Dying for a Bargain

Did you see it?
The Panorama programme investigating the human cost of cheap clothes.

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If you missed it, you can catch it again here.

I have blogged about the ethics of clothes buying before and the whole can of worms that it opens, and I think it’s really important that more people are aware of the real cost of their clothes.
The programme focussed on the factories, and the workers, and the retailers and their responsibilities to the workers.

The people are paid very poorly to produce very cheap clothes for us in the West.
The retailers want to be able to supply cheap clothes, and also want to be seen to be doing the right thing.
So they introduce Codes of Conduct for the factories, but all that happens is that the factories tell the buyers what they want to hear, and produce a fabricated set of accounts and working hours. They tick the boxes, and the buyers pretend that they believe that is what is really happening, because they cannot supply cheap clothes any other way.
Some of the workers were sat at machines for 18 or 19 hours a day.
The factories would argue that the workers ‘volunteer’ to do overtime, either for the extra money, or to hit their ridiculously high target outputs.
But for the workers, it’s not really a choice. They have to feed their families, so they stay on and work to earn the extra pittance that that provides.

There is much talk at the moment about getting all the big retailers to sign up for Bangladesh Safety Accord in the aftermath of the tragic factory collapse, but with my cynical head on, I find myself asking “what will this actually change, for the people at the sewing machines?”
If there are already Codes of Conduct in place, which are being ignored, as long as the right boxes are ticked, how can we ensure this not just another box ticking exercise for the retailers and those in charge of the factories?

And for all this pressure on the retailers, where does our responsibility as consumers lie?
When did clothing become so disposable?
When you think about all the aspects of garment manufacture-from growing and harvesting the cotton, making and dying the fabric, making the t-shirt, transporting it over here, and then selling it, how can this EVER cost just £1.50 for a t-shirt?
Did we, as consumers, demand cheap clothes, which the likes of Primark then supplied, or did they start to supply cheap clothes, and we, not really thinking about how it was possible to make clothes so cheaply, happily flocked to the stores, to save ourselves some money?
If we stopped buying/demanding cheap clothes, would the workers end up being paid anymore? Or would we just pay more, and the retailers would pocket the difference?
And it’s not just the cut price retailers that are at fault, clothing from GAP and Edinburgh Woollen Mill, was found at the factories investigated in the Panorama programme, so you can;t just shop at more expensive stores and salve your conscience.
But then, if we don’t buy High St clothes at all, this is depriving the people who make them of the (very small amount) of money that they do make.

What I would like to know, is how much extra, per garment, would we all have to pay, to mean that a real living wage can be paid to those making our clothes?
And how can we guarantee that this extra money is actually going to the workers, and improving their working conditions, rather than boosting the profits of the retailers.

This is a massive issue, that affects each and every one of us.
It is an issue that I can’t see any straightforward, easy answers to.

I think we all need to buy less, and buy better.
If clothes were more expensive, we would respect them more, and look after them better, and not be so keen to throw them out as the fashions and the seasons change.

Personally, for now, I am sidestepping the issue, by buying my clothes secondhand. And the clothes that I do buy new, I will buy from ethical retailers, and will pay significantly more for them.

But I don’t know what the answers are long term.
I do know though, that things need to change AT EVERY LEVEL.
The manufacturers, the retailers, and us, as consumers, all need to take action.


12 thoughts on “Dying for a Bargain

  1. I have to admit this issue really hit home the last time you blogged about it. I used to make a lot of my own clothes but stopped because I could buy it cheaper than I could make it for.
    The things I have made, however I do take more care over. I hang them properly, launder them properly, fix them if they need fixing. That £2 vest top I bought? In the machine with everything else, thrown in the drawer then probably thrown out once it is past it’s best. Oh I feel awful now that’s in writing! Bad Nicky!
    I think I may just have shamed myself into not buying new clothes. 😦
    Good blog post though!

  2. I do the same Jen, can’t remember when I last bought clothes that weren’t from a charity shop. The terrifying thing is this has been recurrently happening for a long, long time and effecting change is long, difficult process, for all the steps in the chain you mention. If you can get your hands on it, read Lucy Siegle “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?”

    • I know, really hard. Unless you go to a proper ethical retailer, there is no guarantee that spending more, means the people who made it have been paid a proper living wage 😦

  3. I often say that I really wish their was a BUAV style agency telling us which companies we can trust and should support. I know I would choose to only buy from the companies doing their ethical best just as I choose to buy from companies who do not test on animals 🙂

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