Recently I went into one of our big retail stores to buy a pair of jeans. I walked out without even trying on a pair.
Why? Because the jeans that I saw were so cheap that I could not believe that the Bangladesh garments workers involved in their manufacture could possibly have been paid a fair wage.
Now I’ve lived in Bangladesh, and I know how much the garments industry contributes to the economy, and the flow on benefits in the wider community. One of these benefits is that now a much higher percentage of girls are encouraged by their families to keep going to school. A girl who has a higher education has a better chance of a good job in the industry!
Garments are 80% of Bangladesh’s exports and are the major contributor to a period of economic growth for Bangladesh that has it poised on the brink of transitioning from a poor country to a middle income country. So, the garments industry is an essential part of Bangladesh’s escape from poverty.
However there is a dark side to this story. The reason the global garments industry likes Bangladesh is because it can manufacture the garments cheaper than other countries. To maintain that situation business owners will always be tempted to cut corners. The conditions in some of the factories are horrendous. Safety measures are bypassed and wages are kept to a minimum. While the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse drew attention to the issues, there is still a lot that needs to be done. A recent news article in Bangladesh reported that “According to a 2016 International Labour Organization survey, the highest number of suppliers who felt compelled to accept orders below production costs came from Bangladesh. This directly affects workers’ wages and other working conditions.” They call for a campaign to “make Bangladesh famous for being competitive rather than the cheapest”, and more support for workers’ rights in the industry.
This year’s Ethical Fashion Report and Ethical Fashion Guide are now out. Jointly published by Baptist World Aid Australia and Tearfund New Zealand this is an annual review of New Zealand and Australian clothing brands. The Report gives you all the details. It is an extensive review from raw materials all the way through to final production, covering environmental impacts as well as worker health and safety issues. It is worth a read, but if you just want the summary, then download the Guide. That gives you the grade that each brand received, as well as some ideas on how to be an ethical shopper.
As a footnote – the jeans that I was looking at get a ‘B-‘ grade from the Ethical Fashion people, so perhaps they are not as bad as I feared!