Monday, 23 November 2009

No sweat?

"Do Sweatshop Scandals Really Damage Brands?" was the question asked by Laura Fitch on BrandChannel at the end of last week. She cites a five-part Global Post investigation which accuses a number of top brands of sourcing from exploitative factories in Asia, transgressing the norms of human rights which consuming countries hold dear and also breaching health and safety at work rules. But, as Laura wonders, do consumers even care? Her conclusion is a resounding "probably not".

Both consumers and brand owners tend to distance themselves from exploitation at production level. The former -- whose role as consumers is to consume -- may be motivated to join the occasion boycott or sign a petition or two, but their default position is somewhere among the clothes-racks, looking for that perfect fit. Brand owners point to the fact that their own corporate policies do not condone exploitation (it would be surprising if any did) and that far-off suppliers who systematically mistreat or abuse their employees are in breach of their policies. However, they observe that it is difficult for them to monitor and enforce industrial policies. Laura leaves readers to ponder on this: if sweatshop allegations are not enough to damage brands or decrease sales, what incentives do brands have to change conditions on factory floors?

Says Fashionista, history shows that the biggest impact on consumer purchasing patterns has been made by pressure groups who use a potent cocktail of high publicity, intimidation and the shame factor. This is why furs, once a staple for every caveman and later a to-die-for accessory, are now confined largely to the mothballed wardrobes of some vintage grannies and the props cupboards of theatrical companies. Paradoxically, one of the things that has fuelled the sweatshop culture has been our departure from hand-made, labour-intensive clothes made from natural substances (remember woolly knitted jumpers, anyone?) to the massive over-supply of cheap synthetics in an increasingly cut-throat market with wafer-thin profit margins.

Modeliste adds, I read all about sweatshop labour for leisurewear brands in Naomi Klein's book No Logo. It upset me so much that it was some months before I could bring myself to read another book ...