplier Handbook, which is issued to all suppliers, is our legally binding code of commercial practice. It incorporates GSCOP and our Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade. Where there have been disagreements with suppliers about a particular trading practice or decision we have a proven record of effective internal escalation and resolution. We support effective GSCOP enforcement, but we remain of the view that an additional enforcement body is unnecessary, as the strengthened provisions in the GSCOP and the existing enforcement regime are already self sufficient and fully address the areas of concern identified by the Competition Commission.
All our new suppliers are risk assessed prior to us establishing a relationship and are required to sign up to our terms and conditions which incorporate the Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade. Our assessment tools determine the level of ethical trading risk of each supplier and require suppliers to undertake a third-party, independent ethical audit where necessary. This in depth analysis allows us to determine whether a supplier is eligible to work with us. Suppliers are required to ensure that our Code of Conduct is applied to their suppliers and sub-contractors.
We work with lower risk suppliers to assess their risks and performance against our Code of Conduct whilst higher-risk suppliers are required to have independent, third party ethical audits. Over 1,700 audits and site visits were conducted at Sainsbury’s suppliers last year.
Suppliers’ ongoing ethical trade performance is then regularly tracked through the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (SEDEX), our own internal databases and our supplier scorecard. Corrective actions which are identified through audits are resolved in a timely manner by suppliers with support from our ethical and technical teams. We report back to internal colleagues on supplier compliance and best practice on a regular basis and share our performance externally through meetings and workshops. Our Product Technologists and Ethical Trade teams visit suppliers throughout the year to ensure that our ethical requirements are being met and provide support on ethical issues where required.
Close monitoring of suppliers means that we are able to identify trends of common issues. It also enables us to give additional support to those suppliers who may find it challenging to achieve our standards.
Our products are sourced from where we feel offer the best quality at the best price. Sourcing in this way means that we can pass on great savings to our customers. We source our products from hundreds of suppliers worldwide.
Our corporate website contains all this information and much more on our ethical trading standards. By visiting www.j-sainsbury.co.uk you can access all the information you need.
No response to my specific query about Rana Plaza, but plenty of reassuring stuff here about having, and making the effort to monitor and enforce, an ethical code of conduct.
Marks and Spencers were briefer:
Firstly, I’d like to assure you M&S were not affected by the factory collapse in Bangladesh.
With regards to points 2 and 3 of your email, it might be easier and more informative for you to use the link below. This should answer all your questions.
I’ve had a look at their Global Sourcing Principles, and they seem rather less impressive than Sainsbury’s Code of Conduct. The M&S ‘Principles’ include an attempt to absolve themselves from responsibility for everything that might happen along a lengthy supply chain (which I think is a cop-out – perhaps they should shorten their supply chains?) M&S allows itself and its suppliers a lot of latitude. Suppliers must “strive” to behave ethically, they “should normally” not use child labour, M&S “may” cease trading with them if they’re not compliant. There’s plenty of warm sentiment here, but little serious commitment. I’m not persuaded that M&S are all that bothered.
Update (15 May 2013): In writing my more recent blogpost on M&S’ environmental credentials, I realise that I neglected to update this post with H&M’s response to my email on their ethical standards in clothing manufacture. The tardiness is entirely my own – H&M responded very promptly. Here’s what they said:
Thank you for your email regarding the recent collapse of the clothing factory complex in Bangladesh.
I have looked into this for you and can confirm that none of the textile factories located in the building produced garments for H&M.
Our thoughts do go out to those who have been affected by this tragedy and we are monitoring the situation.
For more information on what we are doing in Bangladesh, please visit our webpage. You can also view our Code of Conduct with regards to what we expect from our suppliers and all business partners.
If you follow the link, you’ll see it directs not to general statements of principle (although these are plentiful elsewhere) but specifically to H&M’s Bangladesh Development Plan. It all seems very thorough and positive to my untrained eye. As with M&S and Sainsburys, I have no reason to doubt H&M’s commitment, but nor do I have any external information on how well they are actually adhering to the ethical standards they publicly espouse. Taken at face value, I find H&M statements reassuring.