Who made your clothes?

We all like to own nice things, and for many of us clothes come top of the list. They say a lot about who we are, how we see ourselves, and, of course, they dictate how others see us.

But what does our choice of clothing mean to the people who make it? Does paying €20 less for a top that looks more or less the same in a cheaper shop make you a bad person, or can a little more spend locally really make a difference globally? Or is it down to price – is more expensive always more ethical?

Later this month I’m headed for Cambodia thanks to the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. As well as visiting Anita’s Orphanage in Sihanoukville, I’m going to be finding out who makes the clothes we buy in places like Marks and Spencer, H&M and other major retailers.

Cambodia isn’t the most common ‘made in’ location we see on our labels, but according to Pat de Brun, an Irishman who works at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, “the garment industry is everything”.

High stakes make for bitter disputes, and Cambodia has seen workers threatened and even killed for attempts to unionise and to protest their conditions.

With half a million garment workers in the country on pitiful wages – minimum wage was recently increased to $140 per month after a long campaign (workers asked for $160) – it’s a sore point for the retailers we shop in every day.

For years now campaigns like the Clean Clothes Campaign have been highlighting injustices in the garment industry but it was the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh (where conditions are far worse than Cambodia) that really shocked many people out of complacency.

It made Western retailers realise that adverse publicity can and will affect the bottom line, and that to distinguish themselves to shoppers of conscience, their record must improve. Primark / Penneys and H&M were the first to donate to the workers’ compensation fund in that case and, according to Pat de Brun, H&M in particular has a good record in Cambodia, with workers treated and paid fairly.

opera lane 2

During my trip I’m going to meet union officials and workers in the Cambodian garment industry, as well as meeting Rathavann Ke and Carol Murphy, who have decided to take the direct approach with Banteay Srey Boutique, their ethical clothing cooperative run out of Siem Reap.

This project is grant-aided by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – is treatment of garment workers a consideration for you when you’re shopping?

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