Two years after Rana Plaza: Has fashion boycotting worked?

It’s two years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed on 24th April 2013 and, in outrage, some of us have been avoiding stores that were producing clothing there; I’m wondering have these boycotts worked?

Rana Plaza

The Rana Plaza Building Collapses. Photograph: Rijans/Fickr

Over 1,100 people were killed and thousands more were injured after the factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh fell. This news was even more horrifying to us here in the UK due to the fact that workers in the eight-story garment factory were producing clothes for popular UK shops. These affordable fashion stores were popular among students, but many of us began to question their ethics.

There has been a sharp rise in ethical consumerism in the UK since this disaster. International development scholar Dr Alessandra Mezzadri from SOAS London (School of Oriental and African Studies) says, “in the imagination of many people, garment production is now synonymous with sweatshop labour”. When we buy cheap clothing are we endorsing a company that has unsafe factories and exploits poor garment workers? Will purchasing expensive ethical clothing instead mean we can be guilt-free? I’m not so sure.

As a third year student of international development I definitely don’t have all the answers, however, I have been able to access the most relevant journals and research that investigates the global fashion industry, how clothes are made and at what social cost. I decided I would dedicate myself to the task of understanding of global fashion supply chains – and whether or not boycotts actually work. I came away surprised.

Concerned consumers

I’m not alone in my anxiety about clothes shopping; the latest Ethical Consumer Market report (2014) suggests that around 20% of the UK population avoids products because of a company’s poor reputation for social responsibility. A You Gov poll in 2013 found that approximately 78% of shoppers said UK clothes companies are not transparent enough about their supply chains. Since Rana Plaza, Journalists, international development workers, academics and the general public have been asking the question: is it possible to have guilt-free garments? By boycotting certain brands and buying ethical clothing instead, are we supporting the poor in the global south?

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Denim Jeans. Photograph: Steve Maher/Flickr

 

What do the experts say?

Professor James Carrier describes the problem with boycotts in his article “Think locally, Act Globally.” He gives an example that sounds a bit like this…

When looking for a pair of jeans in my local town centre, I may choose to not purchase Matalan jeans because, after reading an article in the newspaper, I may believe they are not ethically made. I may hope that this choice to boycott that particular brand will send a signal to the manufacturer. I want Matalan to know that I am unhappy with the way their jeans are made and want to cause them a loss in profits. But in order for Matalan’s decision-makers to understand and perhaps learn from my signal, they need to know the reason for my choice. The reason I choose to purchase so-called ‘ethical’ (expensive) Jeans instead is not a part of the signal. Did I buy jeans labelled ‘ethical’ because I preferred the way their jeans fit? Perhaps I chose the jeans that I found to be displayed best in the store? As this example indicates, while the intention behind boycotting seems rational, the idea is problematic in practice.

Unless you explain why you are not buying an item from a certain company, they are completely unaware. From the store manager’s perspective, there are hundreds of possible reasons why you may not have bought their jeans. In fact they do not even notice you are boycotting them, and more importantly – they do not know why. Boycott action perhaps makes us feel good, but if that’s our only action it will not change the fashion industry. Contacting the store, by emailing and writing letters, or writing articles in your student newspaper would all have more impact than simply boycotting stores.

After UK media began to expose unethical practice, the shops became extremely worried about their reputation. Now being seen as ‘clean’ is the latest trend in the global fashion industry. In 2015 all major fashion companies are going to great effort to highlight their corporate codes of conduct, which they now insist are implemented at every stage of the production process to ensure human rights and the environment are respected. This sounds like pretty good news, however, the experts are suspicious about the actual impact these have in developing countries.

Not so clean?

Dr Linda Shaw, former Head of Research at the co-operative college in Manchester and the late Angela Hale, Director of Women Working Worldwide investigated these codes of conduct, that fashion companies have been producing, and they found a significant problem. Shaw and Hale found that while codes of conduct are publicised to consumers in the UK, they go unnoticed by garment workers in developing countries. In fact many of the workers they interviewed did not realise their factory even had codes of conduct in place. As Professor James Carrier says, “UK consumers find it difficult to appreciate the complexity of life in the Global South and therefore can be easily persuaded by marketing material that fashion stores are treating their workers fairly”. UK stores are happy to shine a spotlight on certain initiatives that they have funded, however, evidence suggests the diverse garment workers in the various countries that produce the majority of our clothes face problems we are unaware of.

UK consumers can access glossy magazines and websites detailing all the good deeds their favourite fashion brands are doing in developing countries. Companies make it seem as though there are simple answers to simple problems. However, in reality, the implementation of codes of conduct throughout a store’s supply chain is problematic. Take, for example, India (says Dr Mezzadri) where small-scale, scattered production is used alongside complicated out-sourcing to specialised workers. A single garment will be created by a number of people and will travel from urban to rural areas and back again.

A single item of clothing is not produced under one roof, it passes hands hundreds of times. The factory owners cannot oversee the product when it is traveling out of the city to a person who works from home where, perhaps, the embroidery is done. It then may be passed onto a different location for the pockets to be attached, and to a different small factory for labelling before it returns back to the main factory. Dr Mezzadri calls the system in India a ‘garment cluster’ and says, “its intricate layout is so fragmented it limits India’s ability to implement any sort of code or standard throughout its garment supply chains”.

Dr Grace Carswell and Geert De Neve’s research is a little more encouraging. The University of Sussex professors find that some garment workers in poor countries do have some power and choice. These professors are keen to spread the message that there is great diversity among garment workers in age, social class, gender and migratory status. We should not assume that all garment workers are alike – they have very differing needs. Some garment workers migrate from rural farming areas to the city for a few months a year. They are likely to avoid factories that have strict enforcement of codes of conduct, especially where it concerns restrictions on working hours. For example in Tiruppur in India, Dr Carswell and De Neve found some migrants choose to work very long hours for a few months and then return back to their rural home. Therefore, we can see that long hours are not always imposed on workers against their will. On the contrary, some garment workers eagerly take on these opportunities to fit into their lifestyles and they seek flexible contracts that allow them to move back home after a few months of hard work.

The most problematic issue, for most experts on the garment industry, is the way that codes of conduct are introduced. They tend to be imposed, by European or US companies on the behalf of workers, without their knowledge or consent. It is simply assumed that workers will see these initiatives as being in their interests. The top-down nature of codes of conduct means there are actually negative consequences for the workers. Instead of assuming what workers want, the experts I’ve spoken to are united in suggesting that it would be fairer if factory managers could ask their workers what conditions they would like to see and develop their own factory standards that are culturally relevant rather than being forced to accept European or US standards.

I hope to have pointed out two things: 1. boycotts are ineffective without communication. Therefore we’d be better going on twitter, joining marches, writing letters, signing petitions and generally engaging with politics. 2. While some development experts view corporate social responsibility as a merely a public relations exercise with little impact in developing countries, others admit there are serious limitations and contradictions. Do not take everything at face value.

At the very least, we are seeing compassion from UK consumers and concern for the people who make our clothes. However, the fashion industry still has a long way to go.

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