How many lives can you change with two pennies more on a price-tag? Turns out quite a few. As Swedish behemoth H&M finds itself entangled in a sweat-shop scandal just months after the hyper-hyped release of its ethical collection, Substance goes digging through the closet for some of the fashion industry's most shocking skeletons.

I was thinking about this article the other day when a childhood episode took over. 10-years-old, I was gob-smacked at this advert on the telly for a cleaning product that was suppose to make your floors so immaculate, so pristinely beaming with light that if you dragged a piece of cotton through that same surface it came back completely white. The slogan went something like “White so white is impossible”.
There is no such thing as “white so white” or “quite white” or “almost white” just as there isn't “almost ethical” or “30% ethical”. The fashion industry is a dreams industry in the business of selling beauty. And ethical manufacturing is still far from the first thing on most people's minds on the high street.
It is, nonetheless, the one thing that matters most. Sustainability is what everyone's talking about, the word being sprayed, crayoned and tied-dyed on every billboard. By definition, sustainability is the possibility of continuously doing what you're doing without causing any harm to future generations. So is that the case in the fashion industry? Can we trust H&M’s Sustainable Collection as a symptom of deeper concern trickling down or does it all come down to a one-racket-a-season of woolly jumpers made in the fjords?
I remember H&M’s eco range hitting the floors in April, but not all that well. Maybe that’s because the Collection had 16 items in total (that’s including variations in colour) and no big harrow system was used to indicate where they were. What is more, only 100 of the 2,500 H&M shops actually stored the line. If you add to that the fact that the profusion of reasons attesting to the importance of organic cotton in their marketing lexicon seems to outnumber the more pressing matters of workers living wages then I wonder how “sustainable” the collection is. Because sustainability, although we very rarely use the concept as such, also applies to people's chances at sustaining their lives.
A week ago, a damning documentary on the working conditions faced by Cambodian workers producing H&M goods was aired on Swedish national TV. Backlash and outrage followed. Understandable given the brand's recent pompous marketing promoting their “ethical collection”. The investigation found that over the course of 2011, 2,400 workers passed out in Cambodian factories due to malnutrition – a direct consequence of low salaries.
The argument is that as H&M doesn't own any factories themselves, which ultimately mean they can't bare the brunt alone for the conditions in which the workers sew away the collections. According to H&M's Sustainability Report the Swedish retailer has invested in 100 people in corporate social responsibility, 75 of whom are auditors (assessing environmental issues and social conditions in factories) and produced a series of short films, including one on fire safety that it claims more than 400,000 workers have seen. But what about wages? When will the comfortably Western-based retailers actually invest in a bilateral liaison with the people on the Bangladesh and Cambodia – two of the poorest countries on Earth and both crushingly dependent on clothing manufacture? Oh, you've done it? Let’s see the footage. Oh, no footage? The numbers then. Oh, no release due to commercial confidentiality? Right.
The situation in Cambodia is particularly heart-breaking because more than 80% of everything the country produces is linked to garments, clothing and fashion. Moreover, around 90% of workers are women aged between 18-35. Many of these will have children to provide for. “The human cost of brands like H&M or Zara paying poverty wages is seen when hundreds of workers pass out due to exhaustion and malnutrition. If you can't afford to pay for enough food for yourself and your children, what would you do? It's a catch 22,” said Jeroen Merk from the International Clean Clothes Campaign.
Although the monthly minimum wage for Cambodia's factory workers is around £45, a 'living wage' is more than four times that. But the distance, outsourced out of view, of workers on poverty wages hides their ordeals in the consciences of those responsible.
Labour Behind the Label is a Bristol-based human rights group campaigning for fairer wages and working conditions in developing countries. Anna McMullern, campaigns coordinator, has a thing or two to say about the importance of proximity. “During the industrial revolution everyone knew someone who was going through that, daily facing up to those grim conditions. Workers, neighbours, consumers could see it happening, so the social pressure was much more intense. The wrong decisions were being made roughly by the same group of politicians and corporations so the targets of their anger were much more visible. By dislocating manufacture from retail, we severed the connection. That's the work of campaign organisations, to say: ‘This still matters. It's still on your door step’.”
Don't get me wrong, a brand moving towards sustainability has all my respect regardless of how many years it takes to get there and even if they're going at it very, very slow. But the big players out there, the ones that account for a staggering market share hovering somewhere around 70% combined could – and should – have already made the transition.
There aren't a lot of excuses to get them off the hook. With the advent of fast fashion, taken to surreal levels by fin-de-siècle phenomena like Primark, H&M and Zara, clothes became, under one same roof, über-desirable and über-affordable. These brands all rely on enormous factories rolling out modern, high street catwalk-clones like an industrial popcorn machine.
Even if we are all too aware about changing our behaviour to curb global warming and help the environment, it’s less common we ever channel that same frustration towards crass offences on human rights. The fast fashion industry exists thanks to our impulsiveness. Isn’t it strange that a massive industry thrives on the obsolescence of the products it sells? Like looking forward to bad stitching. Snappy laces. They even say publicly they can't guarantee the quality of one particular item after you've washed it more than 10 times.
And how about the amalgamation of meanings conveyed by “ethical brands”? Anna acknowledges the phrase is a problematic one. “Ethical lines are more often than not the result of an environmental concern with the sustainability of their garment rather than with workers rights and human rights issues,” she says. “The word 'ethical' encompasses so many different things, that perhaps all they are saying is that they are going to make sure they use more paper bags from now. One doesn't really know”.
Writing this, I am wearing navy-blue cotton pyjamas with peach polka dots all over. I got it for 7 quid. Now let's press rewind and trace back the inception of this particular item – design, sourcing the materials, manufacture, packing, storage, delivery.
There is no way that workers on positions 3, 4 and/or 5 could have received a decent living wage or my pyjamas would have cost a small fortune. Or would it? The struggle with the fashion industry is to find out how all the suppliers of the individual components can be ethically secured and sustainability account for. The global reach of its appeal and its many tentacled supply chains have made fashion a very opaque business. Like my pyjamas. I was looking for the same item, but slightly more see-through/transparent.
So is it a valid argument that all our clothes would be prohibitively expensive if workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh were paid a decent wage? No. Anna recalls an investigation by Action Aid that found out that if a factory in Bangladesh doubled the income of all their workers, that school uniform t-shirt ASDA was selling would cost you, Mum and Dad, a staggering 2p more.
Location, location, location. It would be simple to argue in favour of law enforced relocation of all production to the West where centuries of workers rights have paved the way to generally fairer laws. But that would leave millions of people around the world unemployed and, believe it or not, it would be a much bigger problem.
This isn’t really a question of fundamentalist communism. Profit is extremely important to the economy – if your local pub didn't make a profit, then where would you have worked for all those years before finally breaking into whatever industry you're trying to break in to? The problems seems to reside in the fact that a lot of 80s-style CEOs still think that environment, ethics, complete disclosure of investments and assets are all things that get in the way of their monopoly.
It doesn't have to be like this and if it would be so much easier if the big fashion houses just started the ball rolling. Money would very likely continue to flow and the smaller fish would shift their marketing campaigns and follow suit. As Tom Ford famously said a decade ago: “Luxury is not going out of style. It needs to change its style. We need to replace hollow with deep”.

Ana Relvas Franca

Photo credit: marissaorton

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