Illustration by Antonia Parker
Saying you work in fashion normally garners one of two reactions: awe with a smidgen of jealousy on the presumption all you do is swan around with fabrics and making swishy type movements before dashing off to an exotic shoot/party/event of the year, more about ambulance or utter contempt.
On arriving at a friend’s boyfriend’s drinks it was the second reaction I received. He and his friends were doing a masters degree in ethical business, seek and had I arrived dressed as Cruella DeVil with a baby’s head on a silver platter I possible would have got a warmer reception. As allegedly glamorous as fashion is, medicine it is also many people’s favourite whipping boy. Neither picture is entirely true.
Channel 4’s Dispatches programme exposed the vile, undeniably horrific and illegal working conditions of UK based sweatshops. Showing the secret film to a sweatshop surveyor, he stated these compared to some of the worst conditions he’s seen in the Far East. The conditions in the sweatshop should never be allowed to happen regardless of where it is in the world: Leicester or Laos it really doesn’t matter.
Illustration by Karolina Burdon
The UK High Street actually has some very high standards when it comes to treatment of labourers. The retailers featured, including New Look, Peacocks and Jane Norman stated their supply chains were SEDEX approved. SEDEX allows retailers to independently demonstrate their commitment to ethics. Obviously this self regulation had failed. Each retailer appeared to take on board the facts and launch appropriate investigations into sub-contracting. If only they had been more proactive in the first place.
One retailer leading the way in the UK is ASOS. In the last few months they have built on the successes of Fashion Enter, a not-for-profit enterprise, specialising in garment sampling and helped them open a dedicated ASOS factory. Having a UK based factory will not only cut transport costs, carbon footprints, and lower turnaround times for ASOS but also boost the local economy.
It’s thanks to programmes like Dispatches that public awareness of poor working conditions is being raised. This is undeniably a good thing. Sweatshops like this should not be allowed to exist.
Let’s look at the facts for a moment. The story doesn’t end there and Dispatches, to their credit, touched on it. The existence of fast fashion and super cheap clothes has a huge role to play in the existence of sweatshops. In yesteryear clothes were luxury items, to be worn over and over; to be mended and repaired, to be recycled into new garments. Not so anymore. Some of the responsibility must inevitably fall on the heads of all of us. How often have you bought a cheap top, or bargain basement jeans, or a £15 dress that was such a steal it’d be rude not to buy it? I know I have (not the dress, but you get the picture). How often do you really think about where that has come from? The Dispatches vox pop revealed that few people actually do.
Illustration by Willa Gebbie
The fact is until UK consumers begin to demand better working conditions and simultaneously agree to pay for them little will change. When asked why UK retailers rarely manufacture in the UK anymore, the answer is simple. The UK consumer won’t pay the necessary price. Why do these sweatshops exist? Because on ever dwindling profit margins short cuts will happen. Blind eyes will be turned – a feeling echoed by both Mary Portas and Melanie Rickey in their tweets after the show. Such things are, again, totally unacceptable.
I used to get asked to make outfits for people. When I gave honest rock bottom quotes, I found most of these requests vanished. Why pay £100 for a shirt when you can go down town and get one for a tenner? Scales of economy and an essentially bespoke service aside, it’s the same thing. Regardless of who does it, every piece has to be cut, every seam sewn, and every feature, rhinestone, embellishment and sequin attached. A suit has over 140 separate pieces, a zipper five, a shirt cuff six or more including buttons and buttonholes.
A lot of work goes into the shirt on your back. Those making it deserve to get paid a living wage, and work in safe conditions. Those manufacturing deserve to make a profit. The consumer deserves quality goods at the right price. At some point someone is going to lose out. Nine times out of ten this will be the person we can’t directly see.
Illustration by Karolina Burdon
So what do we do? A little bit of research goes a long way. Check out responsible manufacturers, check out your local boutiques (a small designer is often more likely to be ethical and more importantly the chance of bumping into someone in the same outfit is greatly reduced), check out eco-fashion labels (for instance in Amelia’s new book) or places like Traid, and check out ASOS’ own brand.Your t-shirt may cost £25 instead of £5, your jeans £40 instead of £15, but in each tiny way it’ll help stop sweatshops.
As one of the members of the public on the programme stated, ‘we each have to buy within our means, but that doesn’t mean buying irresponsibly.’
To watch the documentary on Channel 4′s 4oD, click here.
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