Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 4 May 2013

Cheap fashion - the untold cost

I apologise to those who have turned up at the Tavern recently hoping for a tankard of virtual ale and a chat.

It's been a busy week at work, but there's more to it than that; the collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh last week was too big a story to ignore but raised so many points it was impossible to decide what to say about it.

The scale of this disaster made it a global story, but it is only the latest in a series of catastrophes that can be directly attributed to the developed world's desire for cheap fashion; a succession of fires and lesser building collapses has claimed thousands of lives since the giants of the British high street began a price war with the supermarkets.

In 2008, BBC3 made a series, 'Blood, Sweat and T-shirts', in which a group of young Britons were sent to India and Sri Lanka to find out how high street clothes were made, following the process from cotton harvest to garment finishing by living and working alongside the labourers and sewing machine operators.

At the manufacturing stage, they were initially sent into a large sewing factory, where they complained about the long hours and low wages compared to what they were used to back at home. This was a top factory, they were told; the air conditioning, modern amenities and relatively good pay meant that jobs there were prized. The factory supplied, among others, Marks and Spencer, who were presumably happy to be named in this context - the days when '99% of St Michael goods are British made' are long gone.

Their next task was very different; they were given piecework to complete on generator-powered sewing machines in a roof-top workroom, where suffocating heat combined with fumes from the generator and the smell of the outside lavatory. The workers here eked out a precarious living, working long hours seven days a week to make ends meet; small wonder no British retailers were named this time.

But there was worse to come; for their final visit, the reluctant Brits were ushered along an alleyway that doubled as an open sewer and invited to climb a rickety ladder to a cramped upstairs room where young boys were sewing beads and sequins onto fabric destined for the UK fashion industry, their smaller fingers and very low wages making them desirable workers for such tasks.

I make no apology for recounting the content at length; I have tried several times in the past few years to find a recording of the series but it seems to have vanished without trace from the BBC website; BBC3, after such a promising start, is merrily cultivating a lowest common denominator ethos of reality shows and infantile humour. All that can be found are a handful of newspaper references and short clips.

Meanwhile, there has been surprisingly little media comment on the connection between the factory collapse and the British fashion industry, perhaps because one particular chain is involved. The same newspapers which chronicled the difficult and highly dangerous rescue efforts this week have, for years, been promoting Primark clothes in their fashion pages and even extolling their cheapness - "At this price, you can afford one in every colour!"

While a higher price is no guarantee that the workers' pay and conditions are any better - in some cases, it simply means a bigger mark-up for a designer brand - it seems odd that no-one is pointing out that the extreme cheapness of some high street clothing today may well imply corners being cut somewhere in the manufacturing process.

While the retailers insist they are doing all they can to promote good employment practices, as long as they are buying in from third parties there is little they can do about infrastructure or the widespread practice of sub-contracting, whereby labour-intensive elements such as zips, buttonholes or beading are completed off-site at a cheaper rate. In a competitive market, there must be overwhelming pressure not to ask too many questions.

The jargon-laden ethical trading polices outlined on the fashion retailers' websites do little to address the concerns that should surely be raised by a pair of embellished jeans supplied cheaply enough to retail in the UK for less than £10. In a relatively short space of time, clothing has become so cheap that a t-shirt can cost less than a sandwich, yet little is being done to ensure that consumers are clearly informed about the origins of what they are buying.

It would, perhaps, be far-fetched to assume a conspiracy of silence, but it seems strange that, following the collapse of this factory, so little attention has been paid to the conditions in which clothing is manufactured, given the vast amount of space and attention the media devote to fashion on a regular basis.


  1. Hi Macheath. I'll take you up on that tankard while I play devils advocate for a minute.

    It's taken the western world many years to evolve from kids up chimneys, to decent working conditions and then on to over inflated minimum wages and over bearing employment laws and restrictions.

    Can the developing world do that overnight?

    If not, and they have to evolve in a similar manner, will not having an already developed western world as it's consumer base not help to speed up the process, until one day they are all on minimum wage and claiming maternity leave?

    If they tried to emulate our employment practices tomorrow, wouldn't all the jobs move back here, leaving them with no alternative but to revert to subsistance farming for the time being?

    Also, can the price of a pair of jeans made in Outer Elbonia really be compared to the price of a sandwich made here? Or should it be compared to the price of a sandwich made in outer Elbonia?

    Anyway...Have you been watching the snooker?

  2. Good of you to drop in, Bucko; cheers!

    I agree that relative manufacturing costs differ, and that child labour is still relatively common practice in the developing world - though the boys in the BBC3 programme, living away from their parents, gave the impression of being distinctly wary of their 'employer' and described being beaten as a punishment.

    But, while we can't judge other parts of the world by our own standards, we can do a certain amount to prevent outright exploitation of the kind that leads, at its worst, to mass casualties. It took much effort by reforming politicians and campaigners to bring in the Factory Acts in Britain - and that was without the pressure of a hugely influential overseas market with a vested interest in keeping prices as low as possible.

    But change can happen; after all, a few years ago, retailers were insisting that free-range eggs were only ever going to appeal to an affluent minority, yet they have become increasingly common thanks to consumer pressure.

  3. As for snooker, not this time - the spouse is a 'Masterchef' fan.

  4. Cheers!

    Yes, decent standards should be achievable without pushing too hard too fast and should be the expected norm. A life is still a life.

    And... Masterchef?

  5. Such a difficult one. There is fashion and then there are just clothes and we need to be clad and it costs money.

    I see the other side of it too. It's difficult.

  6. True, JH, though the advent of ridiculously cheap foreign clothing has done much to stigmatise the time-honoured and environmentally sound custom of re-using garments.

    The second-hand school uniform rail at my local primary school was abandoned a few years ago because many parents would not accept used clothing - ironically, its equivalent at a nearby prep school is going strong, with fee-paying parents seeking to avoid any extra expense where possible.

  7. I've often seen that people with money spend less than people without.

    Maybe those who have no money take a little too much value in pride, whereas those who have a bit, know the value of it.

    A famous Ferengi once said, "Dignity and an empty sack is worth the sack".

  8. One for you!



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