We all like a bit of a snigger about health and safety right? The fact that you can’t change a lightbulb or go up a ladder without having been on a specific training course, or that you need to fill in a special form if your child has tripped over and grazed their knee at nursery. (At one point, when Will was a bit smaller but no less accident-prone, I once suggested that I just signed a whole pile of them at the beginning of the week, to save time.)
The workers of the factory in Bangladesh that collapsed last week didn’t get a chance to joke about health and safety gone mad though. And anyway, it hadn’t gone mad, because there weren’t any regulations in the first place. The thing that has gone mad is the clothing industry.
The factory in Bangladesh that collapsed and then caught fire, killing more than 400 people isn’t the first incident to highlight the total lack of concern for garment workers’ safety and wellbeing, it probably won’t be the last. But this feels different. This feels like the one that should make us grow up and realise that something is wrong with being able to buy an entire outfit for £10. The real cost of those £8 jeans, £5 tops, and all the other clothes that are slightly more expensive, but still say ‘Made in Bangladesh’ on the label, was highlighted in the pictures of families waiting desperately for news of their loved ones beside the rubble of the factory. Fast fashion really does costs lives, and it is time we stopped pretending that it doesn’t.
It’s very hard to equate the clean, expansive rows of clothing in shops on the high street and in supermarkets with the dirty, crowded factories where they are made, by workers too poor to be able to fight for any rights they might be entitled to. It’s time that we fought for them. And although I think there is a gap in the market for more clothing that is made in Britain, it wouldn’t be fair to just bail on these workers in places like Bangladesh. They have given us our fast fashion fix, often at great personal cost . We owe them the right to a well paid, safe job in a factory that doesn’t put their lives in danger. That’s worth another £5 on the price of our clothing, at least.
It’s a complex and difficult issue to talk about because it’s not just one chain of shops, or even type of shop that supports the practice of unregulated, underpaid work. Some retailers are better at distancing themselves from it than others. Some are probably worse than others, but it is very hard to find the information to prove it. Complicated and intricate supply chains are everywhere. Primark and other large budget retailers are the obvious target, but the fact that much more upmarket chains such as Mango and Bennetton were also using suppliers in the same factory indicates that the practice is far more widespread than that.
The reason that Primark gets it in the neck the most is that it is the most obvious embodiment of the high-volume, low-cost, fast turnaround element of the fashion industry that should now have started to disgust us all. And clearly, Primark is not just a shop for people who can’t afford to shop elsewhere, so the argument that those shops exist to keep the poor in clothing is irrelevant. The fact that there is a Primark Flagship Store on Oxford Street says it all. And anyway, shopping at Primark is something of a false economy, because it is mostly badly-made, from low quality fabric. It doesn’t last.You end up having to buy more, three weeks later. But hey, that’s instant fashion gratification for you. (By the way, I am not saying this as someone who is immune to this urge to buy-something-cheap-now. I know that my current love affair with Zara is almost bound to end in tears, and that if I looked closely into their supply chain, I would probably end up finding similarly awful practice.)
So, what to do? My plan is this: firstly, to find ethical alternatives where possible. Ethical Superstore is a good place to start. But it is not always possible: ethical fashion is still not mainstream, and is by definition, more expensive. I do not live in fairyland. (Sadly.)
Secondly, sign this petition to put pressure on retailers to take responsibility for their workers’ rights and welfare.
Thirdly, remember that if that if a top only costs me a fiver, someone elsewhere is likely to have paid a much higher price for it.
Fourthly, I am going to write to my MP (Richard Fuller.) I’ve had enough (well, almost) of writing angry blog posts about the unfairness of it all; it won’t change the world. But I feel passionate enough to demand that my representative in Parliament asks some questions of the fashion industry, on my behalf. I’ll write him a nice little essay on my feelings on the matter. Anyone who wants to sign it, leave a comment below, or on my facebook page.