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How can you find out if your clothes are made ethically? It’s a question many shoppers may be asking themselves, after Boohoo announced it has ordered an independent review of its UK supply chain.
It comes after reported allegations that workers in a Leicester factory making clothes for Nasty Gal, which is owned by Boohoo, were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour and operating without social distancing measures. Retailers including Next and ASOS subsequently dropped Boohoo goods from their stores.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said he has “significant concerns” about employment practices at some UK factories, while home secretary Priti Patel insisted “sweatshops” will not be tolerated.
Boohoo said it will investigate and terminate relationships with suppliers where evidence of this is found. But in general, what can consumers do to ensure garment workers aren’t suffering for our clothes?
Dominique Muller, from campaign group Labour Behind The Label, says one of the biggest challenges is that some brands remain “almost totally opaque” and refuse to publish their supply chains.
“That’s why one of our long-standing campaigns is to get brands to publish their supplier list,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Then consumers, workers, unions and the government know where these clothes are made.”
Factories are just one part of the puzzle, adds Sarah Ditty, global policy director at Fashion Revolution. To see if brands are operating ethically, we need to call for transparency around sub-contractors, fabric suppliers, mills and raw material suppliers.
Shoppers play a vital role in incentivising retailers to do this. By financially supporting transparent brands, you’re pressuring other brands to do the same.
Along with their partners in the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind The Label has created an online fashion checker, where you can see what brands say – and what they actually do – around wages. Before shopping, type in the brand name to see how transparent it is regarding supply chains and wages.
“As consumers, we have a big role to play,” says Muller. “Try to avoid brands whose name is in the news for abuses. If something seems too good to be true – it generally is. Most often, workers pay the price for the cheap clothes we consume.”
“If something seems too good to be true – it generally is.”
Ditty echoes caution around clothes that seem “impossibly cheap”. If you can pick up a T-shirt for less than the cost of your lunch, “you can assume it was almost certainly made by someone making a very low wage, one that doesn’t cover their essential costs of living,” she says.
But, she adds, just because a garment costs a lot, doesn’t mean it’s been made by someone being paid a fair, living wage either. “Not everyone has the time and resources, but if you do, research the brand before you buy, reach out to them and ask #whomademyclothes,” she says. “Find out how they ensure the people making their products are paid fairly and working in good conditions.”
Smaller, independent brands may be more responsive to your questions and will likely have shorter, less complex supply chains, adds Ditty.
You can also look for certifications like Fair Trade or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which can provide guarantees of good environmental management and that people in the supply chain are paid fairly, she advises.
Prior to the Leicester allegations, Labour Behind The Label was already running a campaign aimed at Boohoo, calling for the public the sign a petition for greater transparency. “Sign petitions, share your stories, take action and become involved,” says Muller.
Ditty says we should also be writing and calling our elected officials and demanding that the government requires fashion brands to “stop the culture of unfair contracts and impossibly low prices for suppliers, which leads to illegally low wages, wage fraud and forced overtime for factory workers”.
What does Boohoo say?
In response to the Leicester allegations and the Labour Behind The Labels campaign, Boohoo provided the following statement:
“The boohoo group will not tolerate any incidence of non-compliance especially in relation to the treatment of workers within our supply chain and we have terminated relationships with suppliers where evidence of this is found.
“We applaud any examination of practices in supply chains, because we share similar aims: that everyone employed is fairly treated and properly remunerated for the work that they do. However, for any work of this nature to have credibility and to be of value it needs to be accurate and factually correct, which the Labour Behind the Label report unfortunately, is not.
“We are committed to supporting UK manufacturing, which makes a considerable contribution to the UK economy but we do not do this at the expense of standards. In addition to our in-house auditors, we have invested heavily in a bespoke third party led compliance programme with sector specialists who audit every supplier on both an announced and unannounced basis. The auditors inspect everything from working conditions to health and safety to pay. It is disappointing that much of the data quoted in this report is wholly inaccurate, for example, we do not and will not work with any supplier who cannot provide evidence that they pay at least the national minimum wage.
“As a business, we have invested heavily to ensure that we meet all the guidance relating to self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene standards to ensure that every boohoo workplace is covid-19 safe. We do not condone any supplier that disregards the very clear guidance on supporting those affected by Covid-19 or that abuses the economic support provided by the Government and we will immediately investigate the claims made in this report and will not hesitate in taking action to address any issues that are found.”