How Fair Wear Is Working With Fashion Brands To Protect The Rights Of Garment Workers Around The World

Millions of garment workers around the world face poverty and human rights violations every day. Supply chains are very complicated, and there are still many places where things can go wrong. Most clothing brands don’t own their factories, but they do have a lot of influence over how factories treat workers.

Fair Wear is an independent multi-stakeholder organisation that works with garment brands, garment workers and industry influencers to improve labor conditions in garment factories.

In particular, Fair Wear works with some of the world’s leading fashion brands like Acne, Nudie, Katherine Hamnett, Filippa K and more, who take their responsibilities seriously, and want to learn how to use their influence to make life better for the people who make their clothing.

I caught up with Lotte Schuurman, Fair Wear’s Head of Communications to learn more about their work.

Afdhel Aziz: Hi Lotte, welcome! Please tell us a little about the purpose and work of Fair Wear?

Lotte Schuurman: At Fair Wear, we’re pushing to create a garment industry that is fair for all.

For a very long time already, we have been producing clothes the same way, like we always have. The consumer is underpaying, and the worker is underpaid. Due to the ‘race to the bottom’, margins are too low.

We know there’s a better way to make clothes. A way in which workers feel safe and respected and receive a salary that is enough to provide for their families. We’re pushing to make this the new normal.

Together with garment brands and other industry players, we work on better labour conditions for the men and women who make our clothes. We’re tackling complex problems, like payment of a living wage and ending gender-based violence, by uncovering new solutions and driving step-by-step improvements that create real change for the people who work in garment factories.

Aziz: Do you think Fast Fashion is having its Fast Food moment of crisis? Is there a discrepancy between what consumers say and what they do?

Schuurman: We’re still buying a lot of clothes, although the COVID-19 crisis is changing that. A Deloitte study (April 2019) found that American consumers are now spending a smaller portion of their income on clothing. The spending as a percentage of the total household expenses has been cut in half since 1987, declining from 5 percent to 2 percent. However, this does not necessarily imply a disinterest in clothing or fashion on the part of the consumer. In fact, there has been a continued increase in the number of units of apparel sold, consistent with the overall growth rate in retail. Clothing has become cheaper. And this is happening while low wages and poor working conditions still hit the news on a regular basis.

On the other hand, we also see more interest in sustainable fashion. Research (Jan. 2020) shows that consumers are looking for greater sustainability. Overall, 57 percent of those surveyed said that they would be willing to change their purchasing habits to reduce their negative environmental impact. That is an encouraging number, although we know that there is discrepancy between what consumers say and their actual habits once they’re in a shop.

Aziz: You’ve said ‘brands are at the base of what we do’ – how can they help change the paradigm?

Schuurman: The direct influence that brands in the U.S. or Europe can have on garment factory workers is huge. Many of the issues in factories are caused by brands’ purchasing practices. That means that if you want to achieve sustainable changes in factories, you also need to change the behaviour of brands, because that’s where the decision-making power really lies. Even though brands don’t pay the salaries of factory workers, they have a crucial role to play.

Brands and retailers control most of the value in value chains, even though factories are the ones held responsible for human rights compliance. We’re trying to fix this imbalance by getting brands to step up and accept their responsibility.

For example, if brands order late, workers will be pressured to work even faster, with even longer hours and less time for their families, for sleep or even a toilet break. However, if brands invest in a realistic production timeline, together with the factory, this can lead to a normal working day. Fair Wear brands invest in these kind of things and take responsibility for what’s happening on the factory floor.

Another example: the prices brands pay. If brands really want to see change, they need to factor compliance into the prices they pay for their goods. All brands need to know exactly what it would cost them to buy a product at a price that leads to a living wage for workers. More importantly, they need to pay this price.

Aziz: You’ve also said ”We need to get to a model where consumers pay for what clothes really cost as opposed to what they are willing to pay for it”. What do you mean by that Lotte?

Schuurman: The COVID-19 crisis has emphasized the reality that the clothing industry is notoriously competitive, both in terms of delivery time and price. Much has been written about cancelling orders, but the bar still needs to be raised. After all, we don’t applaud ourselves when we pay our rent on time, do we?

What we want at Fair Wear is to get rid of this system of unequal power relations between brands and factories that pushes prices down. We want to move to an industry with prices based on what it really costs to make a product, rather than what we, as consumers, are willing to pay for it. It’s just as logical as it sounds.

Research is available that indicates that even though low wages for garment workers are still hitting the news, brands are not willing to pay more. Rather the opposite: their purchasing prices have gone down.

It’s time that brands take responsibility and start paying more. For this to happen, actual knowledge of the labour costs of garments is critical. Fair Wear has developed Labour-Minute Costing Calculators that help factories and brands negotiate in a fair way. The methodology enables factories to justify a certain price increase and come to a fair negotiation process. Brands can also use this tool to demonstrate that they are paying their fair share. We’ve seen positive results with Fair Wear brands using the tools.

Aziz: Do you think it’s a myth that cheaper clothes can’t be more sustainable than expensive ones?

Schuurman: Yes, I think so. Although when a garment is too cheap to be true, that often is the case. The opposite is even more valid: expensive clothes are not necessarily more sustainable. In order to understand that, it’s good to know just how little of the money we pay for our clothes goes to the workers. Imagine you buy a T-shirt for 29 euros. In many cases, only 18 cents of the 29 euros you paid will go toward labour costs. That’s not even close to 1%. What this means is that there is financial room for the clothes we wear to be fair.

I can imagine that, based on this example, people would assume that the quick and easy fix is to just invest in more expensive clothing. But that’s not always the solution. What is true is that some of those extremely low prices simply leave no room to pay the workers enough. Yet surprisingly, in the world of fashion, expensive clothes are not necessarily ‘fairer’ than cheap clothes. In fact, it is entirely possible that a shirt sold by a luxury brand and one sold by a discounter are made in the exact same factory by the exact same underpaid workers.

Both expensive and discount brands need to make sure that social responsibility will not be considered an optional add-on, a favour we’re providing garment workers. Fair fashion is about fundamental human rights. Let’s care about the clothes we wear, and let’s care about the workers who made them for us.

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