While some measurable progress has been made since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh a year ago, little within the sector has changed: big western companies continue to call the shots; others fall into line.
In recent months, campaigners have brought several companies to heel, resulting in factory-level improvements and compensation for survivors – yet other companies remain steadfast, with only a third of the International Labour Organisation-backed fund for victims having been raised. Several Bangladeshi factories have been forced to close for failing to meet health and safety standards, and even with a massive 77% pay rise for staff, such work keeps people only just above the poverty line, at best.
Some, such as the organisers of Fashion Revolution Day, believe the problem lies in how we are connected to our supply chain. This is certainly part of the equation, as are stronger trade unions, which are emerging. But these fail to address the key issue that plagues the industry – power remains in the hands of the big brands which dictate what we wear, how we buy it, how it is made, who gets paid and how much.
Most brands charge the consumer about five times what they pay at factory level. This means that most of the value of production lies not with those who make the goods, but with the brands who package, market and sell them.
Although this structure offers few options, some factory owners are, thankfully, more enlightened. Suvastra in south Bangalore, for instance, pays about 20% more than the local average, recruits from underprivileged areas, and its products are certified as organic and Fairtrade. Raj Lakshmi cotton mills, a garment maker in Calcutta, has given a 10% equity stake in its business along with a seat on the board to Chetna Organic cotton producers, a Fairtrade co-operative in Andhra Pradesh.
But other than a few beacons, the industry has yet to recognise that until value is shared among stakeholders, a tragedy similar in scale to the Rana Plaza could recur – either in Bangladesh or the next country that undercuts labour prices and offers tax incentives to lure business.
Of course, few, if any, in positions of power would want to acknowledge this fact publicly. As one manufacturer admitted on condition of anonymity: “You don’t want your peers to know the good you’re doing because they’ll try to sabotage you.”
For the big brands, it seems enough to announce a commitment to workers. But no large brand would declare that its staff should be paid more and its owners less – such an admission would send shareholders walking and stock prices into freefall.
The answer? More attention needs to be paid to the grassroots. Benevolent manufacturers, of whom there are few, have little impact on a multibillion-pound industry characterised by big companies and low-paid work.
One possible solution is that the garment industry attempts to replicate what Amul did in dairy. The Gujarati-based milk co-operative was established in the 1940s in response to the exploitation of Indian producers. Amul’s approach, which revolutionised the industry, has expanded to 3 million producers who co-own the brand. Its milks and cheeses are now ubiquitous across India.
Would it be feasible to employ this model in the garment sector? No-Chains, a co-operative of clothing workers in Argentina and Thailand established in 2009, has tried this, though it remains small.
Ultimately though, a few good gestures are not going to change the rules of the fashion game. Until major players overhaul who gets what share of the pie, big brands will continue to seize the majority of value. A genuine fashion revolution needs to address more than just an awareness of the industry’s problems; it must confront power, ownership and control.