We are urged that one route to a more ethical shopping experience is to shop ethically–that is, to buy clothes with a clear provenance, where we can track the factories our items have passed through in order to make it to our racks. If we can't, then we're urged to boycott the obvious transgressors–the multinationals who save costs by farming out their work to sweated labour in dangerous working conditions.
The trouble is, that narrative isn't just flawed: it's backwards and missing some important parts of the puzzle. The fact is that most multionationals have robust inspection regimes in place, and comply to all sorts of international standards. But for the most part, they have no real idea where or by who their clothes are being made.
As lead times for new ranges shrink, the suppliers to brands like Nike and Walmart are farming out work to smaller factories, who in turn are sub-contracting that work to outfits down the chain, that can come down to home workers. These mom and pop operations frequently pull the kids into the mix as well. In places like Bangladesh, where legislation against child labour is spottily applied, there's no way to stop an 8 year old sewing your new set of yoga pants if she's doing it next to her mum in the kitchen.
This practice is standard in the new world of fashion we've built, and it relies on a web of supply that only gets more complex the more you look into it. Most factories no longer deal directly with the brands. They work with middle-men, who are giant conglomerates themselves. Megasuppliers like Li and Fung supply everyone from Disney to Spanx, and have a billion-dollar turnover. They take the orders and the work ripples down, from factory to workshop to kitchen table. It's impossible to track, and therefore impossible to regulate. The megasuppliers have their own standards and inspectors, but frequently report back after the orders have already been filled, and there's no guarantee that the next order will be fulfilled in the same way or at the same factories.
Perversely, it's the multinationals that are doing the best work regarding worker standards these days. Stung by twenty years of bad publicity, they have set up training for management, and enabled better communication between them and their staff. You're almost better buying from them than from a small concern, who can only afford to send their work to a smaller factory whose paperwork may be in order, but who have figured out how to fib to inspectors when they arrive for an audit. If they ever see them. Bangladesh has 125 labour inspectors, with responsibility for 75 million garment workers.
This all sounds terribly bleak, but change is happening. We should not expect a quick fix, or that by not buying that new pair of Converses we are somehow saving a child from a lifetime of perury and sweated labour. It doesn't work like that. The key, if pilot schemes in Brazil are to be believed, is to focus on core suppliers and compel them to sign up to honest working standards. Consumer advocacy simply won't do the job. Modern fashion is far more complex than that.
Enough from me. Go read Michael Hobbe's article, and see for yourself what we're up against.