Tuesday 23 February 2016

Are H&M&S Failing In Their Ethical Promises?

Sometimes it feels like sustainable fashion has turned a corner, only to find a car barrelling directly at it. Take two of the most recognisable names on the high street–H&M and M&S (a pairing that just cries out for the acronym H&M&S). They regularly push their sustainable credentials, launching capsule collections and entering into collaborations with eco-fashionistas like Livia Firth.

And yet, when it comes to promises around key ethical issues like a living wage for their foreign garment workers, both giant brands are failing. That is, according to activist group Labour Behind The Label, who have just published a report on the situation in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India.

The findings make grim reading for those who believe that H&M&S are making a difference in getting sustainability into the mainstream. Labour Behind The Label found that in eight factories scattered around the research area, workers were still living in abject poverty. In many cases, workers were bringing home less than half the money they needed to live in anything other than slum conditions. Forced to buy food on credit, they have a permanent place on the debt spiral.

Anna McMullen, lead author on the report, is damning in her conclusions. She says:

“Both brands have hung their ethical credentials around this key human rights issue, to great applause, but without reporting clearly on the outcomes of the schemes. While consumers are left to trust that what was said is being done, many are left wondering about the real impact of the promises that were made.”

M&S, meanwhile, have been robust in defending their policies and the rollout of wage increases since 2010. A spokesman reported:

“There’s always more to be done due to the complex nature of the clothing supply chain and we cannot determine the wages paid to supplier employees. However, we are committed to ensuring our cost prices remain high enough to pay a fair living wage, training workers in financial literacy and worker rights, and playing our part in collaborating with other brands and governments to improve the sector.”

That defence tells us a lot, and explains in part the difficulty in making a supply chain fair to all. The business is so bewilderingly complex that it's impossible to guarantee the changes you make will be properly implemented. Oversight on the changes is next to impossible when employees are paid cash in hand through a piecework model of compensation.

However, H&M are still at an early stage in their scheme to improve worker conditions. Their roadmap to change was only published in 2013, and the programme is due to run until 2020. Labour Behind The Label urges H&M to look at what M&S have accomplished, and learn from their mistakes. A particular problem: benchmarks, or rather the lack of them. Currently, H&M are setting wage rates at their workers' “own opinion of what a decent living wage is.” This is pretty meaningless, and gives no real figures for trade unions to negotiate with. Setting proper, researched benchmarks and keeping things transparent are, the report concludes, by far the best way to ensure that garment workers in South East Asia are treated and paid fairly.

Our View: frankly, we think it's unrealistic to expect root-and-branch change in in ground supply chain practices overnight. When a single item of clothing can have its material sourced on one continent, its accessories on a second before being assembled in yet a third, ensuring fairness and transparency is an incredibly difficult job. Nevertheless, it's good that groups like Labour Behind The Label are keeping the big brands on task, and making sure that the rhetoric doesn't outstrip the reality.

You can read the full report here.


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