YOU spot it from the tinned goods aisle and it's love at first sight. A chic military jacket that's bears an uncanny resemblance to a Marc Jacobs number you lusted over in Harvey Nichols just last week. Cute little lapels? Check. Round, brass-coloured buttons? Check. Buttock-clenching price tag? Well, no - quite the opposite actually. This supermarket bargain costs less than the bumper ready meal in your trolley.
Supermarket sweep has taken on a whole new meaning in the past few years. Budget is the new black, and boasting about how cheaply you bagged that could-almost-be-Balenciaga-from-ten-paces sack dress has become the latest war among fashionistas. However, our love affair with cut-price clothing may soon be coming to an end.
The latest analysis - carried out by Verdict Consulting - forecasts that, by 2010, a 12-year period of continuous price deflation on clothing will come to an end. Over the next five years clothing prices are set to rise by almost one per cent, with womenswear increasing by nearly five per cent.
We may soon be lamenting the loss of quick-fix, fast fashion, but if you realised how it came to be so cheap in the first place, you might come to the conclusion that perhaps this coming shift is not such a bad thing. The next time you ogle a 4 peasant skirt in the supermarket, ask yourself this: if you're not paying for it, then who is?
"Companies like Tesco, Primark and Asda have squeezed their suppliers to the limit, forcing them to push down prices," says Simon McRae of War on Want. "Quite simply it can go no further without suppliers virtually working for free."
For retailers here in Britain, the cost of doing business is increasing rapidly. In 2006 they faced 9.5bn of additional costs from rent increases, higher energy prices and increased staff costs. In addition, shoppers are unlikely to buy as many new clothes in the near future as they have over the past decade, with food prices and interest rates now on the rise.
Manufacturers and retailers of cheap clothing have been described as "chasing poverty round the world", fighting to source the cheapest labour possible in one of the 160 countries which furiously compete to export garments for just 30 of the richest nations. With workers being paid as little as five pence an hour, those 3 jeans can begin to look relatively expensive.
"There's a huge difference in the way we shop nowadays. Cheap clothing means that customers view their clothes as almost disposable," says Sam Maher of Labour Behind the Label. "Competition is high and there are no more distinct seasons, with new stock arriving in stores every couple of weeks. This means that lead times for orders becomes shorter, so workers need to do mandatory overtime, which is often unpaid. Workers are often dismissed if they protest [about this], and it can be made very difficult for them to form unions to protect themselves."
Women's clothing prices have fallen by a third in ten years, and Britain's value-clothing industry has doubled in size since 2002, taking around 6 billion in sales annually. We now buy 40 per cent of our clothes from value retailers with just 17 per cent of our clothing budget, and one in four items of clothing bought in the UK comes from Asda-Walmart, Tesco, Primark or Matalan.
These retailers have become to fashion what McDonalds and Burger King are to food: cheap, fast, disposable, mass-produced, hassle-free and reliant on social and environmental exploitation to keep it that way.
Primark is considered to be one of the worst offenders, accused of being obsessed with pushing prices down as far as possible, regardless of how they do it. An article in the Irish Sunday Business Post last year claimed that a senior official at Primark was approached by a factory owner with a product costing 5 that would sell for 10, to which he is alleged to have replied that he was not interested, unless the client came back with a product that cost 3 and could be sold for 7. "I don't care how you go about it - just do it," the official supposedly said. A spokesperson from Primark denies the remarks were ever said.
Primark has an ethical code of conduct which it believes ensures the fair treatment of workers. "We work with a code of conduct that is a contractual obligation for our suppliers. When we take on a new supplier we take them through this, and they are subject to independent audits," says a spokesperson for Primark.
However, Simon McRae believes that such voluntary ethical initiatives allow them to brush off accusations of exploitation. "We have found many cases of workers working 80 hour weeks on less than a living wage in factories that supply Primark, Tesco and Asda among others," he says.
"Having an ethical code for these companies is such a contradiction. They may be signing up to ethical labour codes, but in pushing prices down and keeping them down they are actively hindering ethical practices. They can't keep pushing and pushing suppliers for cheap clothes and at the same time push for workers' rights."
McRae believes that [retail] companies do not do enough to enforce these standards. "The whole system relies on audits. Workers can be questioned in front of their bosses; audits are often short and sometimes take place just once a year," he says.
Primark's spokesperson admits that, in some of Primark's factories, a year will pass without an audit. "We work on a rotating basis, so we won't audit every factory in a 12-month period," he says. "We prioritise audits in areas we consider to be high-risk: countries like Bangladesh, which are more likely not to meet our standards than others."
In Tesco's 2007 corporate responsibility report, the company say that "clothing manufacture has been one of the few bright spots in Bangladesh's economy", and that trading with Tesco "can be an important force for good anywhere in the world".
"Tesco puts ethical trading at the heart of its operations," says a spokesperson for Tesco. "Our terms of doing business make it clear that we expect suppliers to comply with the Ethical Trading Initiative's base code. The alternative - and it would be easier in many ways - would be for us to stop sourcing in countries that have economic and social problems which are beyond the capabilities of any organisation working alone to fix. But we don't think that is right for the people of Bangladesh, or what our customers would expect us to do."
However, almost 20 per cent of shareholders at Tesco's annual meeting in London last month refused to reject a resolution calling for Tesco to pay workers in the developing world a living wage. Tesco asked shareholders to reject it, saying that they are already taking steps to ensure workers are treated fairly. The meeting was also addressed by a Bangladeshi textile worker, who told the company that workers there are not being paid a living wage.
Many of the big names, such as Tesco and Primark, are signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), but although signatories have to agree to certain basic principles, the ETI has no power of inspection or enforcement.
"Not only is the Ethical Trading Initiative voluntary, it doesn't guarantee that standards are being met. It is simply an agreement to strive to meet the standards," says McRae. "We asked Tesco to guarantee to meet the labour standards that they say they practise, but they couldn't. It's hypocrisy of the highest order."
By driving down prices, these companies are forcing suppliers to compete aggressively against each other to fulfil the contract cheapest and fastest. Supermarkets have been accused of reducing their numbers of suppliers and dominating a few, thereby gaining enough buying power to impose whatever conditions they like.
"The funny thing is that the mark-up on these clothes is actually so substantial that retailers could afford to treat their workers fairly, absorbing the extra cost and still making a hefty profit, but it's just greed that prevents them from doing so," says McRae.
Low-cost retailers have even been accused of actively discouraging trade unions. Only a small percentage of garment workers are unionised and the suppression of trade unions and persecution or dismissal of workers who try to organise is common. Production is increasingly taking place in countries like China, where freedom of association is illegal.
Walmart stores in the United States have a union-busting "rapid-reaction" team, and in February 2006 Asda-Walmart was fined 850,000 for attempting to induce employees to give up their right to collective bargaining. When Tesco advertised for people to manage its new US arm last year, the job specification included "maintaining union-free status" and "union-avoidance activities".
In addition to the social cost of cheap clothing, the environmental cost is astronomical. Women in the UK now buy twice as many clothes as they did ten years ago, with men not far behind. It's unsurprising, then, that 1,000,000 tonnes of textiles find their way into the nation's landfills each year, with Britons on average discarding 30 kilograms of textiles a year, only an eighth of which goes to charities for reuse. Fashion miles are as much of a problem as food miles. "You can buy a T-shirt where the cotton was produced in one country, the garment manufactured in a different country and then finished in yet another," says Elizabeth Laskar, a founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum and an independent ethical style consultant. And the clothes themselves are so cheaply made that they don't look quite so spiffy on their second or third wear. No matter, you can just buy another one.
"I think of cheap clothes as 'two wears, two washes' then they get chucked," says Laskar. "As well as thinking about where we buy our clothes from, it is essential that we curb our consumption."
In addition, the production of the crops themselves is extremely polluting. Cotton is one of the planet's heaviest consumers of pesticide, and thousands of agricultural workers die every year as a result of cotton pesticide application. So how can we cut down on our fashion footprint?
"For every two pieces of clothing you buy, try to buy something vintage, organic or fair trade, and think about cutting down on how much you buy," says Laskar. "Think about style, not fashion. We have lost our sense of style because it's become so cheap and easy to just go out and buy into the latest fashion."
We now need to think about substance over style, with the social and environmental cost of our clothing rising alarmingly. To borrow Tesco's corporate responsibility slogan, let's "treat people how we like to be treated", otherwise fashion will continue to claim its real victims in the developing world.
DESIGNERS BITE BACK
IT'S not just garment workers in the developing world who are being exploited by the value clothing industry. High-end designers who have invested time, effort, talent and money in their creations are increasingly fed up with the mass-produced lookalikes appearing on the high street days after they were premiered on catwalks in London, Paris or Milan.
Chloe recently won a 12,000 payout from Topshop, which had been selling a near-identical version of a yellow dungaree dress from the See by Chloe diffusion range. Last week it emerged that Jimmy Choo had successfully sued Oasis for selling near-identical versions of their flat Grecian sandals and silver leather and cork wedges.
"We spend huge sums on research and development," said Chloe's chief executive Ralph Toledano at the time. "It had to be a real war. I have no sympathy for them."
Designers Nargess Gharani and Vanya Strok of Gharani Strok agree: "There has been a consistent rise in the amount of high street stores copying designer garments. We have had numerous stores copy our designs, and while it is flattering to an extent, it can also become detrimental if the garment mirrors our original too closely. We have had issues with high street stores in the past, which has resulted in them removing their copies from the shop floor."
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