Students from many different countries (Germany, India, Austria, Italy, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ukraine – just to name a few) with different backgrounds and different points of contact with the garment industry gathered in a small town in the west of Germany past March for the oikos winter school 2017, with this year’s topic “sustainability in the fashion industry”. Two of them from Vienna: Sonja, blogger of the sustainable fashion blog “Fesches Mascherl” and me.
When I came to Witten, I thought I’ve figured out the problems of this industry quite well. Big brands like H&M are keeping production prices low in order to be able to sell pullovers for not more than € 12, creating the illusion in the average customer’s head that this is the regular price of a pullover, while they are snatching the products from the companies’ rummage tables.
Taking it all a step further I also thought the whole situation was actually quite easy to improve: most of the big brands producing in Bangladesh, India and China all already have their codes of conduct, stating that they are against child labour and for better and safer working conditions in their cooperating factories. JUST STICK TO IT, GUYS! Stop talking and just ACT according to it.
Hitting the solid ground of reality though and looking back on the past few years we have to admit that codes of conduct might sound really good, give the impression that things are improving, but actually don’t change anything. Since conventional fashion brands don’t own any production sites, they assign garment productions in low-cost countries – usually without long-term contracts. Often they are just hired for a certain amount of orders. This, of course, gives a huge flexibility and power to the brands, since it’s putting the pressure of producing large quantities for very cheap prices on the production owners. Otherwise, the brands will just turn their back on them and produce with another supplier. This leads to the precarious situation, that production owners make promises they are not able to keep and accept offers they are often not able to meet. So they hire subcontractors: other garment producers that take over amounts for their production.
So why don’t companies stick to their codes of conduct and only hire garment producers that actually meet their requirements? The answer is very sad and sobering: brands like H&M or Mango in the most cases don’t even know WHICH COMPANY actually produced their orders.
So why doesn’t the governments of these countries just take over responsibility then and just increase the minimum wages, which have found their place in most of the low-cost countries laws within the last few years (China, for example, introduced their first minimum wage law in 2004!!!!) to LIVING WAGES – so that people working under these very bad conditions and for at least 10h/day would at least not have to live on the breadline anymore??
According to Professor Radermacher, who is a member of the Club of Rome and who was one of the key speakers at the oikos Winter Schools in Witten, as soon as the production prices of a country increase just a little bit due to a change of law the fast fashion labels just switch their production to another country with cheaper production, ideally one which hasn’t implemented this kind of regulation yet. SIMPLE. AS. IT. IS.
As a quick example: In the last five years, since the catastrophe of Rana Plaza took place, where nearly 2000 workers of the garment industry died in Dhaka, the situation in Bangladesh has improved a little. People are for example now allowed to join unions and bit by bit labels are beginning to do safety audits in the production sites. According to Annika Salingré from FEMNET – keynote speaker at the oikos Winter School and especially supporting women in the garment industry in Asia – Ethiopia and Myanmar are already speculated to be the new production hotspots of the future.
When we got the chance to have a discussion with Yola, the CSR manager of H&M Germany, the main question we’ve raised was: Why don’t the brands then take over responsibility for the working conditions and insist on paying living wages instead of minimum wages and start signing long-term contracts with the garment producers – in order to increase transparency of who produces what.
At least she was honest and didn’t try to sugarcoat the ugly truth: Global Players like H&M, listed on the stock market, are profit oriented. As long as they are not forced to improve their workers’ production conditions, they will not change anything – producing for low prices is their priority, “cost” what it may.
So as you can see, the one point on which ALL the keynote speakers of the oikos Winter School agreed on was, that the system is COMPLEX. Either there will be a global solution or no solution. Maybe what we need is something like a list of rights EVERY human on this earth should have – ensuring safety, the freedom of speech and adequate wages… oh wait… ?!
All jokes aside – there were many situations during this conference when we found ourselves sitting in an audience, devastated, in grief and upset about the ignorance of this society, demanding products of an industry which is violating human rights on a daily basis and literally walking over dead bodies.
It was the people sitting around me and feeling the exact same way that gave me hope.
There was Anna, who founded a company with her sister in Cologne, producing fair clothes with expressive statements on them, in order to spread awareness about environmental issues. Or Anneke, who spent two years in Cambodia and changed her fashion consumption radically after seeing the conditions in which the workers in the garment industry sew our clothes there. Now she is organizing the first fair fashion market in Rotterdam. Haya from Jordan just founded her own little company that produces upcycled fashion. Or Tanjim from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who also shared his story with us. He was there when Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013 and buried nearly 2000 people under it, because the workers were forced to go back to work after they’ve realized the cracks in the walls and asked if they could leave the building. Today he supports an NGO that offers a special educational program for garment workers so they can learn how to read, get involved in unions and learn how to spare and spend money the right way. These people, as well as all the other attendants and their personal stories, gave me hope.
Yes, there actually IS hope. The system of the fashion industry might be complex – but saying NO to fast fashion is actually really easy. Even if the governments and the global brands don’t take over responsibility yet – we as consumers should make a start. #NOtofastfashion