Now, we know that what you want is for us to give you is a list of which shops to buy from and which ones to avoid, but sadly we can’t do this. Buying ‘sweatshop free’ clothes is a complicated business. Labour Behind the Label exists to help improve conditions for garment workers on the ground and empower them to change their systems for the better – we are not a consumer label and can’t hope to know everything there is to know about all brands.
Yet we also understand that you are a consumer who does need to buy clothes and you want to do this in the best possible way. So here is our suggestion for HOW you should go about this task, now, in an imperfect industry, in order to best support workers’ rights on the ground.
There are lots of companies who would brand themselves as ‘ethical’, who retail across Europe and the internet. You may have heard of some of them – People Tree, Howies, The Natural Store, Pants to Poverty, Bishopston Trading… Each of these companies has a different standard by which they define themselves as ethical, be it environmental credentials, organic cotton, fair trade cotton, or workers rights.
As far as our definition of ‘ethical’ goes, Labour Behind the Label would expect a company to be doing at least the following: a) have a comprehensive code of conduct, b) take mature steps to implement this code, including work to address its own purchasing practices, and work to endorse and implement a living wage standard as part of this measure, c) undertake credible stakeholder participation, and d) actively support freedom of association and collective bargaining. See ‘The Full Package Approach’ report for a full explanation.
Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing – many brands are called ethical but their ethics is based only on a very few environmental credentials. If you want to support workers’ rights, check that the brands you are buying from support them too. You can ask your favourite brands about these things or look on their websites for further information.
Buy from popular brands and retailers who are doing more to improve workers rights
We want to encourage big companies who are doing more to improve workers’ rights, to keep doing it. No one brand is good through and through. There is no magic answer. However, some brands are doing more to help workers than others. You can consult the latest report to see who is doing more and who is doing less on the highstreet.
As mentioned above, we would want consumers to buy from companies taking steps to implement the full package approach, in order to encourage them to keep doing it! If you are unsure if your favourite brand is doing any of these things, you can consult their websites and request more information on these topics.
Always TAKE ACTION
It is also vital that we think of ourselves not just as buying machines, but as citizens who can be active and tell companies what we think. When we buy we must also act to tell companies to take action on workers rights. You can do this here.
Vintage fashion, and second hand clothing is also an option
As a consumer you can buy things from second hand stores, borrow, swap, and generally find ways to buy less new clothing. Labour Behind the Label would support this as it is one way to slow down the ever increasing speed with which we consume clothing and build pressure on the industry in the global south. This approach also pays heed to the environmental problems of clothing waste and over consumption of materials.
However, we would say this. We don’t propose this as a long term solution to the industry’s problems. Jobs for workers in the fashion industry are a life line for many. We feel it is our job to promote these jobs, but advocate for them to be well paid and secure. Buying less first hand clothing may do one of two things: With the right policies it could slow down production, reduce pressure in workplaces, and help improve conditions. Or it could cause job losses for workers who rely on the fashion industry for their livelihoods, and not improve workplace pressure at all. There is no way to measure this effect.
It is also important to mention the big problem of waste created by the second hand clothing business. It is often the case that second hand clothing, when not sold, is dumped on emerging markets in developing countries, and their local fashion industry is damaged. If and when you support a second hand clothing retailer, it is important to ask questions about their waste and ensure that it isn’t being passed on in this manner.