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Can cheap fashion ever be ethical? – Quartz, 28 April 2019, Marc Bain

Injecting ethics in the supply chain

“As it has crisscrossed the world in search of ever-cheaper places to manufacture its clothing, the stories of worker abuses that have followed remain depressingly similar: Violence, brutally long hours, dangerous conditions, and pay that amounts to poverty wages continue to surface.

Last year, at one Indian factory supplying a number of well-known brands, workers said they were viciously beaten for daring to join a union. Earlier this year researchers for an aid group found that garment workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam making clothes for big international labels were paid so little they couldn’t adequately feed themselves. A new report found that female garment workers in Vietnam face “systemic” sexual harassment and violence at work.”

Through the WI Lens

The main focus of this article is new research from the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of workers in global supply chains. What it set out to examine is the link between business models and labour standards in two industries: fashion and food. Most of the article is about fashion, and the main conclusion is striking: that however much you inspect factories, introduce CSR programmes, and try to improve conditions on a piecemeal basis, if the business model is not designed with an ethical purpose, then the outcomes will almost always be poor.

In the case of fashion, business models too frequently are driven by competition on speed and cost, and the consequence is that supply chains often lack transparency, and factory owners cut every corner imaginable – including sub-contracting out to those with lower standards – to secure contracts. The article highlights the ‘collective action dilemma’ whereby brands fail to take measures they may believe in, because of the risk of losing out to competitors. This provides much food for thought outside the fashion sector; if you are going to adopt a business model, think through how it will play out in terms of your own supply chain. Subscribing to responsible trade organisations like ETI can not only show your commitment to consumers, but can provide a channel to resolve the dilemma of competition driving down standards. Above all, take ownership of your supply chain. Global sourcing can provide valuable jobs and be a catalyst for development in poorer countries; kept at arm’s length it can result in worker misery and products that wear a badge of shame.

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