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It was great to attend Sustain RCA’s event ‘Join the Dots: Tracing the Impact of our Products and Supply Chains’ last week, and see the level of interest it provoked! For us, it was interesting to see how different people approached issues in the supply chain, and interpreted sustainability. For Jessi Baker it was all about local production and provenance on a very small scale; for Tim Wilson it was all about being able to see the connections in a gigantic and complex chain. For Bruno Pieters it was about being able to say to consumers exactly where and how his products were made, and how the money was distributed.

At Labour Behind the Label, we believe sustainability should be about standards we can all expect from garment manufacturers, not just the high end of the business. This isn’t an added extra – it’s a responsibility enshrined in the UN guiding principles on Business and Human Rights. It’s about expecting companies to behave responsibly, not just engage on a race to the bottom. That means paying workers a living wage, making sure they have safe working conditions, and most of all, that companies acknowledge their responsibilities, rather than just blaming sub-contractors when something goes horribly wrong.

To this end we are pressuring companies in the garment industry to bring in basic standards like a living wage and a reasonable level of safety, especially in countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh which make mass-produced garments for the fast fashion industry. Increasingly, many companies in the fashion industry also acknowledge these as important issues, although we don’t always agree on how to fix them! We have seen a good deal of progress in the last year, with a nationwide factory safety agreement in Bangladesh and ongoing wage negotiations in Cambodia.

One key issues in improving standards in the garment industry is transparency. Many companies say they have basic standards, but are unwilling to be clear exactly how these are enforced, checked or monitored. This is where, from the consumer’s point of view, small scale production can win over mass-produced fashion. However, if companies understand that this is one reason why consumers turn to these products, it will only encourage them to put their own houses in order.

What’s important is that companies know consumers care about issues like worker pay and safety. We know some people will make purchases from ethical, sustainable producers. Others can’t can’t afford to. Either way, the important thing is to let companies know it matters. If you buy an upmarket, ethical garment, there’s nothing stopping you logging onto Fashion Brand XY or Zs facebook page, and saying ‘wanted a shirt, but bought it elsewhere so I could be sure the workers were treated properly’. If you did buy a shirt from them, that’s not a problem, you can still send them a message saying ‘bought a shirt from you, really hope the workers that make it are treated with respect.’ Because either way the message will get through.

Ursula Wills-Jones

ursula@labourbehindthelabel.org

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