AS EXERCISES in self-abasement go, there’s little to beat a shopping trip to Primark
Bargain-hungry consumers jostling each other to lay claim to a dress that costs less than the price of their bus fare; clothes so disposable they are tossed on the floor without a thought to the human effort involved in their production; itsy-bitsy crop tops in colours so psychedelic they seem to have been placed there to underline what a bleak monument to human degradation you have chosen to enter. Yes, the thought of being able to buy an entire summer wardrobe and still have change for a coffee has a certain appeal. But, like bingeing on Creme Eggs, the instant gratification of stuffing paper bag after paper bag full of glittery accessories quickly fades, leaving you feeling nauseous, dissatisfied and disgusted by your own vacuity.
The shop has a certain aroma too; it’s almost as if you can smell the exploitation, both of those who work long hours in sweatshops to make the goods cast off so casually and those who have been encouraged to believe throwaway fashion is as much as they have a right to aspire to.
Most of the time we can put the stench to the back of our minds as we focus on the savings. But last week, as an eight-storey building housing garment factories collapsed outside the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, killing more than 300, it became impossible to ignore the fact that the ability of British consumers to afford to buy clothes by the basketload comes at the expense of other people’s wellbeing. Even as the firefighters were pulling corpses from the rubble, anti-sweatshop campaigners claimed to have seen European clothing labels scattered in the debris. It wasn’t long before both Primark and Matalan admitted to having used suppliers in the building.
Of course, the responsibility for the deaths doesn’t lie directly with the chains that bought from the garment factories, nor with the consumers who bought from the chains. First and foremost it lies with the owner of the plaza, which was built illegally, and with the factory bosses who insisted their employees work despite inspectors finding cracks and calling for an evacuation.
It lies too with a global economy that encourages multinationals to source their goods from the countries which supply the cheapest labour – those countries, somewhat predictably, being the ones which pay least heed to the pay and conditions of their labour force. Still, it’s difficult to look at the graphic images of panic and grief around the crumpled building without asking ourselves to what degree we are complicit in its destruction; and what, if anything, we can do to stop such a thing happening again.
The knee-jerk reaction would be to boycott bargain-basement stores, to trade up and buy less, but charities such as Oxfam are quick to remind us that is not always the best solution. Trading up may assuage our guilt, but there’s no guarantee those who make more expensive high-street clothes will be any better treated. Other companies believed to have used the affected factories include the more upmarket Benetton and Monsoon. Boycotting particular chains may simply encourage them to go elsewhere, thus depriving impoverished communities of what little income they have.
On the other hand, I’ve been astonished by the blitheness with which some commentators have dismissed our power, or responsibility, to do anything at all. Is it really enough to point out that people who work in sweatshops choose to do so because it’s better than working for a local company or becoming a prostitute?
These arguments are persuasive; as is the suggestion that the Bangladeshi economy is growing precisely because of the opportunities foreign multinationals offer. The skills learned in these factories and the money made there may indeed lift the workers’ dependents out of poverty.
But the logic of suggesting sweatshop conditions should be tolerated because they are better than the alternative only stretches so far. Were they to close, would we think it acceptable for those same workers to be beaten after “choosing” to go into prostitution because it was preferable to scavenging on rubbish tips? The choice between scratching a living in dehumanising circumstances and starving is no choice at all.
Besides, isn’t waiting for the slow grind of economic progress to sort out the lives of people in Bangladesh a trifle fatalistic? How many more people will die in the process? And wasn’t the journey to better working conditions in 19th-century Britain spurred on by social reformers who were prepared to take a stand against other factory owners’ single-minded pursuit of profits?
It seems to me that relying on market forces to effect change is just a way to justify doing nothing. And there are pro-active measures we can take to force factory owners to clean up their act without driving big companies away. By lobbying multinationals with a track record of sweatshop labour we can encourage them to introduce more rigorous monitoring of suppliers. Better still, we may be able to push them to work locally with factory owners and unions to improve conditions.
These efforts won’t always deliver. Though previous exposés led Primark to join the Ethical Trading Initiative, there is little evidence it has improved its policies. But every now and again, a victory will be won. In the late 1990s, a campaign against working conditions in Nike factories helped shame the company into adopting a code of conduct in its factories. And striving in vain is better than shrugging our shoulders and trusting to fate.
In Dhaka, anger at the conditions which led to the collapse of the building has now exploded into street protests which may do more harm than good. Tens of thousands of miles away, we should be channelling our own anger into a positive force for change.