How can fast fashion be made fairer?

After the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, western brands put together two agreements to build safety and human rights into their supply chains. Photo / Getty
After the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, western brands put together two agreements to build safety and human rights into their supply chains. Photo / Getty

As two global fast fashion giants come to town, it's a good moment to spare a thought for the people who make your peasant blouses and hoodies.

Someone has to pay for fast fashion. Too often, it's still textile and clothing factory workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and other developing economies. Despite international efforts to reform the industry, reports keep coming of fire-trap factories, 12-plus-hour days, and child labour.

One of the most pressing issues for international businesses is managing the quality and ethical standards of supply chain partners - from the cotton field to coat-hanger.

We're not suggesting H&M and Zara, Auckland's latest newcomers, have poorer records than local players. To the contrary, Zara shows it is possible to do fast fashion ethically. Its parent company shone in an Australian survey, commissioned by NGO Baptist World Aid, which gives companies a simple letter grade based on their policies, supply chain, monitoring and worker empowerment. In its 2016 report, Zara scored A, H&M scored B+ - more than local players Glassons (C+), and Karen Walker (C -showing price is no guide), while another recent arrival, Topshop, also scored C+.

As well as all fashion brands, governments and consumers have a role to play in improving working conditions and human rights for clothing workers.

Dr Maureen Benson-Rea of the University of Auckland.
Dr Maureen Benson-Rea of the University of Auckland.

After the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, which killed 1136 workers - mostly women and girls - and injured over 2500, western clothing companies vowed "never again". Western brands put together two agreements to build safety and human rights into their supply chains.

The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety includes over 200 apparel companies, two global labour unions, several local unions, and NGOs. It legally binds companies to spend money to improve garment factory conditions. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety requires the roughly 500 factories involved to be inspected, and provides financial contributions for renovations and training.

Real progress has been made, with more workers being paid a minimum wage. But there's a way to go yet, with fresh allegations by NGO watchdogs that many garment factory workers still endure dangerous conditions. And while most fashion companies now know their suppliers at the final stage of production, many remain unaware of their raw material suppliers.
Western brands must continue to step up to the mark and take action to ensure their supplier firms improve working conditions. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses are responsible for ensuring due diligence of their supply chains.

Alongside the corporate-led model of reform, a case can be made that we also need stronger regulation by national and local government, and bodies such as the International Labour Organization.

Consumers can use their buying power and social media to keep up pressure on fashion companies, sending the message: "We support safety moves so far, but you must do better."

Already, consumers are choosing not to buy so much or to recycle. Many are cynical of corporate social responsibility (CSR), particularly when enacted by large multinationals. Some consumers see CSR efforts as a marketing ploy, while others are torn between wanting to do the right thing and not being sure whether their efforts will actually trickle down to workers or not. Greater transparency is vital: consumers want and need to know where their money goes and exactly how ethical programmes work.

On a brighter note, Auckland research has found that even though ethical fashion brands made in New Zealand are more expensive, the businesses can be financially sustainable and profitable in the long-run because of their loyal customer base, their eagerness to be transparent and their devotion to doing what's right.

Whether it's by shopping ethically-made or pressuring fast fashion giants, if we are going to save and improve the lives of low paid workers in developing countries, consumers and company shareholders are going to have to pay more for new clothing.

Dr Maureen Benson-Rea is a senior lecturer of Management and International Business
Christina Stringer is an associate professor of Management and International Business
Dr Mike Lee is a senior lecturer in Marketing
Miriam Seifert is a PhD candidate in Management and International Business, all at the University of Auckland Business School.

- NZ Herald

The authors have contributed to a book, co-edited by Dr Benson-Rea, called "Governance Reforms in the Apparel Industry after Rana Plaza", out 2017 (Palgrave Macmillan).

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