The abolition of slavery in the UK came about in 1833, through an act of UK Parliament seeking to protect those with less fortunate beginnings from the comparatively privileged souls of the UK. It was to provide protection from the pleasure-seeking arrogance that can become endemic in more developed countries.
With the passing of this act, slavery began to diminish and collapse throughout the world, forging a path for greater freedom, greater democracy and eventually the universal declaration of human rights, in 1948.
Yet there were factors unbeknown to Wilberforce and co that would mean slave labour would continue for almost 200 years after their act was passed in parliament.
With Rio+20 fast approaching, Ilaria Pasquinelli - board member and consultant at The Ethical Fashion Consultancy - recently brought attention to the often-denied, yet undoubtedly immense obligation of the fashion industry to catch up and play its part in creating sustainability through the eradication of poverty (a key theme in this years summit).
Image source: www.ecouterre.com
What is brilliant about Ilaria’s blog is how she clearly illustrates how we have arrived at the point we are at today, where every man, woman and child in the UK consumes a whapping 55kg of clothing per year.
“Until the late 80s, fashion retailers and brands would typically have two main collections a year: spring/summer and autumn/winter. Then, in the 90s things changed dramatically. Increased competition saw retailers incentivising customers to visit their stores more frequently. To do this they expanded their product ranges. The latest fashions seen on runways and celebrities began to rapidly populate high-street retailers' ranges. Designers and trend seekers would turn a garment around from drawing to shop floor in just two weeks. The era of super cheap and super fast took off.”
This has led to massive change in how fashion retailers buy and where they buy from, with almost 75% of world clothing exports now being produced in developing countries and lead times having dropped from 90 days to 30 days. The role that fashion retailers play has also changed.
“Over the course of decades, large fashion retailers have acquired significant power as they are in direct contact with the end customer and can therefore influence preference. Retailers are also at the root of globalisation of consumers' tastes. Wherever one goes, people dress very similarly.
The growing complexity of the supply chains and functions of large fashion retail chains has also meant that a company's activity is not restricted to the core business of retail distribution. As a result supply chains have become largely opaque and nearly impossibly to track.”
These factors combine to create much greater pressure on the suppliers. The fashion retailers dwarf their suppliers in bargaining power and market influence. This has led countries such as Bangladesh to keep the minimum wage light years away from an actual living wage. But this is completely non-sensical…
“…It is estimated that in cases where production is out sourced to a developing world country, workers' wages only account for between 0.5- 4% of the final retail cost of a garment.”
This is a well-known fact in the senior rankings of the fashion retailers, who often demand a 75% margin. This massive margin combined with ever increasing transport costs are where the real costs lie. These numbers render the cost of wages paid to workers as insignificant.
Gap, Next and Marks & Spencer have all launched their own inquiries into abuses of working regulations at their Indian suppliers, which have resulted in children such as six-year-old Bubli being left alone while her parents work. Source: The Guardian.
These enormous margins are also a major contributing factor to clothing now being cheaper, poorer quality, more disposable and more densely consumed than at any other time in history. Textile production has almost tripled in the last 30 years, with an estimated 1m tonnes of textiles being thrown away every year in the UK alone.
“In 1977 the total demand amounted to thirty one million tonnes of fibre. In 2007, this figure had risen to nearly eighty million tonnes.”
I agree with Ilaria that the key topic on the Rio agenda should be full-scale transparency. Unlike slavery in the early 1800s, a key obstacle we face is that the consumer is unseeing and disconnected from the misery and horror of living a life of servitude.
But petitioning the fashion industry seems to be akin to banging heads against walls. Paying wages that cannot be lived on, forcing overtime, banning union representation and workplace abuse are just some of the horrors going on every day so that we can satisfy our insatiable thirst for fashion. Why has such small progress been made since the discovery of these human right offences? Isn’t a fresh approach needed?
The worlds most respected and developed governments continue to dedicate huge sums of aid in the quest for an end to extreme poverty. Yet with 80% of some countries GDP coming from garment production alone, they would be better off bringing these bulging corporations to call.
“… With sustainability still not incorporated within the core strategy of most fashion retailers, change must happen,” warns Ilaria. But with legislation that criminalises companies that profit from slave labour, change would happen - and the fashion industry might just become a power for massive economic growth in some of the world’s poorest regions.