Versace has withdrawn sandblasted jeans and Kiwis want adidas to drop the price of its All Black jerseys. Diana Clement looks out how consumer pressure can force big brands to play fair.
It was a practice that was slowly killing the workers. When consumers paid hundreds of dollars for a pair of pre-faded, pre-worn denim jeans few of them thought much about how the denim came to be that way.
Last month, activists - bombarding Versace with an online petition - made sure both the fashion house and its customers did.
With workers in factories inhaling large amounts of silica dust, they faced high risks of developing deadly silicosis, an incurable lung disease. The distressed jeans were indeed leaving workers in distress.
Now Versace has joined other leading brands, including Gucci, Levi and Benetton, to ban the deadly practice of sandblasting denim with tiny particles of silica to give it its worn look.
The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) - a coalition of non-governmental organisations and trade unions - was behind the campaign. Dolce & Gabbana and Armani, still refusing to join the campaign, are next in their sights.
Increasingly the fashion industry is coming under pressure from savvy, well-educated consumers who take an interest in where and how their clothing is produced. Revelations of sweat shops, child labour and unsafe practices are the stuff of PR nightmares for exclusive labels with valuable brands.
And, as adidas discovered, getting on the wrong side of consumers and the public can do long-term damage.
Thanks to social networking, the online population can mobilise quickly to join campaigns and bring pressure on global companies. This week adidas felt the full force of consumer revolt over the original $220 pricetag of its replica All Blacks jerseys. The same shirts were available for US$79.99 ($92) in the United States but adidas tried to stop US websites shipping to New Zealand.
The All Blacks jersey issue is about more than just pricing, says fashion industry doyenne Denise L'Estrange-Corbet of World.
"It is quite worrying that an All Blacks jersey is made in China," says L'Estrange-Corbet. "I think 'guys, why are you doing that?' We are meant to be inundated with tourists [during the Rugby World Cup]. They want to take home a bit of New Zealand, not an All Blacks shirt made in China. What message are we sending? It's that 'we have just sold out'."
Industry experts estimate that adidas pays between $10 and $20 to have the jerseys manufactured and delivered to New Zealand. The remaining $200 of the RRP would be split between adidas, the IRB, the New Zealand Rugby Union and the retailer. Adidas wasn't prepared to divulge what that split was. Adidas New Zealand country manager David Huggett says that a cost breakdown of its products and distribution arrangements is "commercially sensitive, private information," as are the details of its sponsorship arrangement with the All Blacks.
Setting a wholesale price for New Zealand is about more than just the landed cost of the manufactured jerseys, he says. It takes into account of the costs of running the business in New Zealand, as well as marketing, promotion and other costs.
Harold Trigg, owner and managing director of Hawke's Bay-based contract clothing manufacturer Soma, estimates the jerseys would cost around $40 if made here - depending on the size of the run.
He doesn't expect to get the order. The New Zealand clothing manufacture industry lost its battle against globalisation in the 1980s and won't get it back, says Trigg. Until then, Kiwi factories were churning out basics such as T-shirts and jeans.
That came to a grinding halt when trade was freed up and manufacturers found they could pay workers a pittance in China and land goods here more cheaply. Many operators simply went out of business and those that survived, such as Soma, had to reinvent themselves.
The adidas PR fiasco has played into the hands of the Buy New Zealand campaign. Yet, ironically, as consumers become more aware of global issues, it becomes increasingly difficult to buy New Zealand-made clothing. Clothing manufacture here is dwindling, says L'Estrange-Corbet. "Each season you find that a factory has closed down because New Zealand designers haven't supported them."
Most fashion graduates want to be designers, and the remaining skilled machinists and other related craftspeople here are largely in their 50s and older, she says. Many have been made redundant repeatedly as yet another factory goes out of business. Some give up and leave the industry. "It is not just the person. The loss of manufacturing means that the skills and crafts needed for clothing manufacture are being lost."
Buying New Zealand-made garments is a good choice on environmental and employment grounds, says Trina Snow, manager of the Buy NZ Made campaign.
L'Estrange-Corbet says her workers earn more than the minimum wage, which is well ahead of that in China and other new manufacturing hubs.
Although consumers haven't managed to solve the Third World sweat-shop problem, larger manufacturers and those with a conscience do try to avoid being caught treating workers badly. Trigg had the differences between his factory and Third World sweat shops spelled out by one American company that vetted his operation before giving him a manufacturing contract.
"They gave us a list of questions such as: 'do you make staff, if they make a mistake, stand in the corner?' and 'do you allow your staff to go to the toilet when they need to go?'."
The company was told it was not permitted to "beat staff" who did not comply with instructions.
Green Party sport and recreation spokeman Kevin Hague tries to buy all of his clothing from New Zealand manufacturers. Consumers will get better quality for their money that way, he says.
Local designers don't just offer better quality, says Trigg, who manufactures the NOM*D and other independent fashion houses' ranges. Production lines such as his can have reorders in the shops in two to three days, compared with two months from China.
Hague says that multinational clothing manufacturers are subjecting Kiwis to a kind of double-speak. On one hand, companies such as Fonterra talk about the fact that local consumers need to pay international pricing. When it suits, as in the adidas case, "global pricing" goes out the window if a New Zealand consumer can be charged more.
The good news is that most of the clothes that grace New Zealand Fashion Week this month will have in fact been made in New Zealand, says Mapihi Opai, executive officer of Fashion Industry New Zealand (FINZ).
New Zealand company Stolen Girlfriends Club will be showing a selection of garments made in New Zealand, Bali and China.
Typically garment manufacture doesn't go offshore until the designer gets large overseas markets, which has been the case with labels such as Karen Walker and Trelise Cooper.
Sending production offshore is a decision that infuriates L'Estrange-Corbet.
"You have to decide: 'Am I a cheap Chinese brand or a designer brand?'. As soon as a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci starts manufacturing in China they will no longer be a luxury brand."By Diana Clement Email Diana