Little profit for companies involved in fair pay
Fair trade clothing: Little profit for companies involved in fair payA twenty something Bangladeshi woman fingers her handloom ‘taat’ in her native Bengali like an expert cellist. Her wrinkled neighbour makes fabrics using this ancient Pandora Charms craft as her grandchildren play in her village home. That the picture Fizza Mir, “ethical Pandora Charms ” clothing company owner, paints a very different one from the tragedy that struck Savar, Bangladesh on April 24.
Shoppers turn blind eye to Bangladesh tragedies as cheap clothes win
In the wake of disasters in Bangladesh garment factories that have claimed hundreds of lives in recent months, shoppers in the West have shown growing concern about worker safety in developing countries. As long as it doesn’t mean an end to bargains.
“It bothers me, but a lot of retailers are getting their clothes from these places and I can’t see how I can change anything,” 21 year old university student Elizabeth McNail said, clutching a brown paper bag from clothier Primark the day after a building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, killed at least 381 people. “They definitely need to improve, but I’ll still shop here. It’s so cheap.”
The eight storey garment factory collapse that took more than 1,100 lives sent shock ripples across the world and overturned the consumer’s relationship with the manufacturer. Haunting images of iron cutters, cranes, and shovels unearthing crushed bodies have helped spark a debate about the hazardous working conditions in sweatshops and ethical consumerism.
Ms. Mir’s Azadi Project, founded with business partner Farah Ali two years ago, is marketed as “fashion with a conscience,” striking a different tone than the big manufacturers in the $20 billion industry that supplies retailers globally, including Canadian Joe Fresh.
“We want our artisans to stay in their ancestral villages, so they don’t have to leave their children and move to cities and urban slums to make a living,” Ms. Mir said.
“We follow fair trade principles in that we don’t bargain for prices. The artisans set their own prices for what they create for us,” she added.
Azadi Projects collaborates with the relief and development agency Mennonite Central Committee, job creation projects such as Sacred Mark and Prokritee (which manages eight handicraft enterprises), NGO Thanapara Swallows Development Society (which employs more than 250 men and women in the local riverbank village), handloom buyer Artisan Hut, and non profit Saidpur Enterprises (an entity comprised of Action Bag and Easter Screen Printer, both of which house 200 plus women).
Ms. Mir and Ms. Ali also work with artisan co operatives in Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Salaries paid to the artisans circulate in the rural communities to fund schools, counselling services, daycares, and other local programs.
The national minimum wage in Bangladesh is US$38 a month. When asked by the Financial Post, Ms. Mir said she did not know the average income of the garment workers, hand weavers, and craftspeople who produce merchandise for Azadi Project, but added her counterpart Ms. Ali travelled to some of the rural Bangladeshi areas last year to ensure the workers were “satisfied with their pay.”
Consumers should ask themselves, ‘Is there blood on your clothing?’
Ms. Mir said Azadi Project’s garments available for Canadian consumers on the startup’s website are also environmentally sustainable, relying on handloom techniques, rather than electric looms.
Amie Sider, adopted by a Canadian family nearly 25 years ago from Guatemala, decided to give back to her birth country by launching an ethical fashion label NationWares, based in Kitchener, Ont.
Its 1,500 artisans, designers, and entrepreneurs, who create accessories, footwear and home dcor from locally sourced renewable resources, are based in 10 countries, with one in three working in Latin American countries, such as Guatemala and Ecuador.
Ms. Sider said NationWares focuses on providing jobs for the marginalized and those struggling to make ends meet to improve their standard of living, while providing vocational training and education for the children in the community. Sider said. NationWares artisans are paid according to consumer demand and earn close to US$5,000 annually.
“We had one of our artisans start crying on her pay day. We asked her what was Pandora Charms wrong. She finally looked up at us and said, ‘I’ve never held so much money in my entire life, ” Ms. Sider recalled.
For 18 months, Consuelo McAlister and Anne Pringle’s Toronto based Local Buttons has been refurbishing secondhand clothing handpicked from Port au Prince, Haiti’s “pp” markets to sell to Canadian consumers.
Paying three times the national minimum wage for textile workers (200 Haitian gourdes, or US$5 ) in a country also battling the Bangladeshi model of sweatshop labour driven by low costs, Ms. McAlister said they recently signed to house their 11 Haitian employees, including seven tailors, in three rooms of a warehouse.
Socially conscious companies are burdened with the challenge of balancing profits with a sustainable philosophy.
Ms. Mir admitted Azadi Project’s profit margin was negligible. Ms. Sider said she doesn’t take a salary for her fair trade pursuit. Her husband works several jobs to sustain their small enterprise. The couple plan to move to Antigua, Guatemala for a year to live with the artisans fashioning their products. Ms. McAlister described Local Buttons as a small business depending on high margin products in a competitive mass producing industry, looking to bring refurbished clothing to the mainstream Canadian market.
“We have to be realistic the consumer decides in this intensely competitive sector,” she said.
Kelly Drennan, founder of not for profit Fashion Takes Action that promotes sustainability in the fashion sector, agreed that the onus is on the consumer to avoid the traps of “fast fashion,” an industry obsessed by the bottom line.
“Fashion is an expression of our personality and our creativity, for example, expressing your love for the environment. Unfortunately, it takes tragedies like in Bangladesh for that mainstream consumer to judge a $3 Joe Fresh T shirt,” Pandora Charms she said.
The deadly Rana Plaza collapse may have initially ignited an international conversation, she said, but as the dust settles it remains business as usual for the majority of Canadians and companies such as Joe Fresh.
Ms. Mir and Ms. Drennan said a boycott of clothing made in Bangladesh is not the answer to buying ethically, especially when the South Asian country’s largest export is garments. Instead, Joe Fresh and its global counterparts need to stop hiding the trail of sweatshop labour within the global supply chain of the garment industry and engage in more transparent manufacturing, the ethical apparel advocates said.
Large retailers such as Wal Mart or Loblaw tend to work with thousands of suppliers and distributors, who become middlemen to find manufacturers to produce merchandise and prospective buyers for those products a convoluted supply pipeline that can lead to less oversight on factory floor safety standards and leaves consumers will little information on tracking down their T shirt’s place of origin.