Cheap clothing has a big human cost

More than 1,100 people died in April when a building housing garment factories collapsed near Dhaka. Picture: AP
More than 1,100 people died in April when a building housing garment factories collapsed near Dhaka. Picture: AP
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Customers as well as retailers play a role in allowing bad working conditions, says Margo Sabella-Marshall

The disastrous collapse of the building in Bangladesh in April that housed garment-making businesses has all but disappeared from the media. Pressure needs to be maintained on retailers to source responsibly and for consumers to make informed choices.

Picture: AFP/Getty

Picture: AFP/Getty

Here in Scotland, hope perhaps comes from schoolchildren who have taken up the cause of Fair Trade cotton. The Scottish Fair Trade Forum’s Cotton Schoolwear Campaign has helped schools across the country become better informed about cotton and explore the opportunities for sourcing Fair Trade cotton uniforms. A generation of children is now growing up with the realisation that peers across the world often have to endure terrible conditions to make a favourite T-shirt.

The human cost of growing cotton is very high as forced labourers, including children, work in fields while being exposed to one of the highest-polluting crops in the world. Cotton relies heavily on pesticides, which not only adversely impact people’s health but also do irreparable damage to the environment. This is exacerbated by cotton’s need for vast quantities of water to grow: about 8,000 litres of water is needed to make a pair of denims – something we can all think about the next time we put on our favourite jeans.

Oblivious to injustices

Cotton production is significantly subsidised in countries such as the United States and China and in the European Union. This floods the markets with cheap cotton, driving down its price for other cotton-producing countries, where it is often a main source of income. With the prices so low, families in some countries, for example in West Africa and Uzbekistan, see a fall in their income. This makes it harder to keep children in school, to feed them and to access basic healthcare.

It’s a sobering thought that to protect our way of life, we can be oblivious to the injustices that people have to endure for our comfort, pleasure and, at times, greed. We can seem unconcerned that other people’s children in faraway places are forced to work in unbearable conditions. Instead of having a normal childhood, where study is intermittently interrupted by play, and dreams give way to achievements, the reality is stark for many of those children.

So often we hear people complain about over-burdensome health and safety regulations here, but all around us are examples of what happens when there is a lack of enforced standards in the workplace. Millions in the supply chain are denied the right to health and safety at work. The garment workers who perished in Dhaka in April and those who died in a fire in January are examples of people trapped in terrible working conditions that too often end in tragedy. They should be on the consciences of those who promote a culture of ever-cheaper disposable fashion.

These disasters are of such a scale that they make headlines, but there are many other cases of accidents and injuries caused by poor health and safety in the garment industry that do not make global headlines. Despite all available information from organisations such as the Fairtrade Foundation and the Clean Clothes Campaign, it is too easy for us as consumers to ignore our role in maintaining a system that denies others the rights we readily claim for ourselves.

More for less: A false economy

It is time for us to take responsibility – the conditions persist in the supply chain because of retailers and consumers here. Understandably, in these harder economic times, we all try to cut corners, but can we do it at the expense of others? The bargains that drive us to buy more for less are a false economy. Choosing an ethically produced T-shirt may be more expensive in the short term, but its better quality means a longer-lasting garment. Most of us stick to wearing a few items of clothing anyway, so why buy three pieces when one would do just fine?

The responsibility also lies with the large retailers who need to use their significant purchasing power (much greater than individual consumers) to demand decent working conditions for those employed in the supply chain.

Scotland achieved Fair Trade Nation status in February thanks to a growing realisation among its people that there needs to be a reciprocal relationship between consumers and producers. Choosing Fair Trade means that their communities can get out of poverty and develop their communities on their own terms. Such is the evidence for many producers where a Fair Trade premium is being paid for their products.

There’s still a long way to go for Fair Trade cotton but perhaps the tide is turning, with Scottish schoolchildren leading the way. School holidays may just have started but when thoughts turn to buying school uniforms for the new term, hopefully consumers will question retailers on the human cost of their production.

• Margo Sabella-Marshall is a volunteer campaigner with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum,

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