But what if the stylish loafer was on the other foot? If I had to make the decisions that keep a factory running, if I had to make the difficult choices about pay and conditions, what would I do?
A play at the Young Vic, World Factory by Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw, sets out to show us life at the sharp end of fashion. Part interactive theatre, part game, World Factory divides the audience into teams and then issues them the task of running a clothing factory in China. The scenario and data management are computer-controlled. The challenges are manifold: troublesome workers, non-paying clients, what to do when the complience officers come snooping around and your fire extinguishers aren't up to code. The end result is surprising: given the chance to act ethically, most of the audience choose to veer towards profit, regardless of the negative impact on their workers.
"Most people who were given the choice to raise wages – having cut them – did not. There is a route in the decision-tree that will only get played if people pursue a particularly ethical response, but very few people end up there. What we’ve realised is that it is not just the profit motive but also prudence, the need to survive at all costs, that pushes people in the game to go down more capitalist routes."All the metrics generated by the audience are shown and displayed, revealing that people will choose to make hard choices to stay in the game. Therein lies the problem. A closed factory is no good to anyone. Yet the forces at work on it, from NGO's spying with hidden cameras, to a workforce with little sense of loyalty that will walk away at a moment's provocation, make every day a juggling act to simply stay afloat.
The hard fact is that while many big brands have real and binding commitments to ethical behaviour, there are so many other forces at play that it's next to impossible for managers to run their factories to the proper guidelines. Corruption and the unwillingness of government to appropriately punish it have big roles to play in this rigged game, and that's something that factory owners can do little to solve.
As the stunned audiences at The Young Vic are discovering, it's very easy to talk up an ethical stance, but putting it into practice in the places that matter is a hell of a lot more difficult.
World Factory is showing at The Young Vic until June 6th. For more info, check the website: http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/world-factory