More than 700 Greenpeace activists in 18 countries took a stand against the world's largest fast fashion retailer, Zara. This has been a long time coming as Greenpeace's Detox campaign has been targeting the major players in the apparel industry to clean up their supply-chains. The committed line-up now includes Zara, H&M, Nike, Puma and M&S.
The commitment is to remove all hazardous chemical use from supply-chains by 2020. This includes perflourinated compounds (PFC's) which are hormone disrupters to aquatic and human life. Formaldehyde is quite common as are nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE's) which break down to alkylphenols (AP's). NPE's and AP's can impair fertility (endocrine (hormone) disrupter), are extremely toxic to aquatic life and they bioaccumulate which means you store more of the toxin in your fat than what your body can dispose of. The list of chemicals such as the above mentioned that are used in apparel products goes on and on and on. These are the top ones for elimination currently.
What makes this issue so difficult is that apparel brands are sell-outs. They do not own or make anything they design (if they even design in the first place, many just buy other brands clothing and do 100% rip-offs or as they politely refer to as 'samples'). They ship off the design to some supplier in Bangladesh where it may be sub-contracted to a completely different factory (that is not monitored by the apparel brand). This is all done to lower production costs and increase profit margins. Makes sense other than the blatant ethical issues that are so unusual for corporate juggernauts.
"We audit/monitor all suppliers we work with" is an all too common phrase dancing out of a beautiful PR woman's mouth. These are true words. Until you examine the underbelly. For example, H&M has 70 auditors, performed 1.23 audits/factory visits in 2011 for its 747 contracted suppliers. It's the same figures for all the big guns, Nike, Gap, Wal-mart etc. etc. Therefore it's not surprising when devastating fires or the dumping of industrial waste is discovered. How could one make sure a contracted factory/suppplier is following their precious code of conduct when audit rates are so very very low. The numbers are just absurd.
These suppliers are not motivated to clean up because they are being squeezed for every last cent by the big guys. I've worked in the industry and its embarrassing to be haggling with a vendor in Asia over half a cent on the production of a pair underwear. We can afford to pay it but they cannot afford to lose the business. Guess who wins.
The great loophole with contracted work is that corporate juggernauts are not responsible for the pollution that ensues or its clean up. Brilliant, talk about externalizing all costs. These factories do not have the funds to rebuild infrastructure and implement new technologies to deal with toxic chemicals and waste. They can barely afford face masks for the guys who sandblast the jeans.
However, auditors are at least changing their ways. The hot topic these days in audit talk is capacity building. Building working relationships that promote safer, greener, cost saving technologies. Teaching not reprimanding. This is far better than what has typically been done but there needs to more help from the companies themselves as these suppliers/factories cannot afford green solutions.
There are good things happening but consumers need to do their part too. The problems factories face are caused by apparel brands maintaining artificially low clothing prices because well, we like cheap clothes. If these supply chains are going to get cleaned up and provide garment workers with living wages, we need to stop expecting cheap 'value' clothes. When a t-shirt is $9.95 at H&M or $19.95 at Zara, we as consumers need to think about whether that is the true cost of that t-shirt. To grow the cotton, ship the cotton, spin, wash, dye and knit the cotton. Make the pattern, cut out the material, sew the shirt, screen print the shirt. Pack up the shirt and ship it, unpack it and put it on a hanger.
I get it, it is very frustrating because the system is not set up for consumers to make the right decisions and there is very little product that we can feel good about or trust. Questioning everything, however, is the best we can do right now. Question retailers and brands actions and question our own actions. Do I really need/want this $9.95 t-shirt? Do I want to support someone who makes a $9.95 t-shirt?
These shots are from the Yangtze river in China, the textile dyeing district. Followed by the Greenpeace detox campaign.
A great video on the protest