Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Monday, 7 July 2008

I have nothing further to add

Ask Hadley

Chic without sweatshops

Hadley Freeman can ease your fashion pain

Monday July 7, 2008
The Guardian

I was so shocked by the revelation the other week that small Indian children made some of my Primark clothes. What can I do to make sure this doesn't happen again?
Mary O'Keefe, London

Um, don't buy clothes that cost £3 maybe? Before anyone (ie, Primark's lawyers) get upset, I'm not saying that all cheap clothes are studded with the sweat and blood droplets of half-starved children. But to continue buying cheap-as-chips clothes and then to express shock that they are not made by happy couturiers, sewing the pieces by hand while reclining on goose-feathered pillows and chortling contentedly seems - and I really mean no offence, Mary - a touch naive, let us say euphemistically. Someone is paying the price for those clothes, my dear. And seeing as it's clearly not you, and it's unlikely to be the store (most stores tend to be a bit reluctant to sell clothes for less than they paid to have them made - they're funny like that) perhaps it's someone else. Someone around the age of 10, maybe.

It's like those diets that promise you can eat stuffed-crust pizza, pasta carbonara and deep-fried chocolate gateau and still lose weight. People, it just doesn't work like that - well, not unless the chocolate tastes like rehydrated and artificially sweetened seaweed because, well, that's what it is. And a beaded top that costs £2.50 is either going to be very badly made, sewn by people content to be paid 60p a day or has the wrong price tag on it. Guess which makes stores more money?

Of course, if one takes this argument too far then you end up saying that the only kind of clothes people should buy is couture, which really is made by the aforementioned happy couturiers (although even they might not always get to be pillow-recliners). The reason we buy cheap clothes is because most of us are not Dasha Zhukova and don't have boyfriends who buy us £50m paintings on a whim. But just as the best way to eat is to eat a normal-sized amount of half-decent food - not Michelin-starred, not greasy, battery-farmed offcuts - at reasonably spaced intervals, so the best way to shop is to buy the occasional well-made piece of clothing. Not Gucci necessarily, but something that costs more than a latte, perhaps.

And ultimately, I truly do believe it works out cheaper. Buying one dress for £75 that lasts you a good handful of years is definitely more economical than buying a new £20 dress every time you have a party because the last one didn't make it to 10pm without ripping. So, in conclusion, you'll be living with more money, better clothes and without guilt.

I think I just saw a ray of light break beyond those clothes yonder.


Kuri said...

Except there are a fair number of pricey clothes that are made in sweatshops, too! The only sure bet would be to make them oneself or to personally know the person making them. Short of that designers that actually make a *claim* to ethical production. But to just assume that a high price will mean "happy couturiers"... no. Sometimes (often) the price reflects nothing more than marketing.

Linda Grant said...

Most of us are not going to make our oen clothes because we don't have the skills, and even if someone like me tried to learn how, the clothes I made for myself would never look as good as professionally produced ones because I'm not the sort of person who has any innate ability at crafts. Dressmakers are few and far between, particularly in London.

It's true that a £70 dress won't be handmade in Bologna, but if you buy a dress from Primart you can be certain that somebody will have to have been very very badly exploited in order for you to buy it for £3.

Toby Wollin said...

Again - we are coming back 'round to the discussion of 'buying fewer but better' and also the issue of companies chasing the lowest wage(also referred to as 'the race for the bottom'). A related question is whether or not someone who wanted to make clothing in the UK or in the US would be able, now, to find the skill sets, the machinery and all the related parts(findings, fabrics, etc.) within the country. I do know that in the US, finding fabrics actually made in the US is almost impossible now. Machinery has also been shipped overseas as well. So, as a national industrial policy, if a country wanted to make the investment in the garment industry it would be horrifically expensive. So the question really is - are manufacturers and retailers ready to take responsibility for the quality of the workplaces in countries that HAVE made the investment? At this point, the only way to make an impression on manufacturers and retailers, I think, is to vote with the purse.

Linda Grant said...

It's a good point Toby, but the question for me is not where the clothes are made, but how much the people making them are paid and whether they have decent living conditions. There are state of art factories in China where skilled workers know very well their value in the marketplace and which are turning out very high quality clothes and accessories. In the UK most clothes manufacture is done by low paid homeworkers or tiny sweatshops in the East End. We are paying extra for the illusion that our Prada bag was made in Bologna when in was made in China, but I'd rather pay that rip-off extra than buy a fake made by child slaves in Indionesia.

TheSundayBest said...

I love the shock people express to certain news - wait, CHILDREN made this? As though the idea was so far outside the realm of possibility...

Let's remember that not too far in the distant past of all industrialized nations children made a lot of things.

Our sense of value has become completely skewed. We want mangoes 365 days a year, and $2 t-shirts, and a new computer every six months.

lady coveted said...

there is actually a lot one person can do to change...
a year ago, almost... last august, i was reading a lot about sweatshop labor... and it just really bothered me, knowing i was shopping at h&m and forever21 and the list of sweatshops was coming from most any chain clothing store.

that's when i decided to change my habits. i'm not a rich girl by any means, but there are a lot of choices. one being, make a commitment to recycled clothing. charity shops, ebay, flea market, garage sales, vintage shops, clothing swaps. it's not a guarantee that the clothes weren't initially made in a sweatshop, but it's making use of something that already exists, and is probably one of the greenest ways of clothing yourself.

second, you may not have noticed, but there is a lot of affordable clothing made by hand, on etsy, clothing fairs, boutiques, independent designers often make the clothes themselves or have their clothes locally produced. i've always been lucky enough to catch sample sales, but even when they aren't on sale, most independent labels produce higher quality clothes at the same price, if not cheaper than mainstream designers. even mid-market mainstream designers, which are usually owned by big corporations, which more than likely underpay many of its workers.

i've had a few hiccups in this past year, i've purchased a thing or two that wasn't fair labor or sustainable, but for the most part, i've stuck to my personal pledge, and not only have i become more comfortable with my wardrobe, i've started working on designing my own clothes. which is something no one can put a price on.

Anonymous said...

Linda, do you think one can tell by the quality of a garment that it's been made by people who are fair-ish-ly paid?

-- desertwind

Linda Grant said...

I asked Dana Thomas, the author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre this very question, and she said yes. For example if any glue has been used in the manufacture of a bag, it's less likely to have been made a skilled worker than if it's stitched. Her advice was to look very carefully at a garment, at its seams, at how the buttons are sewn on, if the zip is crooked. The higher the quality of the manufacture the less likely it is to be made by the unskilled and low paid.

rb said...

I like the theory of the 70 pound dress but in reality, I can't see the difference in quality until I get so far past that mark that I can't afford it.

I very honestly see little difference in seams, fabric, etc between a Target blouse for $20 and a Lafayette 148 blouse for $200. I'm not saying that I should just buy everything at Target, because I do prefer the STYLE of the Lafayette 148. But quality-wise, I'm not convinced those same kids aren't sewing my $200 blouse.

Anonymous said...

I want to mention again - I think this is a useful resource for finding out (without guesswork) which UK high street chains and big brands have good ethical policies and which don't. Price isn't a particularly reliable indicator. Since I found out the site I've been avoiding all the shops it condemns, which for me meant stopping buying from French Connection and Top Shop.


California Dreamer said...

Before we close down the sweatshops, we should make alternate provision for the impoverished families these children are supporting. Sometimes working in a sweatshop is preferable to starvation or other less savory employment. It would be cruel to eliminate a family's subsistence because we feel bad about their suffering.

woodscolt said...

It's not as simple as a Primark £10 dress being definitely, absolutely less ethical than a £70 one. The cheapo cheapo shops sell things in bulk in massive stores - you only have to go in a Primark or H&M to see how people buy great basketfuls of stuff, so there's an economy of scale. The Labour behind the label report is interesting: places like Monsoon and Principles are no better than Primark, really. Everywhere is depressingly poor.

I do make my own clothes, but I also wonder about the way the fabric is made - there are no guarantees of ethical standards in fabric production either, are there?

Cal said...

Re. fabric certifications

In terms of fibres, Fairtrade certified cotton guarantees that farmers get a better deal (this covers minimum price, working conditions and environmental impact) and organic cotton is better for the environment and tends to command higher prices so better for the farmers' pockets as well.

Fairtrade certification also requires that anyone processing Fairtrade cotton demonstrates what they are doing to improve labour standards - though this is more of a 'check FT cotton isn't going through the worst sweatshop' than a certificaiton of fabric. Some of the organic certifications (eg Global Organic Textile Standard) also apply all the way up the fabric processing chain - though the focus is on environmental impact rather than working conditions)

The labour standards certification SA8000 applies to any production site so theoretically a fabric mill could be certified though I don't think many (if any) are.

Lady Coveted: I'm really interested in your attempt to dress ethically. I decided to do exactly that back in March this year. I've been blogging rather sporadically about it at