How do you know if your clothes are being made ethically?

21st Jan 19 | Fashion

Comic Relief's 'gender justice' campaign reportedly features Spice Girls T-shirts made for 35p an hour in Bangladesh.

Spice Girls tour

In the age of the biodegradable coffee cup, the conscientious customer is king. Reusable water bottles are encouraged, recycling expected, and woe betide the careless consumer caught going overboard on plastic straws. People have never been more aware that a choice of retailer is a vote with your wallet, and that sometimes the cheapest items have hidden environmental, or even human, costs.

But with ‘fast fashion’ on the rise clothing can be a blind spot for even the most cautious customer, and unethical products can turn up where you least expect them.

So it was for the Spice Girls’ new tee supporting Comic Relief’s ‘gender justice’ campaign. A report in the Guardian has alleged that the T-shirts were produced in a factory in Bangladesh by labourers earning the equivalent of 35p per hour. One worker claimed the mainly female workforce were verbally abused and overworked, the newspaper reported.

So how do you ensure the clothing you’re buying is made responsibly? We take a look at the complexities of ethical fashion, and how to best navigate the confusing clothing economy…

A murky industry

First, the bad news: Clothing is a global industry, with a notoriously impenetrable paper trail. In 2017 the BBC traced the life cycle of a Zara dress, and found that it passed through five different countries before being shipped to a store.

T-shirts are not Deliveroo orders – you cannot track every item from weave to wardrobe – and sometimes it seems even companies themselves don’t know what goes on in their foreign factories.

Primark protest
Protesters outside Oxford Street Primark, following the Rana Plaza Disaster (Steve Parsons/PA)

In 2013 the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed after a series of fractures in the foundations were ignored and 1,134 garment workers were killed, drawing worldwide condemnation, including the then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. “Consumers have more power than they think when it comes to making choices about where they shop,” he said.

One year later, Clegg fronted another social campaign, when he and Ed Miliband donned a new range of feminist T-shirts. Unbeknownst to them, the T-shirts had reportedly been produced in a sweatshop in Mauritius by ill-treated migrant workers earning 62p per hour.

Budget buyers beware

So, when even the companies commissioning the clothes aren’t always aware of the conditions, what hope is there for the high street consumer?

Well , the first warning sign is simple: price. Money talks, and if a T-shirt costs less than a large chocolate bar but still yields a satisfactory profit margin for shareholders, it could be because production costs have been slashed to the bone.

Young woman shopping
Is the pricetag too good to be true? (Thinkstock/PA)

In some developed countries you can now buy T-shirts from vending machines (a whole new meaning to ‘off the rack’), and consumers have to ask themselves just how ‘fast’ fast fashion can be without skating over cracks along the way.

You could consider buying some higher quality items and treating them as investments, rather £3 throwaways to be replaced with spare change. Longer-lasting items spare extra waste, may save money in the long run, and are less likely to rely on corner cutting for their profits.

Obviously not all cheap clothing is made in sweatshops, but buyers should approach rock-bottom pricing with caution.

Pose the question

Most clothing companies will dress themselves in well-meaning slogans and virtuous-sounding PR, but they may not all be able to answer direct questions from customers.

E-mail your favourite clothes suppliers or tweet them with the hashtag #whomademyclothes, and request details on where their products come from and how they’re produced. If the company can’t give you a straight answer, they might be manufacturing their products unethically, or they might not even know.

But don’t assume that because the biggest brands warrant the most media coverage, they must automatically be the worst offenders. A Royal Holloway study in 2010 found in the factories of Cambodia, so-called “reputation-conscious” companies committed 35% fewer violations than generic brands. The fourth or fifth biggest retailers in a sector are hyper-aware of adverse publicity – more aware perhaps than the fortieth or fiftieth.

Ask the experts

Finally, if your own queries and research are not turning up any clear answers, there are ethical fashion initiatives waiting to take up the cause.

A factory floor
A packed factory floor (Thinkstock/PA)

Founded in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, Fashion Revolution is a not-for-profit, global movement encouraging consumers to challenge companies over their business models, and encouraging companies to provide proper answers. It runs global awareness campaigns, hosts regular events and runs Fashion Revolution Week – a mid-April crusade encouraging retailers to explain their supply chains with the hashtag #imakeyourclothes.

Someone somewhere knows how your clothes are being produced, and Fashion Revolution want to help you find them.

© Press Association 2019