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Throwaway fashion culture means poverty for millions

First the good news.

Today the Bangladesh Ministry of Labour is expected to announce that following months of strikes and demonstrations by garment workers, the minimum wage in an industry that employs 2,500,000 is to be virtually doubled.

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The bad news is that this will bring the basic wage up to a decidedly unprincely £28 a month. And you can be sure that this paltry deal will be surrounded by ifs and buts. Many employers will take months or years to implement it or fiddle the figures by imposing impossible production targets that can be met only by unpaid overtime. Others will shovel bulk orders on to sub-contractors in Dickensian back street sweatshops. (They sweat. We shop.)

Earlier this month, the charity ActionAid published a report that identified Asda as the epitome of the cheap fashion retailer that competes with its high street rivals by using Asian garment workers earning wages that are too low to feed, clothe and educate their families. Even in a handful of factories in Bangladesh that are being used by Asda to improve productivity and pass on gains to workers, the average wage is still less than the new minimum. In a 2009 survey ranking fashion retailers on their efforts to pay decent wages to garment workers, Asda trailed ten of its competitors, including Primark and Tesco.

To press its point home, ActionAid supporters invaded branches of Asda in Glasgow and Edinburgh last week, hiding “secret messages” in the pockets of clothes, inviting shoppers to send written protests to the store’s management.

Sadly, few will bother. It’s a strange contradiction that the same shopper who diligently seeks out fair trade tea, will sling a £4 T-shirt into her trolley five minutes later, failing to make the connection with the poor women who lives in a stinking tin shack in Dhaka or Bangalore and was paid about 2p to make that bargain buy. Fair trade fashion has been slow to take off, partly because early attempts were dull and frumpy, and partly because complex supply chains have militated against simple labelling schemes. “It’s complicated” has been the customary get-out for the shopper with a conscience.

A decade of anti-sweatshop campaigning has generated more PR spin than genuine progress on this issue. Stores boast about “codes of conduct” and their “ethical spokesperson” will harp on about “robust auditing systems”, justifying ridiculously low prices on the basis of economies of scale. The Ethical Trading Initiative, which attempts to chivvy retailers into improving the working conditions offered by their suppliers, is used by members as a badge of honour. But, unlike endorsement by the Soil Association or the Fairtrade Foundation, members only commit themselves to “working towards” a list of basic principles like the right to a living wage. There’s a world of difference. Asda, just caught with its ethical pants down, has been a member for ten years.

If anything, things are getting worse. Western women have fallen in love with “throw-away” fashion, to the extent that we’re buying a third more clothes than ten years ago.

Every year Britain generates nearly a million tonnes of textile waste, some of it unworn. And, if disposable fashion is showing signs of tailing off, the downturn has brought a flood of new cost-

conscious customers heading downmarket to the “value” chains. So the budget fashion industry has had a good recession.

However, ferocious competition has driven down unit wholesale prices. It is standard practice for buyers to obtain quotes from different countries, then use them to push down the price. Fast fashion

generates double standards with retailers talking about ethical codes but simultaneously undermining decent conditions by slashing prices. Dominic Castleton of ActionAid compares this to asking someone to put out a fire while simultaneously pouring petrol on it.

It may be convenient to blame this scandal on greedy multi-nationals, just as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is blamed on BP. But, just as the Deepwater Horizon disaster is ultimately the result of our appetite for cheap oil, so the exploitation of garment workers is fed by our love of cheap fashion.

Over the years my daughters and I have enjoyed girly forays into Glasgow, emerging with bagfuls of clothes we often rarely wore. Slowly it dawned on us that there is no such thing as budget ethical fashion. (I was also worried about the carbon footprint generated by these purchases – about 6kg of carbon dioxide for a pair of jeans.) For retail therapy, read guilt trip.

Result? A decision not to buy any clothes at all in 2010. So far I have managed to stick to my

resolve.

Of course, this is the last thing that my garment worker in Dhaka wants. After all, if she wasn’t paid tuppence a piece to make T shirts, how else might she be obliged to make her living?

Retailers won’t do much about garment workers’ wages and conditions until a lot more customers demand action. The big exception is M&S, which has committed to paying a living wage to all its South Asian garment workers by 2015. (Arguably, it’s easier for them because their stock is all own-label.)

What is a fair wage, exactly? A new coalition of NGOs and trade unions has recently come up with an answer. They call it the “Asia floor wage” and it currently stands at around £91 a month.

If retailers and countries (including China) got together and agreed to adopt it, some 40 million

garment workers, predominantly women, would be lifted out of poverty.

The amazing thing about the Asia floor wage is that it because workers’ wages make up such a tiny fraction of a garment’s cost, it would add just 6p to the price of a T-shirt and 12p to a pair of jeans from Bangladesh.

Complicated? Not a bit. Retailers would simply make it a contractual obligation that suppliers pass on the extra money to workers. Meanwhile, no bulging shopping bags for your truly, though next year I may indulge in a little slow fashion.

For now I’ll have to content myself with my old hair shirt.

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