Only a few things in life are universal. Birth, death, taxes, and clothes. You might not be interested in them; you may not spend much on them; but you wear them. And unless you’re a fashionista, or what might be unkindly termed a hippy, you probably haven’t thought much about where they come from.
Whether they’re from Penneys or Prada, there’s a story behind them. We buy four tops for €20, dismissing the whisper of our conscience about how that delicate beading could possibly be sewn on for €5, and trying not to think about the tiny fingers that might be involved.
The men, women and children who make our clothes are far away, but they’re intimately close to us. Their neat stitches tickle our skin, the shoes they glue together cushion our feet, and we smooth out their beautiful embroidery as we check ourselves in the mirror.
Until the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, there was little public pressure on brands to improve conditions for workers. The bad press caused in the West by the deaths of 1,134 of the people who make our clothes forced action – or at least the appearance of action – by some of the biggest names in retail. Many promised compensation and improvements in their sourcing pipelines. Only some followed through on their promises; Primark, trading in Ireland as Penneys, gave $7.3 million in compensation to workers who were affected, and their families.
In other countries where our clothes are made, there has been some progress, but it comes dropping slow. Cambodian workers recently won an increase in the minimum wage, although fainting, dismissal upon pregnancy, lack of security and dangerously long working hours are all common. Workers demonstrating for fair play, shorter shifts, toilet breaks – the kind of things most of us take for granted – have been shot. Just last month water cannons were used by police against striking garment workers.
But, do we think about them? And if not, why not? Emer O’Mahony runs Cork Fashion Week and is a Director of Lockdown Models. Quality and ethics are important to her. She always enquires about sourcing when shopping, but prefers to buy from local designers when possible.
“Wearing a garment that you can follow from source is special, supporting local talent is priceless and a designer getting commissions because the customers saw you wear their clothes is an incredible feeling.”
O’Mahony is interested in every level of the industry and says people “need to be more inquisitive and vocal about questioning where the clothes on our back come from, how the food on our table has come to be there, how the diamond in our engagement ring is sitting radiantly on our hand.”
She asked last year in Penneys about the company’s ethics and “was blown away” by the level of detail she was given, saying “It really made me realise that it’s not the ranking step in the marketplace that the company are on that determines the companies with better ethics, it is the brand ethos and internal ethics that can say a lot about the companies we should support.”
She singles out H&M’s Conscious Collection, Penneys and independent boutiques in the city as having better traceability.
Fiona Kehily-Ives, originally from Newcestown, works in PR in the City of London – an environment in which, often, labels maketh the woman.
Like O’Mahony, she prioritises quality, and the garment’s story. She says quality, the fabric used, and exclusivity are what she looks for.
“I really dislike the throwaway culture that exists today – I prefer to save up and buy good quality or special pieces and look after them for the long-term. I try not to be a slave to trends either – it’s not practical. I buy classic styles and accessories which are made to withstand the test of time.”
She is suspicious of the fashion industry, and believes no brand can testify to a perfect supply chain.
“My impression on the whole is quite negative when it comes to the high street. I feel that I can’t avoid buying something that’s been produced in an unethical way in some way or another. I try to look at brands that are ethical or homegrown – brands that use suppliers who pay their workers properly, give them decent conditions and are mindful of the environment. But I don’t always get it right.”
Students have a lot less money to play with – but does this make their purchases less ethical? Not necessarily, given that Primark and H&M are two of the brands that are offering consumers some more choice in their purchasing decisions. But do they choose the ethical option, even when it’s there?
Rachel Muckley is fashion editor of Motley, UCC’s student magazine. She admits that ethics is not her first thought when she buys clothes – her priorities are style and cost.
“I fully admit to not always considering the origin of the clothes I buy or the process of how they are manufactured.” She believes the stigma of sweatshops is gone “as terrible as they sound”, and that her friends who shop on the high street do so while accepting they are feeding into the cycle of worker abuse. However, she doesn’t believe that spending slightly more – within a student budget – would achieve anything.
“I don’t necessarily believe that more expensive companies treat their workers better. That’s like saying that power within companies is distributed equally – and that’s just not the case.”
Lisa Roberts owns Douglas boutique Verso and sourcing is something she’s very aware of. In her experience, more exclusive brand names are more likely to make their products in Europe, in their own factories. She believes individual action can make a difference – but says just 10% of customers ask about an item’s origins. The cheaper brands she deals with have visited their factories in China to ensure they are complying with labour laws, but Roberts knows this isn’t the case for every brand.
“My impression of the clothing industry in general is that if everyone collectively was to be consciously aware of where and how certain clothing was made it would or could make a difference.
“There is no denying that in certain parts of the world people are working in appalling conditions but this is never going to be dealt with accordingly until the demand for cheaper items stops. For that to happen it would be a collective intervention from the factory owner, business owner, Government right down to the person buying the item in a store.
“The bulk of our lower priced items would be sourced and manufactured in China. What worries me is that there seems to be more and more items now being made in other poorer countries which would make you ask why? Any human being would ask that…”
Why, indeed? Much of the suppression of workers in Cambodia is down to Government fears that increasing costs – to wages people can live on – will drive production to cheaper countries like Bangladesh. Which raises the question: Is a poorly paid job in bad conditions better than no job at all?
This article was published in the Evening Echo WOW! supplement on Wednesday 27 January 2016. This project is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.