What’s the story with sustainability?
Avoid the hype and make informed decisions
I am sure most of you have noticed the latest buzzword in the apparel industry, “SUSTAINABILITY”.
But how many of you know what this term means, and what it means to the apparel industry, in particular?
A good starting would be a definition. According to Dictionary.com, Sustainability, is defined as,
The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.
Environmental Science. The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.
We would be interested in number 2. The environmental aspect. However, this is not as simple as it sounds, as the usage of the word, sustainable in the apparel industry, also usually incorporates ethics, fair trade, and organic cotton/farming and processing. These are often used on their own, or together, or two out of three (take your pick), when talking about sustainability in apparel.
So, does sustainability require all three? Well, the first thing to do would look at each individually and then decide. Personally, I think all three components are required, and admittedly I do not usually follow this construct.
Why? In my opinion the whole sustainability issue is full of half-truths, outright lies, and misrepresentation.
The majority of companies out there use it on clueless consumers, in order to justify higher prices.
Think of what your neighborhood hipster would pay for his organic cotton, fair trade, and environmentally friendly, ecologically widgetable pair of denims that benefits the lives of a declining tribe living in the foothills of the Andes?
And then there are the few apparel companies that actually take this extremely seriously. I honestly say, good for them.
Let’s look at the components of sustainability, and hopefully you will be better informed.
Ethics is define by Dictionary.com as
(Used with a singular or plural verb) a system of moral principles:
The ethics of a culture.
(Used with a plural verb) the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.:
Medical ethics; Christian ethics.
(Used with a plural verb) moral principles, as of an individual:
His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.
(Used with a singular verb) that branch of philosophy dealing withvalues relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.
This is self-explanatory, and varies considerably from person to person, and from country to country. It is a subjective concept, with no way to measure objectively. I would think 4 is the relevant definition.
At the end of the day, every buyer wants to pay the lowest price. If he or she can justify the price as being in line with his or her ethics, all the better. This is human nature. We all feel good after coming out of a price negotiation, with margins achieved. Whether these prices, will result in a factory worker being inhumanely treated, is another story.
We have all heard the story of sweatshops and the Rana Plaza disaster.
I have visited plenty of factories in my day, and I can honestly say, I have never seen, what people describe as sweat shops. Maybe I did not look too hard, but I look for the obvious. How do the workers look? Do they seem healthy? Are their working conditions okay? Are there any underage looking workers? If they have dormitories, I will have a look. .
Now a lot of this has a cultural and development bias.
What Westerners consider as first world, proper working conditions, is not necessarily the same, as a factory owner or worker, in a garment factory in Tiripur, India. You NEED to take cultural and development differences into account. To you a worker might seem abused in some way, but often you are being biased.
I once did a long stint in India, and spent my time at a few factories. I got to speaking to some of the workers in some of the factories. They all tend to have English speaking merchandisers, no matter how small the factory. Especially, if the country was once an English possession.
I distinctly remember being pretty friendly with one of the factory drivers, who once invited me to see something in his living quarters.
He slept in a small room, with four other workers, on reed mats on the floor. The horror I thought, as my mind turned to my five star hotel. However, this is the norm. There is nothing unethical about a worker living in these conditions. The room was clean and neat, and when questioned about his living quarters, the bloke was happy. His job in the city provided good accommodation, a good salary which enabled him to purchase his own motorbike. He was genuinely happy.
However, I do not think most Western buyers would be as cheery as this bloke. They would probably think his living standards were unacceptable. That is the cultural bias. This is not to say that there are not abused workers out there. Please do not get me wrong. Just keep the cultural perspective in mind.
Another important aspect is the country in questions development status.
Unfortunately developing countries usually only have one resource to offer, that will drive development. That is cheap labor. You may not like this, but it is a fact. To these countries, employment takes precedence over worker’s rights. They realize the fact that cheap labor attracts buyers, which will finance development. Once development occurs, worker’s rights inevitably improve. Coming from a developed country, you might scoff at this, but know to a sewing worker in a third world country, putting food on the table is more important than your moral compass.
If we look closely at the Rana Plaza disaster, keep the following in mind.
This was a structural failure. The building collapsed.
The upper floors were built without permission, and the building was never designed to house factories. On top of this substandard construction material was used, and administrative duties such as building inspections were lax. Now the owner of the building, Sohel Rana, undoubtedly knew about the issues mentioned above, and was warned by the architects, that the building was not designed for factories (heavy machines, vibrations, etc.), but this is not to say that the factory owners who rented from him did. So were the factory owners to blame for this disaster? Did they know of the buildings issues when renting?
According to Wikipedia, on 23 April 2013, a TV channel recorded footage that showed cracks in the Rana Plaza building. Immediately afterward, the building was evacuated, and the shops and the bank on the lower floors were closed. Later in the day, Sohel Rana said to the media that the building was safe and workers should return tomorrow.
Managers at Ether Tex threatened to withhold a month's pay from workers who refused to come to work.
So it is safe to say that Rana knew the risks, and the managers from Ether Tex acted incorrectly. They should have been more understanding of worker’s fears. But, let’s also keep in mind that in their culture, it is normal to defer to the rich guy.
Respect is not earned. Whoever has the most money gets the most respect, regardless. Managers are supposed to be “Yes men”. This is the culture in Asia.
Most western managers are expected to question their superiors if need be, propose better solutions if possible, and tend to have more independence with regards to decisions. That is what we are taught and expected to do.
Also from Wikipedia.
Very early on in the rescue effort, the United Nations offered to send their expert search and rescue unit, known as the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), to the site, but this offer was rejected by Dhaka authorities. The Bangladesh government made a statement suggesting that the area's local rescue emergency services were well equipped. Prior to offering assistance to Bangladesh, the UN held consultations to assess the country's ability to mount an effective rescue operation, and they reached the conclusion that they lacked that capability. Bangladeshi officials, fearing damage to national pride, refused to accept the assistance offered to them by the UN. A large portion of the rescue operation consisted of inadequately equipped volunteers, many of whom had no protective clothing and wore sandals. Some buried workers drank their own urine to survive the high temperatures, waiting to be saved. Not only was the Bangladeshi government accused of favoring national pride over those buried alive, but many relatives of those trapped in the debris criticized the government for trying to end the rescue mission prematurely.
So objectively, we can see that a large portion of this disaster can be blamed on the building owner, cultural differences in management, poor enforcing of building codes by the Bangladeshi authorities, substandard material used to build the building, and the refusal of the Bangladeshi government to accept assistance.
Yet listening to the news reports, the blame was laid at the feet of the buyers.
Taking the above factors into account, this is almost libelous.
A buyer would have no knowledge of the above mentioned issues, even if they ensured social audits took place and they ensured their supply chain was 100% transparent. This building even had a nursery to look after workers children.
According to reports, after the cracks were found, the building was evacuated. These reports further indicate that a certain engineer declared the building unsafe, and requested the authorities inspect the building more thoroughly. The engineer was then reported arrested, for helping Rana in the construction of the 3 extra floors.
Further reports indicated an official visited the site, met with Rana, and declared the building safe. Rana then stated it safe to the media. All of this contributed to the managers insisting workers return to work.
You do not have to take my word for it. A bit of research will confirm the above, along with common sense.
Then we have the proponents who want to blame fast fashion and tight buyer deadlines, for the manager’s insistence that workers return. They also claim minimum oversight by the buyers. However, the main factors leading to the disaster, would never have come to light in any type of audit. Buyers could have got 20 inspection agencies to check the factories before placing an order.
All businesses run to deadlines. Many are extremely tight. That’s business for you. It has nothing to do with ethics.
I will simplify this. Fast fashion is neither ethical nor unethical. End of story.
The proponents of the view, that fast fashion is somehow being unethical, and somehow to blame for this disaster are at best ill informed.
What about wages? What is ethical here?
Unfortunately a country’s government sets minimum wage laws. This is usually in line with the country in question’s development goals.
Does this have anything to do with the buyer? In my opinion, no. Maybe you feel differently?
Is it unethical to place business with a factory that pays only the minimums prescribed by the government, and are not breaking the law in any way?
Again, that’s up to you.
But keep in mind, that the only resource many countries initially have is cheap labor. Should these countries be avoided on any ethical grounds? What happens to the workers then?
If China was avoided due to low wages back in the day, would tens of millions have been pulled out of poverty?
These are just some of the issues that need to be taken into account when discussing ethics.
· FAIR TRADE
This concept is also relatively difficult to define, as it tends to be quite fluid, depending on who you talk to. The concept of fair is very subjective.
However, I would define it as doing business in compliance with all of the county in questions, labor laws, provided the country has a democratically elected government. This ties in, to a large part to the above section on ethics.
According to Wikipedia,
“Fair trade is a social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability. Members of the movement advocate the payment of higher prices to exporters, as well as improved social and environmental standards. The movement focuses in particular on commodities, or products which are typically exported from developing countries to developed countries, but also consumed in domestic markets (e.g. Brazil, India and Bangladesh) most notably handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, wine, fresh fruit, chocolate, flowers, gold, and 3D printer filament. The movement seeks to promote greater equity in international trading partnerships through dialogue, transparency, and respect. It promotes sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers in developing countries. Fair Trade is grounded in three core beliefs; first, producers have the power to express unity with consumers. Secondly, the world trade practices that currently exist promote the unequal distribution of wealth between nations. Lastly, buying products from producers in developing countries at a fair price is a more efficient way of promoting sustainable development than traditional charity and aid.”
Now there is absolutely zero guarantee that higher prices paid to exporters will filter down to the factory worker. It is extremely naïve to assume this. I will put it out there that the % increase of a basket of manufactured goods from China, will increase in price yearly, at a much higher percentage than wages. Before you tell me there are many other things such as commodity prices that effect the basket of goods, let’s assume we have weighted the numbers for that.
Again, what is fair? Is it a living wage? Is it 5% more than the minimum wage?
When can a business be seen as a “fair” trader?
For a sewing worker, I would say that fairness requires them to be paid a living wage, in line with their position.
Yes, it is unfortunate, that someone on a sewing line does not earn a lot of money. It is the nature of the position. It is unskilled labor. A janitor in the US or Europe earns low wages, but no one seems too upset about that. Why not?
Lastly, the unequal distribution of wealth is why international trade occurs. Businesses in the USA produce in poorer countries because they are poorer. Labor in cheaper. The country in questions ensures an export orientated economy. Simple.
What happens next?
The country starts to develop, socially and economically, and the unequal distribution of wealth suddenly becomes more equitable, as foreign currency pours in.
Look at the Four Asian Tigers.
Are countries such as China and Bangladesh, better or worse than they were 10 or 20 years ago? I am not going to look up wage information, inflation rates, or any other figures. You are welcome to look up the figures, but from what is visible,
I would say they definitely are.
· ORGANIC COTTON, FARMING AND PROCESSING.
Organic simply means cotton grown from non GM seeds, and without the use of any synthetic chemicals or fertilizer.
There are some advantages and some myths.
Advantages include (this is not a complete list, but more of a common sense one).
· Protecting groundwater from contamination.
· Elimination of potentially harmful chemicals.
· Controlling of insects by ways other than the use of pesticides. Its nature as a rotation crop has a lot to do with this. It breaks the pest’s life cycle.
· In the long run it uses less water than nonorganic cotton.
· A lot is irrigated using rain water.
· It is a rotation crop, which is beneficial for the soil.
· Items made from organic cotton, tend to have a shorter life span than nonorganic cotton. Chemicals are used in nonorganic clothing that extends the lifespan of the item.
· Its carbon footprint is far higher than nonorganic cotton, as it usually needs to be transported further distances. This is simply because the majority of cotton grown in inorganic.
· An apparel item labeled “Made with Organic Cotton” means nothing on its own, and is often just used to get a consumer to pay more for an item. Most of the damage comes from dyeing and processing. Organic cotton can still be processed inorganically (The most chemical intensive process, is dyeing and wet processing.
This is often more damaging to the environment, than using nonorganic cotton, due to the higher carbon footprint of organic.
· Despite what people try to drum into your head, there is zero evidence that GM crops have any negative effects. In fact, the evidence points the other way. It is beneficial to the environment and consumers. The yields from GM cotton, can exceed 10%, compared with non GM cotton. I am not going to go into the GM anti GM debate. Do some objective research.
· Colors can be limited due to the limitations of organic dye.
· While relatively well regulated in the West, in developing countries, you cannot be sure if organic is really organic, due to laxer laws and interpretation.
Also keep in mind that there are a number or groups that offer organic certification. They are also a mixed lot. Some might just ensure that the cotton is organic, some might ensure the soil has been chemical free for 3 years. Only a few may look at the whole processing chain.
Before you buy an item do some quick research on its certification. Everyone has a smartphone, so it will be extremely quick to check the credentials of the certification agency.
Also, as mentioned, as simple ““Made with Organic Cotton” printed on the wash care or hang tag, means nothing. The item needs to be certified organic, and as I have said, you NEED to do your research. Some certification agency’s may only do a basic audit, and might be preferred as they are cheaper. Others might do a stringent A to Z audit. Do your homework.