Ghanian tailor working from home in Accra, Ghana. Photo Credit Ethical Fashion Initiative
Design for People, Plan for Good Business
There have been lots of declarations of goodwill on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. But if we really hope to do justice to the memory of the 1,138 men and women who were crushed to death, we must look at ourselves and evaluate what we are doing.
Fashion has a highly work-intensive value chain that extends all across the world. At its core the industry is about uniqueness and personal investment: a stitch of embroidery on a garment, the imprint of a hammer on a belt buckle, the selection of a cluster of beads on a necklace. You get happier when you own something that is hand stitched. Instead of the cold and remote perfection of the engineer’s machine, you see the practiced touch of a human being.
But at what cost to the craftspeople? The men, women and children who died in Rana Plaza were victims before the building collapsed. How many of them even wanted to be in the building? In the struggle to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families they spent long days mindlessly putting button after button on shirts or stitching and stitching the same pattern over and over and over. For barely enough money to pay for the rice needed to keep their bodies stitching or putting on the buttons, they had to leave their homes, enter a massive room with thousands of other workers, supervisors breathing down their necks, monitoring their every move. No room for creativity. No time for experimentation. It was not even their work. They were little different and arguably had less value to their employers than the machine that might replace them. When they broke from their mindless routines it was to use the same stinking bathrooms, crouch against the same dirty walls, eat a plateful of the same rice.
Responsible fashion takes a different approach. Most craftspeople work in their homes or in small shops where they control and govern themselves. They labour with family or workers with whom they have strong personal ties. In this way the designers and production and marketing managers who choose ethical fashion are supporting an alternative to the semi-slavery of the industrial factory. We are honouring, indeed purchasing and marketing something very special, very human, and very historic: the ageless dignity of the real craftsman, the shoe maker in 18th century Italy, the barrel maker in colonial Williamsburg, the ironsmith in the streets of 15th century Hamburg.
Fashion is an artistic union between the skilled craftsman and world’s most gifted designers. Some might say that it is design that does the magic. But it’s the craftsmanship that imbues the creation with a priceless and timeless dimension such as that of the hand wrought Middle Age sword or the stitched quilt our grandmothers cherished. Then business takes the products to consumers. And that is fine; we are not marketing products of industrial wage slaves from the world’s most squalid sweatshops. But is it enough?
Even ‘Ethical Fashion’ can be couched in bad business practices: bad contracts, bad treatment of workers. It, too, is often insensitive exploitation of those who give the most in terms of effort but, by virtue of their station in life, get the least. Driving the process is an impersonal profit motive matched in frigidity only by the engineer’s bloodless machines. Is it really necessary to take a high dollar and high quality creation of handcrafted beauty and, in trying to squeeze out every cent of profit, soil the union of the designer and craftsman? What even Ethical Fashion lacks is business terms imbued with the same humanity that we crave in the handcrafted material object. This is what the Ethical Fashion Initiative is about.
The artisans involved in the value chain of unique and authentic fashion are people. They have families to feed, children to send to school. Like the toy maker in Pinocchio, they depend on their micro businesses. They need time to prepare their work. They lead precarious lives in urban slums or remote rural villages.
Borrowing, if they can find someone to loan to them, often means paying 100% interest rates. Even humanitarian micro-credit projects ask 50% annual rates.
All too often, fashion houses, brands and distributors (buyers):
• Don’t pay for initial samples.
• Ask for as many samples as possible from all over the world
• Don’t allow enough time for product development
• Pay salaries that people can barely survive on
• Allot themselves 60 or 90 days to settle accounts
It is not fair to the artisans. It costs them money they don’t have. In rich economies, suppliers who are paid after delivery have different forms of credit; not in the developing world, where interest rates can run 20% per month. Delayed payments are untenable for people with scarce working capital. It leaves them at the mercy of all powerful clients making arbitrary decisions. The artisans have no job security. It makes for a miserable and stressed life. The fashion cycle is a grind, with product development and production, deadline after deadline. Still, there is a way to make it function smoothly, and fairly. It can be done through basic rules of engagement. They come before any Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) scheme:
• Give ample time for development
• Only ask for samples when you intend to use them to develop something
• Pay for samples
• Adopt decent payment terms
• Pay a fair wage
• Check that people work in fair labour conditions.
We also must make an effort to assess whether people really get a decent life out of their work. Corporate Social Responsibility schemes are good. But often rules are applied formally and yet the worker does not benefit. We can check to make sure they benefit. We can use simple questionnaires to verify. But the questionnaires must also be applied where people feel they can answer freely, away from their work places. This kind of “impact assessment” must go beyond a simple CSR strategy. It involves going to the slums or villages where the workers come from, seeing how they live and whether the work is enabling them grow economically. It allows those buying their crafts a way to truly assess the problems the artisans and their families face.
To help overcome the problems underlying disasters such as that of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, the fashion industry will need vision and long-term partnerships. This is something different from the logic of private equity and quick returns that all too often rule the industry. To give fashion real value and holistic beauty, to allow consumers to wear fashion proudly, the union of the craftsmen’s work and the designer’s genius must be honoured in the dignity of the business contract that binds them economically.
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