Sunday, 28 April 2013

What price cheap fashion?

I have already posted about Fairtrade, but the recent tragedy in Dhaka has highlighted the issue again.  I've been as guilty as anyone, buying cheap clothes to give my wardrobe (and me!) a lift.  It's very tempting, which is why when I started doing Project 333 (having 33 items of clothing to last 3 months) and looked at my wardrobe critically, I realised how many clothes I had that didn't fit me any more, no longer suited me, and were already looking faded and worn.  Cheap clothes aren't made to last, and yet so many of us buy even more cheap clothes to replace them.

Janice of The Vivienne Files has already written about this emotive topic, and I was interested in one of the comments made by someone called Anonymous:

"This 'they wouldn't have any jobs' argument is so colonial, looking down on people."

I beg to differ.  My belief is that those of us who have bought cheap clothing in the past have indirectly contributed to this terrible tragedy, so we have a responsibility to try and improve the situation by buying wisely in future.  However if we just boycott companies like Primark and Joe Fresh, who are we helping?  We should be lobbying these companies to face up to their responsibilities and say that we won't buy their clothes until they do so. 

I live in Spain, where unemployment is very high and many families are struggling to survive. This is mainly the result of the recession and the collapse of the building trade, leading to the loss of many jobs. If people in Bangladesh need these jobs, the solution is to improve their working conditions, pay them a decent wage and not complain about the resulting increased prices in our shops. I hope that I'm not being colonial if I say that I don't want job losses in Bangladesh that will mean families there are having to struggle too.

More than 360 people are known to have died here
I buy most of my clothes on-line from Lands End and Marks & Spencer, mainly because of their petite ranges.  I have already sent emails to both companies stating that I am a concerned customer, and to their credit they replied promptly. Here are their responses.

Marks and Spencer

Dear Ms Walker

Thanks for taking the time to contact us after the tragedy in Dhaka. I would like to reassure you that the quality of life for anyone producing M&S products is very important to us.

We set the same standards for quality and working conditions regardless of where our products are made.

All of our suppliers are expected to meet our Global Sourcing Principles, and to encourage their own suppliers to implement them. This requires our suppliers to comply with national laws and to work towards the international labour laws contained in the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code.

Our Global Sourcing Principles promote the right to freedom of association, requiring that workers are free to join lawful trade unions or workers’ associations, and the payment of national minimum wage. Any new suppliers who we conduct business with have to pass our audits on key issues such as underage labour, pay, working hours and health and safety.

If you would like to view the full details of our Global Sourcing Principles, or to see the results of our supplier audits in our annual How We Do Business report, they can be found on our website:

I hope this information has reassured you that as a company we are committed to the highest standards of ethical trading for our workers and suppliers both in the UK and abroad.

Lands End

Dear Ms Walker

Thank you for your enquiry.

We take special care in selecting partners who share our concern for the environment and adhere to their local and national laws regarding the protection and preservation of the environment.
We also require that all of our products be manufactured in environments that are safe and comply with all local rules and regulations.

Our commitments to Social Responsibility can be found on our website ( and by clicking on 'Social Responsibility' at the bottom of the homepage.

If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us.

I hope that you will follow my example and contact the retailers where you buy your clothes from. Also don't assume that the mid-cost fashion retailers aren't guilty in this respect: ask them the same questions.

I would be interested in any other ideas that you may have to ensure that cheap fashion no longer comes at such a cost.


  1. This is a great post and I think that you have taken the time to write to these two companies is an example to us all.

    I think the response of Lands End is very interesting. I wonder how stringent the local manufacturing laws are in the countries they are in and also how well they are actually enforced. There is an argument that British companies manufacturing goods to be sold in Britain should run their companies to the same health and safety standards that they do in this country. I am much more convinced by Marks and Spencer's response!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Louise.

    I must admit that I wasn't 100% convinced by Lands End, though I gave them the benefit of the doubt this time. I may pursue this further, especially if I plan any future purchases from them.

    Having worked in the IT department at M & S many, many years ago, I do know how strict they are with their suppliers and in this case that has to be a good thing.

  3. Sue,

    This is a wonderful post. Prior to reading it I had nor thought of writing to manufacturers, but you have inspired me to do so.

    I am not pleased with The Land's End reply as it looks too boiler plate and is not as thoughtful as the Marks and Spencer's response.
    I actually learned a few things from the m&S reply and will use some of their references to now question other companies.

    Thanks for making us think.

    1. Patricia, thank you for your reply. It's good to know that you are going to be doing the same. Please share if you have any positive replies along the lines of Marks & Spencer's.

  4. Great post. I am thinking of using the story in my mass communication class to ask what is really important in the news: this kind of story or some celebrity's latest activities.

    You've made it personal for all of us.

    1. Robin, I will be more than happy if you use my story for your class. I would be interested in knowing their response!

  5. I applaud you for taking action. Personally I do think that the problem is far too complex for me to engage in.Sorry.

    Have you ever heard of: Avaaz - The World in Action
    Avaaz is the campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision making worldwide.

    This might be the organization you could write to. I do participate in their petitions.

    1. Gertraud, you are right in saying that the problem is very complex. However my aim is to buy from those companies who are taking the right actions like M&S and of course People Tree.

      Yes, I know Avaaz and I participate in their petitions too.

  6. Thank you for giving us more insight into this. The thought of writing to the retailers has never crossed my mind but we learn every day. This is something I will look into doing.
    Thank youo.

  7. Thank you for this really important post. It made me spend the afternoon thinking and googling about the problem. Here are some things I learned: It is important to write to companies and let them know the conditions under which their clothing is made matters to you. If people don't write (complaint, demonstrate, etc.) management can't justify spending money on improvements that don't put money in the shareholders' pockets. However, don't expect anything but a canned response to your letters. Every major retailer has some set of "Principles" to which their suppliers must agree but very little is done or even can be done to make sure suppliers comply. M&S seems to do a really good job across the board in furthering its ambitious sustainability and ethical goals; however, according to the "How We Do Business" report they referred you to, their goals with respect to fair trade clothing (as opposed to food, where they seem to do a bang-up job) consist largely of educating suppliers, and this is one of the few areas where the report states their goals have not been achieved. The report says nothing at all about working conditions in clothing factories. I have no idea whether M&S sells clothing made in death traps. But the "Ethical Trading Initiative" they mention looks like a trade association that spends a good bit of effort congratulating its members on being ethical: for example, it features a glowing report on Primark's work to educate Bangladeshi garment workers on their rights. Primark labels were found in the collapsed building at Dhaka and Primark confirmed that it did business with one of the tenant factories in the collapsed building. At least Primark didn't simply deny that they knew their suppliers were dealing such companies, as Walmart did when half the lines in the Tazreen Fashions building that burned last November turned out to be making Walmart clothing.
    This report on the 2012 Tazreen fire helps to show why it is so hard to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but also how little anyone is trying.
    What a world.

    1. KC, thank you for the work you have done in finding out more information. You are quite right in saying that shareholders have a major say in how companies spend their money! I think the main reason why so many companies now sell organic products is the demand from customers PLUS the profits that they make from them, which keeps the shareholders happy! As you say, it is up to us to write to companies so that they know that these issues are important to their customers and to put our hands in our pockets and buy Fairtrade clothes when companies respond in a positive way. I have a bit of respect for Primark in admitting their connection, but I will have a lot more respect if they respond positively by ensuring this doesn't happen again.

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