This year has kicked off with several reports suggesting that, yet again, the bad purchasing practices of fashion brands and retailers are resulting in the mistreatment of garment suppliers and as a consequence garment workers. But, time has run out and it must stop now.
The fashion industry’s reputation for violating garment workers’ labour rights has existed for years and the term ‘sweatshop’ is still used to explain negative working conditions across any industry – not just fashion.
Progress has been made in spades to shake off the negative connotations associated with the sector, especially since Covid.
On a trip to Bangladesh in late 2022 for example, Just Style witnessed first-hand the impressive investments some factory owners have made to deliver truly sustainable fashion for consumers within a positive working environment for workers.
In other words, what was deemed the ‘future’ not so long ago is already here – factories with solar panels on the roof, attractive green living walls on the side of buildings and medical centres for staff and daycare centres for their children sitting within the grounds.
According to two reports published last week, however, major fashion brands and retailers are still not making it easy for garment suppliers and factory owners to do the right thing for their workers.
A report published by the University of Aberdeen, which admittedly was based around the time period of March 2020 to December 2021, found most (90%) of larger high street brands buying from four or more factories were reported to be engaging in unfair purchasing practices. Plus, over half of suppliers reported unfair purchasing practices such as cancellations, failure to pay, delays in payment and discount demands with knock-on effects, including forced overtime and harassment.
The lead author of the report believes western governments must introduce a fashion watchdog to solve these issues, which seem to rear their ugly head repeatedly.
Similarly, a new report published by the Better Buying Institute, which gives suppliers an anonymous way to communicate with brands and retailers, suggests that unsurprisingly, buyer purchasing practices have the most known impacts on non-compliance related to working time, workers’ contracts, and workers’ compensation.
If a supplier or factory owner isn’t treated well, it makes logical sense that this will trickle down to the workers on the ground. If the supplier is short on cash or gets an order that needs to be fulfilled at the last minute – it’s the workers who will take the brunt of the inconvenience. That might be in terms of taking home less pay or the amount of hours they need to spend sewing the brands’ latest must-have top or pair of trousers to get the order out within the tight timeframe that had been set by the brand.
Thankfully, the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains came into effect on 1 January this year and will be followed by wider legislation across the whole of Europe.
It means all fashion brands and retailers wishing to stock products in Germany must now identify the risks to workers in their supply chains and take preventive measures to ensure that their purchasing practices minimise those risks.
The worry however, as the Better Buying Institute’s Marsha Dickson points out, is that brands and retailers will push the requirements of this new supply chain due diligence onto their suppliers to solve.
But consumers are not stupid and any brands or retailers trying to take a quick way out will be called out.
In other words, it really is now or never for brands and retailers to own their responsibility towards suppliers and their end consumers and work with them as true partners and not to undercut profits or pit factories against one another to save an extra few cents.
And we can only hope the next
generation of garment factory owners, such as the young members of Bayla in
Bangladesh who are already taking over the helm, will have the strength and
courage to work together with one voice and say ‘no’ to any brands or retailers
that make unreasonable requests that do both their teams and the wider industry
a major disservice.
By Just Style