Encouraging systemic change in the fashion industry is a bit like encouraging people to deal with self-sabotaging behaviours. The first step is to admit you have a problem.
And for every figure – like Stella McCartney – who admits there is a problem, there are far more who deny systemic change is even necessary.
Fashion designer and founder of the Canadian brand Joe Fresh, Joe Mimran, was recently interviewed in Toronto Life about his step down from the company (and new role on Dragons’ Den).
In 2013, Joe Fresh was one of the brands implicated in the Rana Plaza collapse, where 1,134 people died. A garment factory in the building manufactured clothing for them and other brands. Loblaw announced it would send reps to Bangladesh to investigate, and victims’ families would be offered compensation.
In his parting interview, Mimran didn’t admit his brand had a problem. He demonstrated the shift of responsibility that’s problematic in the industry: who is in charge of making sure people are ok? The arguments he used denied the necessity of systemic change, and they’re arguments lots of people in the industry will be using (and facing).
Unpicking some of them will hopefully make a stronger case for change. Each of the italicised and indented Q&A is taken from the original interview.
Joe Fresh is facing the threat of a $2-billion class action lawsuit from the victims of the Bangladesh building collapse. They claim Joe Fresh had a responsibility to ensure the building’s safety. Are they right?
The question is, how much oversight should companies have when they contract labour overseas? Should we be doing engineering checks on the buildings? No other industry does that. But it’s a responsibility that has now been forced upon the apparel industry because of the disaster.
Mimran clearly doesn’t like the idea of the apparel industry being ‘forced’ to take responsibility for the welfare of its workers. In this instance, it might be because there is no PR-friendly angle. Free childcare, healthcare or women’s education – key elements of worker welfare overseas – feel nicer than structural building checks.
The idea that worker welfare extends to a worker’s environment as well as their physical being isn’t new: in the early 1900s, Joseph Rowntree built good quality homes for his confectionery factory employees to prevent them living in slums.
However, if your workers aren’t on your doorstep, what’s the protocol for welfare? Mimran does inadvertently address a key argument about systemic change head on: “How much oversight should companies have when they contract labour overseas?” His argument leans towards ‘out of sight, out of mind’. But a company like Marks and Spencer, who rigorously control their supply chain, would say differently.
Would Mimran be as blinkered if the factory was in Toronto? Humans aren’t really built to deal with the complexity of the world (just try imagining seven billion people) so when something is in our field of vision – like Rowntree’s factory and nearby village – it tends to feel more important.
In technical terms, the further production moves from the site of consumption, the weaker our mental link between the two becomes.
A weak mental link between the two starts to erode the visibility of supply chains. To contract labour overseas might mean asking one audited factory to produce 20,000 garments. Or it might indirectly mean asking four non-audited sub-contractors to produce 5,000 garments.
In some of the countries where fashion labour is densely concentrated – including Bangladesh, the home of Rana Plaza – there aren’t bureaucratic systems in place to prevent this multiple sub-contracting, or to make supply chains visible. And why would there be, if fashion brands continue to employ producers with the current set up?
For companies keen to monitor their entire supply chain, there are then two jobs to do. First, encourage bureaucratic systems of transparency and worker welfare. Second, look at your own supply chain choices very closely.
For Mimran, and for plenty of other brands, that’s just too much work.
Clothes aren’t like food
What did you make of John Oliver’s stunt on Last Week Tonight where he sent cheap food of dubious origin to the Joe Fresh office to mimic the garment industry’s production practices?
I think what you put on your body and what you put in your body are two different things. But the stunt brings attention to a very serious subject, and it’s one the industry has to solve together.
His answer’s first sentence deserves special attention as it summarises another of the big issues holding back systemic change in the fashion industry.
“What you put on your body and what you put in your body are two different things”. Yes, they are different. But they are fundamentally connected.
Skin is a living part of our body which absorbs, reflects, protects and adapts depending on what we do, eat and expose ourselves to. A specific part of the sustainability movement would argue that mass-produced clothing can be harmful due to manufacturing process and the effect it has on our skin (and body).
For example, waste products from dyeing pollute water systems; plastic-based manmade fibres don’t allow our bodies to ‘breathe’ effectively; and even certain styles of clothing might be unhealthy.
Clothing is not an inert shell we climb into every day. It’s a reactive second skin whose composition affects our own.
Just like interacting with food, the human body interacts with clothing. This is on a physical level, as I’ve outlined. But it’s also on many other levels: political, sexual, ethical, social, cultural. The clothes I wear represent as much about me as the food on my plate. And they both have the same connection to other people – to workers – which is necessary to contemplate systemic change.
Both food and fashion suffer from opaque labour. This is a problem of contemporary capitalism: who makes your bread? Who makes your shoes? But on an everyday level, one of these industries is undergoing a dramatic reconfiguration (at least, for some demographics). The drive for organic whole foods, home-cooked, well-presented, nourishing and tailored to the individual is growing.
It’s mainly concentrated in demographics connected to the Internet (especially visual social media, like Pinterest) with medium to high levels of disposable income and time. These people want to know who made their beer, where their peaches come from, how to make the perfect sourdough loaf. They’re meeting suppliers, buying direct, and using social media to publicise the results.
Of course, there are swathes of people who aren’t doing this, who instead – due to many reasons – receive poor food education and make poor food choices for the health of their bodies. However, neither of these food consuming groups are reconfiguring fashion in the same way as the first are reconfiguring food.
The girl who eats sugar-free avocado brownies will still buy her t-shirts from Primark.
The answer to why that’s not happening is for another time. But we’ll never be able to learn from the food industry to help us make systemic change in the fashion industry if figures like Mimran perpetuate the myth that clothing is an inert shell, that what goes into us is more important than what’s put onto us, or that our experiences of the industries is so radically different we couldn’t possibly see any links between them.
More cash means more improvements
Is there a solution?
For sure. As producing countries become wealthier, they become better able to meet safety standards. It’s what has happened in China and Korea.
Another answer, another shift in who is responsible (or not) for systemic change. Mimran’s cash-rich dream of pumping money into economies in the hope they change does, in part, make sense. But there are a lot of hidden variables.
Safety standards are different in every country. The ‘producing countries’ Mimran mentions – places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, China and Korea – often have safety standards which consuming countries – the UK, America, Canada, or European countries – would consider to be unacceptable.
Unacceptable, that is, if they were in their territory.
Mimran’s argument is to work with producers you know have unacceptable safety standards, because the profits of the producers can then be reinvested in improving the safety standards through education, structural changes, etc.
In the words of economist Joan Robinson:
The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.
On paper, I think the cash-rich dream works. But it begins to fall apart as it assumes a number of highly changeable variables:
- The producers will reinvest profits in safety standards
- The producers know how to improve safety standards
- Clients (fashion brands) will check on these safety standards at some point in the future
- Improved safety standards are of benefit to producers (not just the workers) and something to strive for
- Producers won’t shift the cost of improvements onto clients
- Clients will continue to use the producers whether costs change or not
Industry, unfortunately, doesn’t always work like it does on paper.
A company chasing profits will move its labour contracts to the place where they can gain the most profit through low output to the producer. When Mimran mentions China and Korea, he inadvertently nods to the movement of labour contracts from country to country as brands try to find the producing territories where they can gain the highest profit alongside highest quality.
There are too many variables in this idea of ‘more money, no problems’ for it to work in practice. It’s not only on the part of a brand’s desire for profit, but also because producers – especially in those countries mentioned where bureaucratic systems may not robust – might not know (or care) about improving safety standards.
It requires national or at least regional legislation to improve working standards. The idea that money flowing into specific producers in a country automatically makes it wealthier, and that wealth equates to widespread legal changes, is a fallacy.
Boiled down, you can’t give someone money for doing something and then expect them to do it differently if you keep giving them money.
This isn’t an argument to damage economies through removing labour contracts. But it is an argument for the fashion brands contracting labour overseas to be more rigorous, supportive and responsible in their choices. Big brands have big purchasing power, and could do much, much more to fundamentally improve the labour situations of producers through negotiation.
Mimran’s ‘shifted responsibility’ solution won’t work. It hasn’t so far.
Mimran’s interview with Toronto Life highlights three of the biggest arguments around systemic change in the fashion industry.
First, whether a fashion brand is responsible for rigorously monitoring its supply chain, especially when contracting labour overseas, to make sure worker welfare is adequate.
Second, whether clothing affects us in the intimate way food (or other industries, like beauty) does, and therefore whether we can learn from the transformations of one to encourage systemic change in the other.
Third, whether by continuing to contract labour in places where safety standards are low, fashion brands are contributing to an economy which will eventually meet the preferred safety standards through wealth accumulation.
As a supporter of systemic change, my arguments are that brands are responsible; we do have an intimate a relationship with clothing as we do with food; and this economic argument becomes flawed in execution.
By unpicking arguments denying the need for systemic change from figures like Mimran, people interested in transformation of the fashion industry can see where the holes are in commonly-held opinions. We can also start to argue the case much more effectively.
Featured: Joe Fresh Fashion Show by Jason Hargrove via Creative Commons
Moschino bag from the Moschino e-commerce site
Pile of Cash by 401(K) 2012 via Creative Commons
Screenshot from Joe Fresh website taken 08 July 2015
Thanks to C’est Ethica and Sasstainable for sharing and discussing the original interview.