Last week in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an eight storey building housing five garment factories, collapsed leaving over 350 workers dead and many injured. Bangladesh has one of the largest garment industries in the world, providing cheap clothing for major Western retailers which benefit from its widespread low-cost labour. But the industry has been widely criticised for its low pay and limited rights given to workers and for the often dangerous working conditions in garment factories.
This tragedy has highlighted the obvious fact that the cheap clothes we buy are produced under abysmal working conditions by labourers, some children paid next to nothing. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that a £2 T-shirt bought from Tescos and made in the Far East can hardly be an ethical purchase. Have shoppers lost their humanity, don’t they think about it or is it simply because everybody loves a bargain? Shoppers ought to have a conscience but perhaps the government should intervene with legislation if anybody was really bothered. But the fact is that cheap clothes (and indeed many other low-cost products) from factories across Asia and the Far East were a critical part of our boom years. They allowed economies such as Britain’s to keep on borrowing more than we earned while cheap imports helped to keep a lid on the inflation that would normally accompany a credit-fuelled binge.
Young people who have grown up with Primark have probably thought little about the origins of their T-shirts but they have a very casual attitude to clothes. They are so cheap that they have become disposable, it matters not if a blouse is worn for one night only, it is easily replaceable and this means something new can be worn on each night out. It would be unheard of for fashionistas under the age of thirty to have had a garment for ten years or more. But if really concerned about buying ethical clothing what is one to do? Thinking I was being an ethical consumer I have bought clothes from a small independent shop in my local town. They sell a clothing range called ‘Seasalt, Cornwall.’ Everything in the marketing of these garments suggests that they are a small British company and that you are buying British, including the fact that these clothes aren’t particularly cheap. It was only at home, on closer inspection of the labels, that I discovered they were ‘Designed in Cornwall, Made in China.’ I felt utterly deflated.
Buying ethical clothing is a complicated business; the campaign group Labour Behind the Label shows reluctance in listing stores which sell sweatshop-free clothes because they ‘can’t hope to know everything there is to know about all brands.’ They also warn us to ‘beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing – many brands are called ethical but their ethics are based only on a very few environmental credentials. One company The People’s Tree was promoted in The Ecologist as a store which was a pioneer of sustainable and fair trade fashion; a quick look at their website tells you that a (very nice) T-shirt will set you back £30. So it’s great to have a conscience – but it will cost you.