By Stephan Manning.
The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh was devastating. Over 400 mostly young female workers died; over a hundred are still missing. An ‘accident’ that would be unthinkable in the U.S. or Western Europe. Prior concerns about the building conditions (including a large crack) had been ignored – by the owner, by government officials and global buyers. Whether or not clients, such as Benetton, Cato Fashions, Primark, Mango and Joe Fresh, actually knew about the situation is not important. The fact however that they did not make sure – even after a series of recent fires with hundreds of casualties in similar factories, such as the Tazreen factory – that basic safety standards many of us take for granted are met and followed up on is revealing. After decades of protest and campaigns by ILO and international NGOs, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, it seems that the global fashion industry has not even managed to secure very basic health and safety conditions for garment workers in major producing countries.
This frustrating fact becomes even more disturbing when comparing apparel to other so-called ‘commodity’ industries, such as coffee. When the first activists raised concerns about labor conditions in the global coffee industry in the 1970s and 80s, farmers were facing health and safety risks quite similar to garment workers. But since then things have changed a bit. The percentage of coffee certified by one or several sustainability standards, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or Utz Certified, all of which at least impose and regularly check health and safety standards, has increased rapidly in recent years (see related article). Major consuming countries, such as UK and Netherlands, already import a large percentage of their coffee beans – UK: 20% (2009), Netherlands: 38% (2010) – from certified farms. Premium brands, such as Starbucks, and many local high-quality roasters cannot even afford any more not to demonstrate their commitment to the environment, and their concerns with farmers’ health, safety and well-being. In 2010, 87% of Starbucks coffee was certified. In 2015, it will be 100%.
So why is it that certification seems to work in coffee, but not in clothing? Why is it that sustainability standards in coffee look way beyond health and safety issues, whereas the Clean Clothes Campaign and their partner organizations struggle to get major fashion brands to sign very basic agreements, such as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which would promote independent inspections of supplier factories, public reporting, training and mandatory repairs and renovations?
One key to understand this challenge is what I call the fashion trap. Despite the enduring effort of large NGOs and certification bodies, one major driving force of improved labor and environmental conditions – based on private certification – remains the awareness and behavior of consumers. It takes lead consumers who are not only aware of the social impact of their purchasing decisions but who actually buy products regularly that are sourced from certified production facilities.
But here comes the problem: for certified products to succeed, their social, aesthetic and market value need to be in tune. By social value I mean the level at which labor, social and environmental standards are met in the production process; aesthetic value is the degree to which a product matches the taste of (socially conscious) lead consumers; market value is the price those consumers are willing to pay.
Now let’s look at coffee first. One reason for the recent success of Fairtrade – and ‘fairly traded’ coffee in general – has been its ability to penetrate the premium coffee market. Since 2010, Starbucks has served 100% Fairtrade certified Lattes and Cappuccinos all across Europe. This means that all imported Starbucks espresso beans are sourced from farmers who enjoy high health and safety standards, a premium price paid by buyers, and high environmental standards. Similarly, many high-end local roasters boast responsible and sustainable approaches to sourcing. This has worked out because (1) lead coffee consumers in Europe – and increasingly in the U.S. – are willing to pay a higher price (market value) not just for high quality but for the overall coffee experience (aesthetic value), and because (2) the trend of coffee being sourced responsibly and sustainably (social value) has added to the aesthetic experience of lead consumers. In other words, it’s trendy to drink coffee responsibly. Even young hipsters – and trend setters – in New York, who can barely pay their rents, regularly enjoy their sustainably sourced Latte for $4 or more in their favorite local coffee shop.
This does not work so well in apparel. Whereas the above mentioned New York hipster might not think twice about purchasing an espresso drink every day, he or she might not be willing to pay much for fashion – be it vintage apparel or new items. This is because, (1) the market price of apparel does not reflect its aesthetic value, which depends a lot on how it combines with other items, individual style, fashion cycles, and peer preference. This already reduces the chance that lead consumers will regularly buy clothes with high social value (which might cost more because of the expenses involved in ensuring safety and paying workers decent wages). (2) Unlike the café latte which consumers might enjoy while looking at a poster of happy coffee farmers, the aesthetic value of a piece of clothing is quite unrelated to the purchasing experience (except maybe for vintage clothing). It’s all about appearance outside of a shop – whether or not clothes are certified does not really matter, it’s not visible. This means that even if consumers happen to buy clothes in a store known for responsible sourcing, the chances that they will regularly do so – just because items are certified – are relatively small. In addition, variety-seeking plays a much greater role in buying clothes than in coffee consumption.
Therefore, unlike in coffee, in apparel there is no natural market for certified products. Thus, there will be no lasting consumer pressure on fashion labels to source responsibly. It seems that the only way that labor conditions in Bangladesh and other producing countries can be improved is through national and international regulation and a concerted effort of major consuming countries to enforce effective implementation. Whereas in coffee, demand-driven private regulation has gradually replaced the need for government regulation, in apparel the continuous failure of private regulation – as evidenced by the recent events in Bangladesh – should be a wake-up call.
Let’s face it: Fashion consumers (and retailers) might never change their behavior, but governments can and should. Helping producing countries to fight corruption, promote the formation of trade unions and enforce existing legislation might be a first step. Using development agencies as intermediaries might help as well. Getting fashion labels and retailers to apply additional pressure might have an effect – but only in conjunction with government efforts. Enough people have died already because of sloppy safety regulations. Let’s make sure they did not die in vain.
Clean Clothes Campaign (accepting donations)