Knowledge is a terrible thing.
Six months ago, I could still shop in blissful ignorance of working conditions in the Far East. I was far more concerned about going ten minutes over my own 37 hour week, than considerate of the fact that somewhere in China, 15 year old kids are working twice that for £40 a month. Now I’ve seen and read too much, and it’s so hard to shop.
But what can you do? You need clothes and shoes. There is a very limited range of stuff marketed deliberately at people who want to shop ethically. There’s a good directory of ethical businesses here, but of course it doesn’t tell you which of the high street retailers have good social compliance programmes. That’s because so few of them do; but it would be nice to know which ones they were, so that I wasn’t stuck with a choice between tie-dyed sarongs, hemp hoodies, and bags made out of recycled inner tubes. Bags made from inner tubes are very ugly.
Another option would be to become more self-sufficient, make things myself; but although I admire Pix’s adventures in knitting, I’m simply not very good with my hands. I am also slightly stupid when it comes to purchasing raw materials – where do I start? And how do I know that the fabrics were manufactured ethically, anyway?
And what if, by making my own clothes, I am in a small way doing some Chinese child out of a job? You see, making things better is a very big, daunting task.
So, assuming we can’t make our own, and we don’t want to wear organic clothing with unfinished edges, how do we know which high street retailers are good? It’s impossible. Obviously you can look at their website, and if you’re persistent then you might find something like the social compliance statement made by the Arcadia Group, which owns Dorothy Perkins, Burtons etc. If you get the Flash site, go to About Us and click on Ethical Policy. This will show you their code of conduct, which is fairly standard, roughly based on SA8000; but scroll to the end and check out the bit about Monitoring & Inspection: it doesn’t say anything about enforcement, does it?
In a desparate attempt to feel better about buying so many pairs of shoes, I emailed Faith to find out what their attitude was. They replied that they had an internal monitoring programme. This generally means that they tell the factories that they have to be nice, and leave it at that; what it most certainly does NOT mean, is that they make regular checks and drop the factories who systematically violate human rights. No, because those are the cheapest ones.
So should I only shop at stores that belong to my own clients? Because frankly, they’re just as bad. I have one client who dropped their entire compliance programme, because the audit results were so horrific. I won’t be shopping there. I have other clients who are impressively committed, but it’s like painting the Forth Bridge, really it is. They try, but there are so many factories, and the ones who get the highest grades are probably the ones most skilled at bamboozling auditors.
The best option seems to be to support the shops who try, and avoid the ones who transparently only do this to prevent a Nike-style PR disaster. Of course, I can’t ever tell you which is which, because I would lose my own job. Google is your friend.
Finally, you may be interested to learn that there are 720 factories worldwide that are certified to SA8000. Here is a map showing you where they are.