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Ethical Fashion Show, Berlin: WellMade Argues Compliance is About More Than Cost

Berlin, Germany

January 14, 2013

WellMade, an non-profit organization dedicated to educating retailers, manufacturers and consumers about international labor conditions, provided a special presentation at the Ethical Fashion Show In Berlin, Germany. The interactive workshop, entitled, “Improving Working Conditions in Your Clothing Supply Chain,” was lead by WellMade advocates Tara Scally and Saskia Kramer.

The principal point of the presentation was to raise awareness about the ways in which pressure exerted on one link of the supply chain, say consumer demand or a retailer’s strategic decision, has reverberations that impact another link, like a garment factory worker laboring in some remote country. Most discussions about working conditions and factory safety tend to revolve narrowly around the issue of price; social compliance is assumed to entail increased costs, which either pinches factory owners in countries where discounted labor is the sole point of attraction to major brands or hits retailers, already struggling with razor-thin margins.

Kramer argued, however, that while cost is a reasonable concern for all parties involved,  often obscured is the many ways in which the decision to change the color or trim of a pant order, or to expedite shipment, can generate consequences that violate the basic human rights of laborers in countries like Bangladesh.

The example used in the workshop was the color of a pair of pants, ordered by a major brand. Kramer posed a hypothetical scenario: let’s assume that major brand decided that a color, different from the one it originally ordered, was likely to sell more units. What consequences would ensue if that brand changed its order? For the brand itself, the effect would be a more salable item. For the consumer, a more aesthetically desirable pant at the same low price. But what about for those who inhabit a less visible spot further down the supply chain?

For the factory worker, an otherwise minor decision dismissively made can have considerable ramifications. For example,  late orders can saddle a factory owner with financial losses, inspiring him to accelerate production times. This necessarily translates into overtime for factory workers often denied the power to refuse those additional hours or any viable recourse to complain. These workers are often compelled to work as many as 100 hours per week, missing family, experiencing exhaustion. And adequate compensation for extra hours worked is often summarily denied them.

To darken an already shadowy picture, most work accidents occur during overtime shifts, when crippling fatigue can lead to carelessness. And it’s precisely those countries that have the spottiest record regarding wages and overtime that also have the least impressive for worker compensation. In this world, bad has a tendency to beget worse.

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To summarize: the apparently benign decision to change the color on an order of pants results in several human rights violations for factory workers: inadequate wages, unsafe working conditions and a lack of protection against compulsory and excessive overtime.

Kramer invited the audience to consider alternative decisions that could have made by the retailer in this scenario. For example, the retailer could have air freighted the merchandise to meet the delivery schedule or implored the factory owners to compensate the workers with additional pay or time off. Of course, they could also just pull the order entirely, admitting that the social costs of maintaining it outweigh the financial costs of losing it.

Some in the audience rightfully pointed out that these responses are less than realistic in today’s garment sourcing environment. Even Kramer conceded that this were unrealistic options. However, the overarching point was that what rears its head as a minor inconvenience for a retailer or shopper can express itself as a life-altering burden for a seamstress in Bangladesh.

WellMade, partly funded by the European Commission, was established to “help provide everyone working in European clothing companies with tools to understand the major labour issues that they have influence over, and how they can support better conditions.”  The organization assembles NGOs, trade unions and business associations who are willing to share their expertise regarding international labor conditions to all those interested.

The presentation was also sponsored by the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), the lead partner in WellMade. FWF is an independent non-profit organization that comprises eighty member companies representing more than 120 brands in seven European countries. It is also active in fifteen production countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. It’s mission is to improve the labor conditions for garment workers in collaboration with NGOs, companies and factories.