As you may have heard, last month popular “ethical” Australian fashion label Gorman was in trouble. In a bizarre marketing gimmick, the company Instagrammed a picture of a young Chinese man brandishing a sign saying, “I made your clothes,” only to see it well and truly backfire.
Gorman claims the #whomadeyourclothes campaign was “geared to providing more transparency in the industry.” But followers instead demanded to know why the label, owned by Factory X, had received the lowest possible F rating from Baptist World Aid Australia.
Not surprisingly fans saw the gimmick as a diversion from the real issue at hand, and while rating was given on account of Gorman’s parent company refusing to submit to testing, rather than evidence of ethical failures, fans rightly want to know why the company chose not to participate and are demanding Gorman disclose working conditions and wages in its Chinese factories.
Let’s be realistic here. The chances of Gorman’s factory workers being exploited is high because exploitation is what the fashion industry runs on. A damning report released last year by Baptist World Aid found that nine out of 10 companies selling clothes in Australia cannot say where their cotton is sourced, and most do not pay their overseas workers enough to cover their basic needs.
But it’s not just fashion. Whereas in the 1980s, corporations proudly proclaimed “Australian made” on their labels and in their adverts, these days we’re expected to feel patriotic just by buying Australian owned, as if there is some sort of national benefit to the increasingly concentrated profits of these businesses. When manufacturers of everything from cars to sports equipment across the western world discovered they could dramatically increase these profits by moving offshore, they did so.
Deep down, we all know the reason for this; because they are not hindered by all those pesky labour laws regarding child labour, overtime, and OH&S that our unions have spent years fighting for- and that many workers died for. Conditions that we have not tolerated for decades for ourselves are routine in the developing world, leading to tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory fire in Bangladesh three years ago.
Gorman clothes, like many brand names manufacturing overseas, don’t come particularly cheap. Exploiting labour in the developing world, then, isn’t so much about keeping prices low as it about keeping profits astronomically high.
We are consigning human beings to perpetual poverty so that we can own skinny jeans in every primary colour and get that “new phone feeling” every year.
It is ironic that we even talk of the “developing world,” when the reality of our exploitation of their cheap labour is stagnation. We are consigning human beings to perpetual poverty so that we can own skinny jeans in every primary colour and get that “new phone feeling” every year.
We console ourselves that the scraps we pay them are “better than nothing,” even when they are barely anything. We even justify child labour by convincing ourselves these kids “need” to work to help their families.
But how many of us would permit our own eight-year-old child to stitch soccer balls? This double standard underpins our acceptance of these intolerable conditions so long as it is other people tolerating them: we are not starting from a base point of equality.
The lens through which we view the plight of overseas factory, and other low-paid, workers is dramatically distorted in our favour. We want to have nice things that we don’t have to pay too much for, and if someone has to do it for next to nothing, better them than us.
It’s telling, the way we manage to convince ourselves we are doing them a favour by exploiting them. Truth is, we just don’t like to think about how our cheap clothes, and food, and gadgets really get to us. Because that would require an active change on our part.
Would you be willing to give up your favourite chocolate if you knew it would free a child from slavery?
Here is a question. Would you be willing to give up your favourite chocolate if you knew it would free a child from slavery? For some time now, it has been common knowledge that child slaves are used in the production of popular chocolate brands, including Nestle, Ferrero, and Lindt.
Documentaries have been made, articles written, petitions drawn up. But how many people are willing to boycott chocolate? Who is prepared to provide the ultimate disruption to the supply cocoa slave labour industry by gutting the demand?
The reality is; it is notoriously difficult to get westerners to care about impoverished communities beyond a sad shake of the head and murmur of pity. We’re good at signing petitions but ask people to actually change their own behaviours and suddenly the crescendo of crickets is deafening.
All of this made possible by the entitlement we feel; that this is our right. Cheap clothes. Cheap chocolate. Relatively cheap technology. We are so used to these trappings that we see them as our right. All of which means their poverty is not an unfortunate circumstance outside of our control but the price we force them to pay for our comforts.