Fashion crimes

Fickle consumers and push for endlessly new styles fuel sweatshop abuses

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ever wonder why you keep wan dering back into the same old clothing stores sifting for new gems when it’s still months from the next official fashion season? Well, the seemingly benign trend toward ever-fresh clothing stocks is part of a sped-up sportswear industry cycle that is condemning factory workers the world over to even harsher working conditions. That’s the implication of a damning new report recently released by an international coalition of anti-sweatshop orgs. It seems that despite the industry’s stated intentions to be good corporate citizens – evident in ethical codes, departments and inspectors – labour rights abuses seem deeply and inalterably entrenched. And at the heart of this problem is the new clothing culture consumed with speed, novelty and quick inventory turnover.

Says Ian Thompson of the Maquila Solidarity Network, which is working with Oxfam Canada to distribute the report, “People are starting to challenge companies to think about how they’re dictating working conditions through their own buying practices.”

Everyone in the biz recognizes that the traditional system of buying in bulk at the beginning of every season is a thing of the past. Techno-wizardry means that orders are sent out automatically as soon as shelves empty. And seasons? What seasons? In case you hadn’t noticed, there are now eight or 12, depending on the store.

Some observers, like Ryerson fashion prof Peter Duck, say media saturation, a steady barrage of catwalks and couture-cloaked celebrities means that “people are pickier they want more change.” Stores like Zara and H&M lead the pack by keeping customer boredom at bay with near weekly influxes of fresh inventory.

Vancouver-based retail consultant David Gray says that just like the tech industry, the fashion biz realized it could introduce change at a faster rate to make a buck. And since sportswear prices have been falling year after year, Gray says, “they have to sell more than they did in the past to stay viable.”

Doesn’t sound like a big deal, really, but the impact down the line is that factories have to churn out orders on tighter and tighter deadlines. And according to the report, entitled Playfair, it’s that kind of mounting pressure that keeps workers at one Indonesian factory sewing at their machines for Nike, Puma and Fila for up to 24-hour shifts. Managers at a Thai factory pumped workers with amphetamines to keep them working into the night to fill orders for Adidas and Nike.

And if deadlines aren’t met? Well, sportswear companies often fine the factories for delays, and factories then turn around and fine the workers. “Risk is transferred down the line to those who have the least bargaining power in the chain,” says Sumi Dhanarajan, principal author of the document with Oxfam’s UK office.

While consumers are happily paying a little less for their hoodies and track pants every year, companies pass these losses on to factories and workers, demanding cheaper and cheaper unit prices on already rock-bottom developing-world steals.

The bottom line, say activists, is that ethical codes, no matter how well intentioned, are doing little to counter increasingly impossible targets set by buying teams. “(Companies) will give orders that are very difficult to fill, and often the suppliers will accept the orders knowing full well that they can’t comply with the code of conduct and still satisfy the order. But they have to do that to win the order in the first place,” says Thompson. Keeping score? Buying team: 1, Ethics: 0.

Industry insiders say that pattern can fuel tension not only on the obvious front between activists and companies but also between buying and ethical teams within a company itself. It all amounts to a serious case of schizophrenia, says Thompson. “And until they begin to reconcile those two sides of the company, workers aren’t going to see improvements in their day-to-day lives.”

As it stands, it’s easy to dupe code-of-conduct inspectors. The report documents repeated falsification of payrolls (claiming that workers get minimum wage when they don’t), and workers are coached on giving all the right answers come inspection time.

But what do the companies themselves say about the new report’s allegations? Thanks to well-oiled PR teams, nearly all the major players – Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma – released speedy statements to the press and public thanking the activists for their good work and “valuable research.” Nearly all of them say they do indeed integrate their codes of conduct into their buying practices.

Nike says it’s incorporating a “balanced-scorecard approach to purchasing decisions” so that code compliance and not just cost, quality and speed will become a vital part of its business decisions. Adidas says it has investigated the “root causes” behind things like excessive overtime and is trying to address the issue with strict rules for last-minute orders.

Rather than take the industry at its word, activists have decided to take their beef with the biz to the highest body in the world of sports, the International Olympic Committee.

“The Olympics is seen as a body that has a great deal of moral authority in the sporting world,” says Thompson. It has, after all, taken stances against racism, environmental destruction, apartheid and sexism. So why not protect the workers who sew its shiny uniforms (especially when all 10 companies listed in the report are dressing this summer’s Olympians in Greece)?

Unfortunately, the IOC has yet to see it that way. They’re passing the buck to national Olympic committees, while NOCs like Canada’s are saying it’s up to the IOC. Activists have their placards poised.

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