Benjamin Jordan looks into the ethical grey area of high street clothing.
WITH the Christmas season firmly behind us, and shoppers still scrounging around Dundrum, Blanchardstown, and Liffey Valley in search of the tail-end of the January bargains, perhaps now is a good time to step back and separate the wood from the trees by taking a look at ethics of the retail industry.
If one were to walk into any high street 19th Century retailer in Dublin, London or Paris selling fine clothes, one would likely be met by a well-dressed man with a plump moustache smoking his pipe. Nowadays, a certain 2004 smoking ban prevents workers from puffing on pipes, nevertheless the five o’clock shadow is a reminder of what retail stores once were.
“It is too easy for the consumer to overlook details which do not fit into their comfortable lifestyle”
All that is seen by the Western consumer is the items on sale and the people behind the checkout. The manufacturing of the item usually does not cross our minds, the question in the pub is “that’s a lovely top, where did you get it?” rather than “how much did they pay the worker who made that top?”
It is too easy for the consumer to overlook details that do not fit into their comfortable lifestyle; out of sight, out of mind. In the West, those whose ancestors may have worked 14 hour days during the Industrial Revolution in unsafe factories are now the ones who boast about a bargain bagged on high street as if it was a hard-earned achievement.
A report by labour rights NGO India Committee of the Netherlands in January 2016 highlighted appalling conditions for living, where factories provide hostels to workers in Bangalore, in Southern India. Arvind, a supplier of popular high street store H&M, were shown to be housing 220 male workers in a three storied-hostel. Seventy workers were staying on each floor.
Three tier bunk-beds with no mattresses were provided and bathrooms were being shared by between 12 and 14 people. 300 Rupees, or about €4, was deducted from their wages for accommodation, electricity and water charges. Nothing else was found to be provided, and workers were expected to cook their own food without a kitchen facility.
These hostels usually separate males and females. Other areas in the region were found to be suppressing women’s freedom of movement by only allowing them out of the hostel for two hours per week, and having them under constant surveillance from male security guards.
It’s an interesting kind of ignorance we have in Western society. The word “idiot” comes from Ancient Greek, meaning somebody who does not wish to take part in public affairs, preferring to remain a “private citizen”. Yet these harsh conditions, in India and elsewhere, are being funded by the consumer who turns a blind eye.
People may remember the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh in which 1,129 people lost their lives while at work. The factory was manufacturing items for Western High Street companies like Benneton, Monsoon, and Primark. Or maybe people don’t remember.
It seems that, to many, it is more convenient to detach from such atrocities lest we realise that by supporting these companies we all have blood on our hands.
Indeed Western society has, and will continue to do so, outsourced its manufacturing industry to developing countries where workers’ rights are not prioritised, they are not being protected, and they don’t get a decent wage for their hard work.
“Profit is the ultimate end, and ethics regarding the means to that end go out the window.”
Oxfam released a reported in January stating that eight men own the same amount of wealth as 3.6 billion people, making them as rich as half the people on earth. The second wealthiest of the batch is Amancio Ortega, the man behind Inditex, which owns clothing giants Zara, Bershka, and Pull & Bear among others.
The production of these clothes has come under serious ethical scrutiny in recent years with numerous strikes and out of court settlements and yet sales continue rise.
It is in fact the top 1% of earners who own the big retailing franchises, who invest and trade in them on the stock market. Such elites care more about the price they will pay for a share than the price those Rana Plaza workers paid on the 24th of April 2013. The privilege that they hold is taken for granted, and the workers in the developing world are swiftly forgotten.
The accident of birth that is wealth or a plausible path to wealth is assumed available to all of us with enough hard work and effort. Profit is the ultimate end, and ethics regarding the means to that end go out the window; a system that rewards humans’ natural greed is embraced as the way forward in a constantly expanding economy. “Fair enough” says Western society, “capitalism is the only societal structure that has been proven to work”, they say, as buildings collapse on workers in Bangladesh.