Category Archives: Critical Fashion

An Open Letter to UNC President Ross and Chancellor Folt: Commit to the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Update: This article is now re-published in the Huffington Post (in slightly abridged form!)

I am writing as a blogger and graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill to express my concern about UNC’s current unwillingness to join with other private and public universities to support tougher safety standards for the purchase of UNC branded clothing. I fear that failure to do so will only rebound to negatively affect our own image into the future. I urge you to require all university licensees to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

As you well know, on the evening of April 23, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500 in what has now been deemed the deadliest garment factory collapse in history. Since then, students across this nation have taken action. Through the hard work of United Students Against Sweatshops, the largest student coalition since the anti-apartheid movement, bringing together 150 University and college affiliates nationwide, twenty universities have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This accord is an unprecedented, legally-binding agreement between apparel companies and global and Bangladesh unions that has been joined by over 150 brands and retailers worldwide. These universities now require that all of their licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh sign the Accord as well, forcing them to take responsibility for their subcontracted factories in a meaningful and committed way that can “transform the garment industry from deathtraps to safe workplaces.”

The universities that have signed the Accord have included prominent private institutions such as Duke, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, and large state schools similar in size and reputation to UNC-Chapel Hill, such as Michigan, Penn-State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Washington-Seattle.

It has been exciting to witness such a diverse range of institutions that have demonstrated an investment in valuing workers’ voices and lives. It has thus been disappointing and frustrating that neither of you, President Ross and Chancellor Folt, has made any kind of similar commitment on this issue.

Since the fall, the UNC End Deathtraps coalition has been campaigning persistently to get Chancellor Folt to sign the Accord. Workers, students, community members, the Chapel Hill Town Council, and the University’s Licensing Labor Code advisory Committee (LLCAC) – a committee composed of faculty, students and administrators – have strongly recommended that the Accord is the best option for both workers and UNC.

Despite this adoption of best practices elsewhere, President Ross, your recent memo, delivered the night before the one year anniversary of Rana, states that licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh should be given the option to sign on to either the Bangladesh Accord or the Alliance for Worker Safety. But the Alliance is a company-controlled, non-binding agreement that has been critiqued for its exclusion of workers and their representatives and for its failure to obligate brands to pay for factory safety renovations. If licensees choose to sign the Alliance, then they would not be required to make any tangible changes in garment and apparel factory workplace safety. Instead, they would be resorting to the same self-regulatory approaches that have tragically failed workers far too often. They would be, in essence, doing what they have already done.

Allowing brands to continue to supply to UNC whether or not they sign the Accord would allow current suppliers like North Carolina based VF Corp., owner of North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Timberland, to continue to escape accountability for their workers’ safety. VF Corporation has an alarmingly sizeable presence in Bangladesh, sourcing from 91 factories and employing 190,000 workers. Despite its many safety violations that have demonstrated deep negligence and disregard for human rights and safety, including a 2010 factory fire that killed twenty-nine workers in a VF supplier factory, VF is refusing to sign the Accord.

UNC’s failure to insist that all licensees sign the Accord only allows VF’s blatant disregard for worker safety to go unchecked. This not only threatens workers’ lives but also negatively impacts UNC’s image. Do you really want to imagine a situation in which a woman’s body is hauled out of an unsafe factory clutching a garment made by VF Corporation, a company with which UNC has a sizeable contract? I know that you are both people who are regarded as having high ethical standards, and I’m sure you would not want this on your conscience.

The LLCAC has worked constructively to examine our standards. As Dr. Steve May, a professor on the committee put it, “There was no doubt in our mind that the Accord would be the best option for workers and UNC. Our committee saw very few reasons to go with the Alliance and plenty of risks.”

Given that most of the other major licensees with collegiate production in Bangladesh have signed the Accord, including Adidas, Knight’s Apparel, Fruit of the Loom, and Top of the World, this recent decision made by Tom Ross and supported by you, Chancellor Folt, to give brands the option to ‘choose’ between the Alliance or the Accord seems to stem from a reluctance to terminate VF corporation’s contract if it does not join the Accord. What is UNC’s interest in protecting VF’s Bangladesh operations?

On the contrary could you not make an argument that the more UNC supports the Accord, the greater is the chance that jobs might come home to North Carolina’s textile factories that were priced out of the global market by our collective indifference to the conditions that foreign workers slaved in overseas?

The Chapel Hill town council has recognized this. After being approached by University students, they agreed to require that their city uniforms only be sourced from apparel producers that have signed on to the Accord. As Maria Palmer, town council member put it, “I believe North Carolina workers should be able to compete on a level playing field, and for the textile corporations like Greensboro-based VF to take their manufacturing jobs to Asia and pay their workers less than $100 per month and force them to work in dangerous and difficult conditions, and say they can not do anything about it, is a slap in the face of our workers here as well as abroad.”

It is embarrassing that UNC’s leadership has chosen to keep a contract with a corporation that has not only killed 29 people in Bangladesh, but has worsened conditions in the state by abandoning its local workers. And it is beyond disappointing that you both have chosen to side with a corporation over the needs and requests of its workers, your students, and the community in which you both live.

For the last few years, UNC has been plagued by plagiarism scandals and charges of massive Title IX violations. I was encouraged by a recent email you sent, Chancellor Folt, in honor of sexual assault awareness month, in which you stressed the importance of educating “our communities about the impact of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

I would love to see the same amount of concern for the mostly female labor force in the garment industry, many of whom are the same age as the students here in Chapel Hill. These young women are often fired, sexually harassed, and even assaulted for daring to speak up against the injustices they face daily. As Aleya Akter, a Bangladeshi worker who visited UNC this month revealed to students, “When I would go home from work, hired thugs from management would harass me on the street and make threats to me.”

President Ross and Chancellor Folt, I urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the highest ethical standards and to demonstrate that our university will never sanction behavior that treats workers as though they were disposable. We are all citizens of the same global community, and this is a pressing human rights issue. As leaders of a major university with a prestigious reputation, you could really make a difference both in Bangladesh and by setting an example for your students. It’s time to do the right thing and require all university licensees to sign the Accord. That is the Carolina Way.

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of ILRF).

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of Solidarity Center).

Are you a UNC student/alum/supporter? Want to let President Ross and Chancellor Folt know that you want them to support the Accord?

To contact President Ross: Phone: (919) 962-9000 and Email: tomross@northcarolina.edu

To contact Chancellor Folt: Phone: (919) 962-1365 and Email: chancellor@unc.edu

Tweet @ChancellorFolt End Deathtraps! Do the right thing for workers and UNC! #SaveLivesAddTheAccord

My Related Posts:

Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

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Kahindo Mateene: An African Designer Making a Difference

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches using scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches upcycling scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

When designer Kahindo Mateene came to the United States at the tender age of seventeen to attend college, her classmates couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had also lived and traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, the global nomad was a little taken aback by the attention she received for her vibrant, multi-cultural hand-made designs. After studying fashion at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, Kahindo was finally able to pursue her dream of creating a line that would fuse her African heritage with western design sensibilities. In 2009 she launched Modahnik, a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman. Besides earning her respect in the fashion industry and a spot in season twelve of Project Runway (yes girlfriends, the Project Runway), Modahnik has also given her a platform to share her culture with the world and give back to women in Africa.

Angeline sews a Modahnik clutch.

Angeline, a ‘mama’ from Mamafrica, sews a Modahnik clutch.

In 2011 Kahindo created a line in Kenya using fair trade practices, and just recently she launched a Kickstarter campaign for Mamafrica, an amazing organization (which I wrote about here) that provides economic opportunity, education, and healing arts programs for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These women, or ‘mamas,’ most of whom are recovering from trauma as both rape and war survivors, will be making clutches from the repurposed fabric left over from previous Modahnik collections. As Kahindo cites in her moving story about Aswifewe, one of the Mamafrica women who is a rape survivor, “the support of this Kickstarter project gives Aswifewe and other women like her the chance to have a new life, escape sexual violence, and support her family by finding work with Mamafrica in making our clutches.” The Kickstarter campaign ends April 20 and the time is running out, gfs!

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

I was thrilled to be able to talk to Kahindo more about her project with Mamafrica, her perspective on ethical fashion, and her aesthetic inspirations. Her passion and energy is contagious, and I felt like we could have easily chatted for hours. It was fascinating to learn about her design process, and from where she draws ideas for her collections.  She cites traveling to new places as a guaranteed form of inspiration for her, since it opens her mind and creativity to new tastes, sounds, culture, architecture, and people.  She also mentioned menswear, the shows Game of Thrones and Mad Men, and the sharp architectural edges of the Louvre in Paris as recent inspirations for her line. Of course she frequently draws from Africa, particularly the avant-garde art and culture of the Congo. She grew up admiring the spirit of the ‘Sapeurs,’ a sartorial subcultural group celebrated for their elegance, originality, and flair.

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The line has the tagline of "Modern. African. Ethical."

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The site has the tagline of “Modern. African. Ethical.”

The fashion world has long been fascinated by Africa, with designers from Louis Vuitton to Gwen Stefani pulling inspiration from the continent for their collections. While the clothes have often been gorgeous, many have questioned the potentially exploitative practice of using African aesthetics for the “financial and cultural benefits of the West,” especially if they are not incorporating African textiles in their designs or giving back to the communities from which they are derived. Even though Kahindo does think this can be problematic, she also sees the benefits of someone with as huge a platform as Stefani bringing attention to African fashion. Still, she does not want Africa to become a ‘trend.’ This is why she creates her bold prints from tailored pieces of silk that are sophisticated and classic. As she put it, “We’ve made fashion into this disposable thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I made a dress for a friend six years ago, and she wore it to an event a couple of months ago. The colors and cuts are truly timeless.”

She also believes in the importance of using her privileged position to give back to the women in her home country. This partnership with Mamafrica is important to her because as she puts it,

“I know that I’m blessed to be in the States to pursue my dream, and I know if it wasn’t for circumstance, it could have been me. My hometown of Goma has been the epicenter of the conflict in the Congo since 1994 and is where a lot of women have been raped. I truly believe in the healing power of the arts, and I would love to use my craft to help empower women healing from trauma. This collaboration will be empowering them with job skills while allowing them to take part in the design process with me. It touches on so many issues that I’m passionate about: job creation, the healing arts, creative expression, ethical consumerism, and empowering women.”

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Indeed, Kahindo believes that along with creating sustainable jobs, educating and empowering women is the key to poverty reduction in the Congo and Africa. Her late father instilled the importance of education in her, and pushed for all of his children to attain life’s possibilities regardless of their gender. It is no wonder then that the Brigham Young quote, “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation,” resonates so deeply. She hopes that this partnership will help create and strengthen educational and economic opportunities for the mamas that will allow them to provide for their families and give their children access to a better life.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

As for the future of ethical fashion, Kahindo believes times are changing. In the wake of global factory fires in countries like Bangladesh, companies are beginning to bring production back stateside as they are faced with human rights violations and growing costs overseas. With that shift in consciousness she hopes that there will also be more of a demand for African-owned brands that put money back into the local economies. The continent is not short of entrepreneurs (and boasts the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world), and it is certainly not short of tailors and creative people! Since almost 99% of African textiles are imported from overseas, she dreams of one day helping to revitalize the industry by producing quality clothing for export. And with her ties to different countries throughout the continent, she hopes to collaborate with other co-operatives in the future.

But for now, Kahindo is focusing on her Kickstarter for Mamafrica, which ends in 30 days, on April 20! If the amount is not met, then the project will receive no donations. Even a dollar helps, and you can get a Mamafrica clutch if you contribute a little more! If you can not donate, then please spread the word.  Come on girlfriends, let’s do this!!

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads "We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!"

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads “We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!”

Update: A version of this article was re-published on The Huffington Post.

My Related Posts:

Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

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Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500.

On the evening of April 23, 2013, garment factory employees of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, pleaded with management to take notice of the sudden cracks that had appeared in the walls and foundations. Their requests for evacuation were ignored on the basis that the building owner, Sohel Rana, had just hired an engineer who had pronounced the building safe. The mostly female labor force, who were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they did not return, were ordered to work the next day. As they arrived at the building, the first thing they heard over the loudspeaker was this: “All the workers of Rana Plaza, go to work. The factory has already been repaired.” Just half an hour later, the eight-story building collapsed, killing over 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500. Local workers and relatives were some of the first on the scene, digging out mutilated bodies, including those of children who had been staying at the building’s day care center, from the rubble.

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Never again. Two victims hold each other amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse (photo courtesy of Taslima Akhter).

And then, there was that picture. That haunting image of two people clinging to each other for survival, with their lower parts of their bodies buried under concrete and a tear of blood running down the man’s cheek. This photo served as a harsh reminder of what happens when we treat humans as just numbers, or as simply ‘cheap labor’ within a global supply chain that feeds the consumption patterns of the United States and European Union by delivering low-cost clothing from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West. It is an industry that operates according to a logic of distance, in which a consumer is so removed from the condition under which a producer labors that they are less likely to have awareness, let alone any motivation to protest. The consumer was suddenly forced to get close and personal as people around the globe were confronted with the image of that heartbreaking final embrace.

Deemed the worst garment factory disaster in history, it implicated not just the lax regulations of the Bangladeshi garment industry, but companies such as Wal-Mart, The Children’s Place, H&M, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, and Benetton which used Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor. There were of course initial attempts to deny responsibility, with Wal-Mart claiming that they never contracted with the factory, and Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith dismissing the collapse as “not really serious” and, an “accident.”

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‘Accidents’ don’t happen again..and again. Bangladeshi Army personnel walks through the rows of burnt sewing machines in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 117 people in November, 2012 (photo courtesty of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images).

The factory collapse of Rana was not an accident, as various government officials, corporations, and even certain media outlets have described it. An accident is something that is unexpected, that occurs infrequently, but also is something that is not necessarily preventable.  This tragedy was not an isolated event. It was, in fact, one of several hundred other factory incidents that have killed over 1,000 workers from 1990 to 2012 in Bangladesh, a country that employs four million garment workers, 85 percent of whom are women, in its growing garment industry. And, like the dozens of other factory fires that have been reported across the industry in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, it could have been prevented with proper safety measures and a workplace in which factory managers listened to workers’ concerns.

Walmart Bangladesh factories

Garment workers in Bangladesh, 85% of whom are women, are paid $37 a month…far below the living wage of $120 that is needed to survive. Unions, which can give workers a collective voice, are all but outlawed (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Ultimately, these deadly fires only reveal the exploitative working conditions of an industry that treats its workers as disposable items.  In Bangladesh, a country rich with culture and natural resources but ridden with poverty, the government has long viewed the garment industry as the path to improving a grim standard of living. Currently garments represent nearly 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing export income of $19.1 billion between 2011-2012, making it the second largest exporter of apparel in the world. Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth in the last thirty years, Bangladeshi workers are still the lowest paid garment workers in the world, earning a minimum of $37 a month – far below the living wage of $120 that is needed for basic household necessities. Workers’ efforts to organize for better pay and safety regulations are all but outlawed, and a new labor law that was passed in July has been criticized by labor advocates as actually weakening, rather than strengthening, protections for workers.

Politically connected owner (photo courtesy of AP)

In Bangladesh, factory owners are often entrenched in the political elite. Due to global outrage after the Rana Plaza fire, factory owner Sohel Rana was arrested (photo courtesy of AP).

This isn’t surprising, given that Bangladesh’s legal system has remained largely unchanged from the British imperial era, in which laws were designed to uphold the colonialist power structure and control the population. In fact, many factory owners and members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) are heavily involved in the political elite, often holding government positions that allow them to wield enormous political influence. Given the tremendous emphasis on maximizing wealth in the global economy, it is thus not surprising that governments of poorer countries like Bangladesh often sacrifice human rights at the consummate altar of economic ‘development.’

(photo courtesy of AFP)

Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter found Wal-Mart brands such as Faded Glory in the remains of the Tazreen factory fire. Brands place immense pressure on factories to produce cheap clothing on short deadlines (photo courtesy of AFP).

At the same time, the Bangladesh government may feel trapped when companies such as Wal-Mart and other big retailers place immense pressure on factories to produce forever falling prices by selling cheap and producing quickly on shorter deadlines. Low prices in the garment industry are, after all, the country’s best selling point in the global economy. So suppliers cut their prices at the expense of their workers, who are paid poverty wages and made to work excessive hours. Factory owners, squeezed by their buyers, often find their efforts to invest in factory safety undermined by the pressure to reduce costs.

Companies in turn claim that social auditing programs are an effective way to monitor working conditions in their factories, but these programs have been criticized as corporate-funded, voluntary, and a public relations cover. Who can forget the massive factory fire in Pakistan that killed more than 260 workers last year, which just three weeks before, had been granted certification by the social auditing group, Social Accountability International. Of course, companies could have saved lives by releasing their audit findings to the government and sharing them with Bangladeshi unions and labor rights groups, but they are under no obligation to do that given that these audits are confidential and are treated as their own private intellectual property. Instead, workers’ input is rarely taken into consideration, and those who do dare to complain are often harassed or even terminated.

As Mafusa, a survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed at least 112 people last November, revealed:

 “We never got our salary on time. We were always informed one day before foreigners came for an audit. We had to clean, make everything neat and we were given instructions about what we had to say like that we get our salary always on the seventh of the month and about our working hours.”

To make matters worse, the global demand for cheap clothing forces many factories to subcontract their work to other suppliers, making it difficult for brands to trace who is making their clothes in an increasingly complex supply chain.

The ever increasing global demand has led to another flagrant human rights violation. Although child labor is illegal, recent reports have revealed the use of children as young as nine working in many of these factories. This reliance on child labor is the devastating consequence of not paying adults a living wage. Yet, instead of investing in workers’ rights and safety upgrades, apparel consumer companies will often choose to run from these factories once they learn that unauthorized work was used to produce their clothing, as Wal-Mart did after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh.

Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh works undercover in a Bangladesh garment factory with a nine year old girl as her boss:

Several years ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a now controversial piece arguing against the ‘anti-sweatshop’ movement, claiming that for many workers, sweatshops were the only viable option for making a living. He argued for labor advocates to fight for more sweatshops as the best option for workers in the Global South. In Bangladesh, women do indeed come to the cities from the rural areas to work in factories after fleeing environmental destruction and repressive family structures in their home villages. Yet, does that mean they should be forced to endure harassment and abuse from their predominantly male bosses? Or rely on precarious employment in which they are often paid less than their male counterparts, despite being the sole or primary breadwinners in their families? Shouldn’t they have a right to a workplace that doesn’t push their bodies to the point of exhaustion, that doesn’t fire them once they get pregnant, and that gives them a voice and treats them with a measure of dignity?

Morium Begum lost her baby (photo courtesy of thestar.com)

A Bangladesh factory that sews garments for The Gap and Old Navy was implicated in abusing their pregnant workers. Morium Begum, shown here with her husband Golzar, lost her baby after being forced to work 100 hours a week (photo courtesy of thestar.com).

Kristof may have been well-meaning, but his argument didn’t address the true intent of the anti-sweatshop movement, which is to progress the cause of workers’ rights and advocate for living wages by pressuring multinational corporations to improve factory conditions. The international climate is starting to change as people wake up to the fact that they shouldn’t put clothes on their back that were made in conditions that have not been seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution. Currently, over 100 apparel brands and retailers in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented legally-binding agreement that was created by Bangladeshi and global trade unions in alliance with leading NGOs and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ensure safety in Bangladeshi factories.  This five-year contract will require independent safety inspections of their facilities, public reporting, safety upgrades financed by brands, the integration of workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, and higher wages.

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“There’s an abundance of wealth in the industry, so why can’t we have fair treatment for workers?” – Sarah Ziff, model who protested with Bangladesh activists at Nautica’s Spring 2014 show.

The Accord has been hailed as a transformative move away from the corporate-controlled social auditing programs that rely on largely “voluntary, confidential, and top-down” initiatives. It has also been supported broadly, with senators, students, and fashion models protesting brands that have failed to commit to the agreement. And just recently, the Accord publicly disclosed information about the building safety of the 1,600 factories covered by the pact, bringing a measure of openness, transparency and accountability to an industry that has been shrouded in secrets.

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A safety effort proposed by North American retailers has been criticized for not being legally binding (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

While notable (mostly European) companies such as H&M, Inditex (Zara), and Primark have signed the Accord, there are still a number of North American retailers that have been unwilling to join the agreement. U.S. industry leaders such as Gap and Wal-Mart launched the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative in July, a comparatively weak agreement that promises safety upgrades, a hotline to report complaints, and regular inspections without any legal commitment. The need for a legally binding agreement is even more pressing when considering that the $42 million raised by the companies involved in the initiative to improve factory infrastructure is paltry compared to the actual estimated cost of necessary improvements, which is $300,000 to $500,000 per factory. The companies that reject the accord cite concerns that the provision for legal enforcement through arbitration makes them more ‘vulnerable’ to class-action suits. But two law professors writing for the Los Angeles Times disputed this claim, stating that the only legal liability for signatories would be to abide by its terms. They further argue that in fact, Gap and Wal-Mart sign legally enforceable agreements all the time in their global business dealings, and that their reluctance to join the Accord stems from its purpose, which would be to help protect worker’s rights rather than simply facilitate the buying and selling of apparel for corporate profit. As they put it, “underlying the American firms’ objections, it appears, is the fear of both financial and moral responsibility.”

Relatives of Rana Plaza disaster victims form a human chain in

Relatives of Rana Plaza victims demand compensation from Wal-Mart, which along with other U.S. retailers such as Gap, Sears, and Children’s Place, have refused to pay compensation (photo courtesy of Abir Abdullah/EPA).

Even more distressing is that very few companies have initiated concrete proposals to secure compensation for the victims of either the Tazreen or Rana Plaza factory fires. The UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights dictates that companies must go beyond simply defending human rights and actually take action in remedying these tragedies. And an internationally-recognized formula that has been implemented in compensation plans after numerous other building safety incidents and fires has determined that brands and retailers are the most accountable for the failings that led to the disasters. Companies that had a direct or indirect relationship with the Rana Plaza factory or Tazreen are thus responsible for paying a full and fair compensation to the wounded workers and the families of those who were killed, so that they can access the medical care they need and continue to help support their families. This is especially important in Bangladesh, where the lack of a safety net such as social security, unemployment, or medical aid exacerbates the poverty wages and miserable living conditions for workers.  Just recently in September, the Rana Plaza Compensation Coordination Committee consisting of various apparel brands, the Bangladesh government, local and global trade unions and NGOs, met to develop a mechanism dubbed the “Arrangement” by which compensation for the families of the disaster could be determined. Although some progress has been made, with brands like Loblaw and Primark just recently committing to long-term relief, far too many have failed to join the Arrangement, leaving workers with little hope for palpable improvement in their dismal conditions.

As Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) stressed,

“When global apparel brands establish factory inspection programs that are confidential and voluntary, they communicate to Bangladeshi managers that they see no reason for workers to be informed of workplace risks. When global brands create programs that circumvent union initiatives – as many of the North American brands that have created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are doing – they perpetuate the understanding within Bangladesh that solutions do not require workers’ having an independent voice and an equal place at the bargaining table. And when global brands don’t participate in the compensation for victims, they signal to Bangladesh’s leaders that it is okay to put workers lives at risk and walk away from the consequence.”

The time is now for multinational corporations to stop hiding behind deceptive and dishonest corporate social responsibility schemes that rely on corporate-sponsored monitoring and ‘codes of conduct’ plastered on their websites to mask worker abuse in their supply chains. If Gap Inc. is truly ‘committed’ to Bangladesh worker safety as they state on their CSR page, then why haven’t they made a commitment to renovate one factory? Why did they violate their own codes of conduct by sourcing out to a factory in which their workers are forced to labor over 100 hours a week and some pregnant women are illegally fired and denied paid maternity leave? If U.S. retailer Children’s Place is “deeply saddened” by the Rana Plaza factory fire, then why have they not agreed to compensate the victims, many of whom are orphans who lost their parents in the fire? Shouldn’t a clothing line that caters to children feel a certain degree of responsibility to the children on the other side of the supply chain?

Retailer Children's Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

Retailer Children’s Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

These tragedies have ultimately implicated Western buyers as complicit in the apparel industry’s dark side. However, contrary to what Nicholas Kristof and others may believe, what labor rights organizations are advocating for is not an end to this relationship between brands and the countries from which they source. In fact, the hope here is that by deepening their engagement, these companies could be the best hope for transformative change in the industry. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity stressed in a recent interview with The Nation:

“If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, “‘We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'”

This is an appeal for all the apparel companies sourcing out of Bangladesh to not just join the Accord but to contribute to the process of compensation for the victims and their families, so that the nearly four million women who make our clothes can get a sustainable living wage and be treated with dignity. Furthermore, there needs to be a sustained conversation from brands about how to change the industry that goes beyond just apologies and knee-jerk CSR responses. In an industry where labor costs represent one to three percent of the retail price, the validity of a living wage needs to be on the table. Since, adjusting for inflation, clothing is far less expensive now than it was fifty years ago, prices need to be adjusted. Most importantly, companies need to invest in a long-term commitment with their factories instead of leaving when something goes wrong. Brands like WalMart need to acknowledge when they have lost control over their supply chain instead of displacing blame onto others.

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(photo courtesy of justmeans.com).

Finally, the media and consumers need to make a continuous and consistent call for change in the industry, so that the victims of these tragedies are not dismissed as merely collateral damage in an ‘unfortunate accident,’ but as fellow human beings who live, breathe, have children and go to work. Seeing, after all, isn’t always believing. Sometime we have to believe, so that we can see.

Bangladeshis show photos of missing relatives after building collapse

We must never forget these faces. (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Take Action:

Tweet! Want to take part in a twitter campaign to pressure retailers like Walmart, Children’s Place, The Gap, and Sears to sign the Accord and pay compensation to victims’ families? Here are some examples you can use:

Sign a petition! Demand that retailers end deathtraps and pay compensation to victims and their families. Here are the links for petitions to Gap, Wal-Mart, and The Children’s Place

Share: Both of these videos (here and here) interviewing survivors of the Rana Plaza fire are a must-watch.

Get involved! Check out United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to get universities to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They have already had a few victories! Also check out the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights ForumJobs with Justice, United with Respect, and SumOfUs.

Get inspired: Read about Cambodian factory workers winning a settlement against Wal-Mart, how workers defied Wal-Mart this holiday season, and how university students successfully pressured Adidas to sign the Bangladesh Accord!

Want to learn how an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic is making a profit while paying its workers a living wage? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this amazing company!

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“The True Cost”: A Documentary on the Global Fashion Industry’s Impact

am-bioFor many consumers, the tragedy of the Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people inspired a new consciousness about the ugly truth of the clothing industry that had rarely been exposed so powerfully. For director Andrew Morgan, the tragedy was an impetus to turn this consciousness into action and start production for a documentary on the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry, titled ‘The True Cost.’ The film incorporates the voices of ethical fashion experts such as Scott Nova of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney of the brand People Tree, and Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York to help illuminate the complexity of this dilemma while paving the way for solutions towards a more sustainable future.

Morgan’s film is in pre-production and he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his film. You can check out his trailer below:

Nadia: So, would you mind elaborating on the meaning behind the film’s title, ‘The True Cost?’

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

We’ve got to get out of this place … the Rana Plaza factory fire, April 24, 2013.

Andrew: As consumers, we are used to making buying decisions based on cost, or the garment’s final price tag. And what this film intends to reveal is a human and environmental cost to bringing that product to market that aren’t reflected on that price tag, and that we just don’t see. And we are faced with an industry that has banked on the reality that most people aren’t going to think twice about what they are buying, because they think there is an invisible cost to their consumption. Some experts have referred to the environmental and labor violations within the global clothing industry as one of the best kept secrets in the world. So we really want to make these costs clear in our film as we examine how we got to this place, its global ramifications, and what needs to be done to articulate a different future.

Nadia: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Andrew: For me, seeing the picture in the New York Times of the two boys  walking in front of a wall of missing persons signs broke my heart. It really put a human and personal touch to what is a complex global issue. I immediately started doing research and talking with people in the industry from all over the world, and was just shocked by what I found. I mean, we are clearly in a place where the situation keeps on getting worse, not better. Three of the worst tragedies of the clothing industry were in the past year, and the environmental side is also horrifying.

But at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of socially conscious business, and I’m excited by the prospect of that being the intended model. And the fact is, when we look at tragedies like Rana, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why we should be in this position where we are now. It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way—there is so much potential for good and for change that is truly attainable. And what has motivated me in this research is also speaking to so many of these pioneers who have laid the foundation for this film by doing truly amazing work for the past few decades.

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Nadia: Ethical fashion—treating workers humanely and producing garments sustainably—seems to make sense. Why then do you think there has been some resistance to the idea of ethical fashion? 

Andrew: I think there has been this tendency to view this issue through this two-sided lens of ‘capitalism vs. people who care.’ In the United States especially people can get very defensive whenever you start to mess with what is considered free market capitalism. We’re very afraid of ‘socialism’ and extreme terms that we don’t even understand. We’re quick to put that label which we think threatens a system that ultimately provides profit. And I definitely think there have been moments in our history where people get complacent, when we think this is truly the best we can get.

But now we are in this current cultural moment where I truly believe people are realizing that we can actually evolve this system to move forward. I don’t think anyone is coming forward to say anything other than that we’ve built a system that can advance human progress substantially, but we’re not done. So let’s think of a third way that goes beyond this idea that you have to choose between ‘socialism’ or ‘exploitation.’  Now that we know more today that we did yesterday, let’s just evolve the system and grow. And in a world in which people are more connected than ever, let’s include more voices around the table. Even generationally, there’s a move towards, “I’m tired of fighting you. Let’s have a conversation and get things done.” I think that’s happening in a lot of ways now. There’s another group of people who are coming along that feel like capitalism could evolve and it could do even more good than it’s doing now, and less harm.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, being interviewed for the film. (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: I love what you said about there being moments where we are complacent. Sometimes it seems like we have very short memories. For example, it frustrates me when I hear arguments against any kind of regulation, because it’s like we have forgotten that in the decades following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911, governments imposed basic regulations that greatly improved health and safety conditions in the factories! 

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 led to better safety and health regulations in the industry…so regulation isn’t exactly a new thing!

Andrew: Exactly. And to add to that, throughout history, industry has always rebelled against regulation. And so government and activists always have to push the tide back for more regulation. In the United States we regulate everything. No one would acknowledge that but we really do. Just think about the food industry, or environmental pollution. We really do regulate everything, and historically industry has always rebelled. People forget that industry even rebelled against the minimum wage! So when it comes to this outsourcing to factories abroad, we need to have a system where these western brands that are making all this profit aren’t just self-regulating, but that there’s actual accountability and traceability. Because at the end of the day, there’s a profound violation of human rights that needs to be accounted for.

Nadia: In the opening of your trailer, you mention that you were told this “simple story” about where your clothes were made—which was that they were “made in faraway places by these ‘other people’ and these people needed the work.” Do you think part of our cultural apathy and ignorance has to do with the geographical distance between people who buy products and those who make them?

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Do we treat workers better when we see their face and we know who they are? A woman sews for Timbuk2 Bags in San Francisco

Andrew: The world has indeed moved to a more and more abstract a place. There’s actual psychology to this idea that if someone was in my village and made my shirt, I would never force them to endure what many of these workers in countries like Bangladesh are going through.  But because we live in a world now where we’re not in touch with anything that we eat or wear, it makes us capable of outsourcing not only the product but the consequences of making that product in an irresponsible way.

Nadia: Could you describe a bit more your aesthetic as a filmmaker and how you hope your film will take these abstract problems and turn them into tangible solutions for your viewers? What can film do that other mediums can not in educating people about this issue?

I am most interested in narrative and documentary story telling, and I really love to tell stories that are true and honest, that give hope for a better tomorrow. I often look for issues that have been decades in the work, where the groundwork and models have been tested. And I think with ethical fashion, there’s a potential here to break this out of the little corner that it’s been in, and to bring it to a wider audience.

Part of the problem has been in how we are telling a story, and I think film can really change that. When people are being entertained, they lower their guard, and there’s this opportunity to make them aware of really new and disruptive ideas. I’m after those moments. And in just an hour and a half, I have this chance to make a change. It means I need to pick out the key moments that can create a reaction in both their head and heart. I want to make these ideas accessible to the ordinary person without dumbing anything down, and I really want the place that we’re in right now to appear ridiculous. Because at the moral center, it is ridiculous. But at the same time, I don’t believe in motivating people through shame and guilt. I want to look at the world through a lens of hope. People don’t like being talked down to or judged. It’s better to say, “let’s imagine this better world we could live in today.”

What can film do that other mediums can't?

What can film do that other mediums can not? (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: In your trailer you mentioned how stories often rely on a strong protagonist and antagonist, but in this story you are telling it will be difficult to point out any one person or institution that is solely responsible. Will you be creating a new kind of story-telling with this film?

Andrew: Our approach is to include many points of view in the film creating a collage of ideas and implications. For example living life in the shoes of a garment worker in Bangladesh, a sourcing manager for H&M, a factory auditor in China or a village in India effected by improper dumping from leather tanneries. Rather then pinning one idea against each other and watching them fight it out, we are combining ideas into solution sets that are real and tangible. As I stated in the Kickstarter page, we believe that true change will only be sustained through the creation of a synergistic approach, one that involves the adaptation of policy, the improvement of industry standards and a shift in consumer consciousness. It sounds complicated but the result will be a film that moves quickly, and flows easily making the world feel as small as it truly is. Ultimately I want to acknowledge this complexity, while giving voice to a moral clarity.

What is it like to be in this woman's shoes?

What is it like to be in this Bangladeshi’s garment worker’s shoes? (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

Nadia: What message do you hope your viewers will walk away with after watching the film?

Andrew: I want to articulate a future where people in the global supply chain are more closely connected, and where factory jobs empower people through  good work rather than exploiting them. A future where people are more aware about the environmental implications, and buy fewer items that last longer. I would love for viewers to leave my film inspired to start conversations about what the cost of their consumption is, and to be empowered to help change it. And my hope is that by starting these conversations, eventually we will come to a place where ‘ethical fashion’ isn’t a niche, but the new normal.

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

There’s just a few more days to raise funds so that this film can be made! Donate here (even a dollar helps, and you get cool gifts if you contribute a little more) and share with friends! Let’s do this!!

Share on Facebook for a chance to win jewelry from the fair trade organization Global Girlfriend! (cause I’m all about supporting the girlfriends!) You can check out the giveaway here.

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The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

18-3farmers_gathering

Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
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Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

For many people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evokes images of poverty, suffering, and violence. And indeed, for the last two decades, the country has been plagued by conflict and bloody civil wars. It is currently among the poorest in the world, with 80% of its population living in poverty.

Is your mobile phone, computer, iPod, and gaming system fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

Are these minerals in our mobile phones, computers, iPods, and gaming systems fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

But the country is also incredibly rich in resources, especially in the eastern region. Home to some of the world’s rarest minerals including gold, coltan, carbonite, tin, and tungsten, the DRC supplies many of the key elements that are essential to our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. One would think that a country so rich in valuable resources would not be mired in violence and the resultant poverty, but in fact, it is these very minerals that are fueling this conflict and financing African militias, who are then selling them to middlemen who supply these key ingredients to companies world-wide.

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

How do these militias secure control of these mines and trading routes? By looting villages for resources, displacing communities, killing the men who were the providers of the families, and using rape as a war tactic to control and suppress the women.

Described as ‘the rape capital of the world‘ by the United Nations, more than half a million women and girls have been raped in the last ten years alone.

So, what can be done?

Here’s the problem. It is very difficult for consumers to gauge whether their purchases are funding armed groups that are committing such atrocities, given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain (Sound familiar? Fashion isn’t the only industry that suffers from ‘transparency problems’). This is why activists like Amani Matabaro and John Prendergast from the Enough Project have made it their focus to educate citizens about the conflict, and have recently released a company ranking system as a way of empowering consumers to make more responsible purchasing decisions regarding conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

And what about the people, mostly women, who have survived the horrors of war, who are displaced and lacking the community that previously existed in their villages? This is where non-profit organizations like Mamafrica, are making a difference.

The women of Mamafrica!

The women of Mamafrica!

Mamafrica is a woman’s sewing cooperative based in Bukavu, a city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda that has become a refuge for “internally displaced persons.” When Ashley Nemiro, an aspiring Ph.D in counseling and psychology, started her work at the Panzi hospital in May of 2012 to conduct research on the efficacy of group therapy treatment for women who had been victims of gender-based violence, she was distressed not just by the trauma these women had gone through, but by the limited opportunities there were for them to support themselves and their families. It was then that she was fortunate enough to meet Congolese activist Amani Matabaro, who founded a program (AFBEK) supported by the community development organization Action Kivu, which funds sewing cooperatives and micro-finance loans for women as a means by which they can support their small businesses and take care of their families. Through her conversations with Amani the idea for a holistic organization that would empower women by providing education, a healing arts programs, and economic opportunity, began to develop. Amani in turn introduced Ashley to Aline Malekera, a Congolese woman with a B.A. in English and a powerful voice in the community, who became a partner and was instrumental as a translator and Finance Administrator. The two formed the cooperative from three sewing collectives: Centre Ushini, AFBEK, and Action Kivu. Mamafrica now serves over ninety women in Bukavu, most of whom have fled from the violence of rural eastern Congo.

I was able to interview Ashley Nemiro in person and Aline Malekera via email about their work in the organization, and how they hope it will improve women’s lives in Bukavu:

Nadia: So Aline, could you give us more background about the conflict in the Congo and how it has affected women there?

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

Aline: Before the war started in 1996 everyone had farms and fields to cultivate, animals to raise, and parents were able to feed and pay school fees for their children. But when the war started, most of people’s means were stolen, their houses were burned, their husbands killed, and their villages and communities destroyed. Many of these women are rejected by their husbands, family, and community if they are raped. And even though they have no support, they have to be strong, be everything, for their children.

Nadia: Why did you want to get involved with Mamafrica?

Aline: I have lived through many years of war, and I wanted to empower these women who have been displaced and rejected by their husbands and families. I feel determined to help these women understand that they can do something in their society, that their lives can change, if they are determined.

Nadia: Ashley, can you describe a little more in depth what you mean by a ‘holistic’ program?

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley: Basically, Mamafrica is a three-phase program. When the women enter the program, they attend a six month healing-arts intensive course, which incorporates group trauma healing, meditation, counseling, yoga, and song and dance. They then complete a series of life sustainability education classes, where we teach nutrition, cooking, maternal child health, birth control, literacy, and financial responsibility. Then, we teach the women how to sew, tailor and embroider so that they can be employed by Mamafrica, where they make beautiful dresses, table cloths, and even yoga bags! And I should note that we allow the women to be independent and encourage them to be self-sufficient, so it is up to them how much time they want to invest in these programs.

Nadia: You mention self-sufficiency often. Do the women really have no other means of employment?

Good intentions gone wrong. Thrift stores like Goodwill are pumping clothing into Africa, making it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Good intentions with unintended consequences. Thrift stores like Goodwill make it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Ashley: You know what’s interesting? You know how a lot of the women make money here? By selling the overstocked items that are donated by Goodwill in the West to churches in the DRC. A lot of these items are soiled clothing or just junk, stuff that the women can’t even use. And so the women take these items and sell them in the streets, and while it’s true that they can make money that way, it is also difficult for people in the DRC to manufacture their own clothes and export their products when you have that kind of flooding of [free] products from the West into the country. And 99% of the fabric is imported from China, which is why it is important for Mamafrica to use fabric manufactured in Africa, that is from Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. We purchase this fabric in bulk from a fabric vendor in downtown Bukavu.

Nadia: So when we talk about ‘sustainable fashion,’ how are you trying to make Mamafrica sustainable?

Teaching the women how to sew!

Teaching the women how to sew!

Ashley: We are really trying to create a new generation of leaders. In our new healing arts program we talk so much about being a leader, and what it means to be a leader. Because in my mind, when people ask how to change the Congo, it’s not up to the US or USAID, it’s changing the leadership inside the country. It’s about Congolese people changing the system. And that isn’t going to happen if the women don’t have any means of empowerment and can’t support their children. In Bukavu it cost $10 per child a month to attend school and this creates a challenge since many women have more than 7 children and the average wage is .20 cents a day. With the wages that the women make at Mamafrica, they are able to afford to send their children to school, pay rent for their homes, and feed their families. Aline travels to each school and pays the school fees each month to ensure that all our Mamafrica children are attending school. Our hope is that by changing these women’s lives, that positive change will trickle down to the children and change a community.

Nadia: Do the women just make clothes for women in the West?

The women also make dresses for the community's children!

The women also make dresses for the community’s children!

Ashley: No, they make them for women in the DRC as well. We have a shop where many women in the community come to have clothing specially sewn for them including: school uniforms, wedding dresses, and children’s clothing. So many of these women love bright prints, perhaps because wearing these colors brings happiness to their lives. And since we have to tone down the colors a bit when we market to the West, it seems that these women really enjoy making brighter clothes for each other.

Nadia: Aline, do the women enjoy the sewing work?

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Aline: Sewing is a craft that a lot of these women connect to, so it’s wonderful that they can make clothes as a way to be independent, earn money and buy food for their children. In addition they are getting training that helps them to be independent, and their children who were unable to go to school are now attending school. They are getting food for their children and families after being paid each month. Also they are making friends and connecting with other women by working in groups.

Nadia: Could you share a success story?

"I was forced to flee my village three years ago and resettled in Buakvu. I was never given the chance to attend school or learn any vocational skills. I am a single mother with five children and thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

“Thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

Aline: Yes! Cibalonza is a woman with 5 children, and her life was honestly horrible before joining the center. Her husband abandoned her when he took another wife and left her to raise her 5 children alone. She was homeless and often times went days without feeding her children and herself. Since attending Mamafrica, Chibolonza has been able to earn money for her family, send her children to school and has made friends at Mamafrica that help her to care for her younger children when she is working. She rents a home for $10 a month and is able for the first time to provide for her childern. In October we referred Chibolonza to a partner organization where she started to receive microfinance loans and has been selling charcoal, avocados, and onions in the market and earning a living that is more than she could ever have imagined in the past. I visited her children just two months later and was shocked by how much weight they have gained. To my mind, this is a true success story.

Nadia: Any last words ladies? Anything in particular you would like readers to be aware of?

Ashley: When people buy these products, I want it to be not just because of the cause behind it, but because they really love our product. We all want good quality products that will last, and that are made with love. These women have come so far, and our products truly reflect that.

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting 'Fair Trade Tuesday' (my hat is not fair trade, but I'm a work in progress girlfriends!)

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting ‘Fair Trade Tuesday’ (my hat is not fair trade, but I’m a work in progress GFs!)

Since starting Mamafrica and traveling to the DRC I have become overly conscious about every purchase I make while in the DRC and back in the United States, which is why we decided to describe Mamafrica on our website as ‘consciously connecting.’ I think it is important, especially during the holiday season, to think about the people that are suffering when we unconsciously consume clothing or the latest technology. We need to raise awareness about companies that directly help the lives of others, and to make a concerted effort to support them. At Mamafrica we want everyone to know that when they buy our products, some woman’s life has been changed. If you check out our site which details how we invest the money we receive, you will see that your purchase helps send a child to school, and helps put food on the table.

That’s a powerful and ethical way to consume. When we talk about ‘ethical consumerism,’ it is ultimately about being conscious of what you are purchasing. It goes so much more beyond the fabric that is laying on your body.

Aline: I want people to know that I am determined to help women in the Congo, but I also need other people to understand why there are so many problems here, and why we need support.

I really wish the West knew why the people in the DRC experience war everyday and how severely affected we are by this. Even if we are not directly in a war zone, we are suffering from the effects of a country that has been in civil war since the 90’s. I have lived in Bukavu my whole life and I have seen things that you could never imagine.

Women in Bukavu do not have the education or the vocational skills to allow them to earn an income. These women have suffered greatly and they really need to make their lives better. This can come from support from the West by purchasing our products! When we receive support, we can continue to teach women new vocational skills, purchase sewing machines for them, and allow them to work independently and once again gain confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their children and give them a different life. I truly believe that if these ‘mamas’ are successful, that their children will have a better chance and the cycle of violence will be broken.

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

Mamafrica is currently looking to expand to a bigger building, which will allow for free drinking and bathing water, and more programs! Want to help? You can shop the boutique, make a donation, and contact the team for more information on how to get involved.

Would you like to learn more about the mamas behind the products? Click here to read about their amazing stories!

Looking for other ways to connect with Mamafrica? Check them out on Facebook!

Want to learn more about how the Congo’s conflict minerals make their way from the mines in eastern Congo to the cell phone in your pocket? Watch this informative video below that outlines how consumers can help end this violence:

Additional Resources:

  • Looking for an overview of the Conflict Minerals Crisis? Check out RAISE Hope for Congo’s page here.
  • Watch this inspiring TEDx talk by Congolese activist Bandi Mbubi, on the importance of pressuring companies for conflict-free phones.
  • Want to take action? Click here and here for the different ways YOU can help, including how to make your town and campus conflict-free!
  • Learn how the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires electronic companies who purchase minerals from the Congo to declare it clearly on their audits.
  • Check out the film Stealing Africa, a 55 minute documentary that details how multinationals like Glencore are ‘sucking the continent dry.’
  • Want to learn how the IMF and World Bank were involved in the sale of the mines that led to this conflict? You can read more here (‘Impoverishing a Continent’) and here (‘Why is the IMF Controversial?’)

My Related Posts:

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Ethical Fashion: How to Navigate the Industry

Zaroff In the final part of this series with Eco-fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to turn to the question of what it will take to really change the textile industry, what regulations need to be instituted, and in what ways we can empower ourselves to navigate through the many contradictions of what is indeed, a very complex industry.

Nadia: I would really love to hear what you think about the rise of Eco/sustainable fashion alongside the rise of ‘fast fashion,’ which encourages fast and disposable consumption of cheap clothing. How do we shift the cultural paradigm from this type of consumption to one that is slower and more responsible?

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Taking it to the streets. More than 300,000 people signed up to join the ‘Detox Zara’ campaign, which successfully resulted in Zara committing to go toxic-free by 2015.

Marci: The key is education, and that comes from driving awareness to consumers, retailers, media and buyers. And while deeper shifts are often more effective coming from top-down decision makers, passionate champions within a company and/or consumer demand (especially ignited by social & viral media) can affect positive change as well. Leveraging editors and celebrities, who are already conscious about their lifestyle choices can also be very powerful. I am partnered with the Environmental Media Association, which works successfully within the television & film entertainment industry to create messaging about environmental issues. And consumers can indeed make a difference! Just look at Greenpeace’s Toxic-Free Fashion Campaign that has galvanized the global fashion industry, propelling International brands as big as Levi’s and Zara to commit to a toxic-free future.

Nadia: Sustainable, Eco-fashion has definitely gained steam in the past two decades, but it doesn’t seem to have really permeated our consciousness like organic food has. What would you say are the three biggest stigmas of Eco-Fashion?

Ethical-Fashion-at-London-003

Far from frumpy. Eco-fashion label Noir‘s sexy collection at 2009 London Fashion Week.

Marci: The first stigma would be that to adopt Eco-Fashion, one must give up style or quality. Similar to the early years of the organic food movement, when organic food was associated with granola, today, when people hear the term ‘organic or Eco fashion,’ they often still conjure an image of boxy, frumpy, boring, beige, rough-to-the-hand wares. But just as organic & natural food is now a far cry from just brown rice, as witnessed by walking into any Whole Foods Market, Eco-Fashion is no longer hippie, but instead, very hip! Yes, in the early years of Eco-Fashion, there were limitations to designs in terms of fabrics we could use. And of course, there wasn’t as high of a demand, so pricing was more challenging, and there were fewer factories willing to be innovative and work out-of-the-box. But the industry has come a very long way, and is still a work-in-progress.

In fact, the second stigma, that Eco-Fashion costs a lot more, is also no longer true. Efficiencies and economies of scale have been met and further, vertically integrated supply chains have been built from farm all the way to finished product. That is how Under the Canopy has been so successful bringing affordable accessible product collections to market. We have cut out a lot of the excess markups and middlemen, so that the consumer gets a product that is priced competitively and has the added value of being sustainable and ethically made.

That leads me to the third biggest stigma: how can one truly believe that their product is authentic? This is where certification, as well as brand integrity and commitment are paramount.  Understanding how to navigate a supply chain, while crossing T-s and dotting I’s via traceability and transparency, is an absolute key to success.

Nadia: Well, and one of the arguments for sustainable clothing is that unlike fast fashion, where the clothes tend to be cheap and we have little to no connections with the people who made it, we’re less likely to buy sustainably made clothes in excess and toss it out when we’re sick of it, right? I mean, that’s kind of the realization I came to this past summer when I was cleaning out my apartment.

Project Runway's season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final dress, helping to create awareness for eco-fashion.

Project Runway’s season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final runway collection, helping to create mainstream awareness for Eco-fashion.

Marci: Because of the past roadblocks in accessibility, affordability and authenticity, Eco-Fashion was much more limited. But with a growing market for Eco-Fashion driven by consumer demand and industry-wide collaborations, more retailers and manufactures can have access to eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes, and they will be more likely to support this shift in paradigm.

Because Ethical fashion is becoming more “fashionable”, and companies know that it’s no longer about staying ahead, but instead, it’s about not being left behind, there is a concern from many consumers that some companies are ‘going green’ to make their products more marketable. That is why consumers must be discerning as to what products, brands and companies they buy and support.

gap_red

Real charity or just clever marketing? Gap was accused of using marketing campaigns such as this one to detract from its many sweatshop abuses.

Nadia: That’s a concern I have had in the past and still have. And it’s not just with ‘going green,’ it’s with other aspects of social responsibility, that I feel companies sometimes will adopt marketing strategies to make their companies look better, when really they’re not being completely transparent. For example, I remember the controversy when Gap came out with their Red line, which donated a small portion of their proceeds from that line to Aids in Africa. There were anti-sweatshop activists who were upset that a company known for its abuse of workers would use a cause such as Aids to appear socially responsible. How can consumers navigate through these contradictions?

Marci: I think that this lack of transparency can really discourage people from being conscious consumers, because they don’t know what to believe. And in the Eco-fashion world, we’ve seen a lot of greenwashing, a practice by which a corporation will display insincere concern for the environment in an attempt to further their own agenda and reputation. Historically, it’s been a challenge to differentiate between which certifications are actually being monitored and accredited by third party certifiers, and there is still a huge disconnect in the consumers’ mind about which certifications matter. There’s a great website called the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that reveals the falsity of a lot of these labeling claims, including ‘all-natural’ (which means nothing – unlike organic, which is a legal word with very specific meaning) or calling something ‘green’ just because it contains one environmental attribute.

The importance of full transparency.

The importance of full transparency.

Nadia: Could you give us some examples of greenwashing in the textile industry?

Marci: Sure, I’ll give two. Bamboo is a perfect example, because it was marketed as the poster child of Eco-Fashion, but really, it is absolutely NOT sustainable as a material. Bamboo, when grown, is a renewable plant and actually very sustainable when used for flooring and furniture. But when you break it down into a textile, you must use enormous amounts of chemicals, which, in the end, leave only traces of bamboo. This process emits a magnitude and multitude of toxic chemicals into the air and water, and in doing so, destroys the sustainable aspects of the bamboo.  It is essentially no different from Rayon, which is a synthetic. Once the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) received complaints along these lines, they did some research and slapped lawsuits on many of the companies that were marketing bamboo textiles, making them change their labels and packaging to say ‘Rayon made from bamboo.’

Another example of greenwashing is when companies sell their products as ‘organic’ when their fabrics only contain a small percentage of organic cotton. Banana Republic, as an example, got caught marketing clothes as organic cotton when really they only contained about 5% organic cotton! “Organic” is NOT a marketing proposition; it is a methodology in agriculture and a federally-regulated term.

Nadia: Doesn’t Nike make those claims as well?

Marci: Nike is different because they are fully transparent. Unless a product isn’t 100% organic cotton, they won’t label it as organic. Believe it or not, Nike has been a true leader and pioneer in the organic cotton industry, and they have consistently been one of the largest buyers of organic cotton for over a decade. They were a founding member (along with Under the Canopy) of the Textile Exchange (formerly the Organic Exchange) and their efforts to shift the textile industry have been invaluable. Check out their recently released YouTube video:

Nadia: I know that you have launched organic/sustainable fiber initiatives in top retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Macy’s, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond. How committed are you to this idea of accessibility, in the sense that these companies may also be selling products that conflict with sustainability?

Marci: I am extremely committed to accessibility. I believe in the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  Therefore, every positive effort to offer consumers authentic sustainable choices is a step in the right direction. At the same time, this is where compliance and labeling are critical. As with the Banana Republic and Nike examples, the issue isn’t about companies only taking baby steps, it’s about full transparency. For example, Patagonia is a company with one of the most inspirational and well-respected environmental commitments that exists in the textile industry, but they are honest that they still have some things they need to work on. If you check out their amazing ‘Footprint Chronicles‘ online, you will be able to follow their supply chain and their efforts to make their company as transparent as possible.

Nadia: Designer Bruno Pieters just recently started the online retail site Honest By, which is the first 100% transparent company that gives customers a full cost breakdown of its products, so as to shed light on where the clothing is made and by whom. He recently noted in an interview that transparency is sorely lacking in the industry, and that no one really knows where their items are sourced, which is why he introduced ‘Honest By.’ Why are so few companies struggling to adopt this fully transparent model?

Marci: One of the biggest challenges I’ve come across with the large retailers I have worked with is how disconnected their different departments are. The marketing team isn’t speaking with the product development or sourcing teams, who aren’t connected with the Sustainability Directors or the buyers. These compartmentalized disconnects result in a lack of transparency, opportunity or effective communication strategies, and sometimes even result in tragedy, like at the recent factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh. For efforts to be truly sustainable for people, planet, profit, passion and purpose (“The five P’s”), companies must figure out how to plan, design, develop, source, manufacture and market with sustainable strategy and design models. The whole supply chain, from the farm and factory to the PR, has to be connected.

Nadia: Is this why it is so difficult to enforce multinational regulations?

Marci: There are inherent complexities with regulation. The challenge with the textile industry is that it is a global industry, and historically, certifications have sometimes differed between countries. As an example, I was on the team of people who wrote the first USA Certification of Organic Fiber Textiles, and in our trying to implement them across borders, there were huge inconsistencies with other countries’ standards. So how do you reconcile that? You need collaboration, and that’s what four different countries  –USA, Germany, the UK, and Japan- did when we created the Platinum standard for organic fiber textiles, known as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This standard takes every part of a finished textile into consideration, from the farm (must be Certified Organic fiber) to the dyes, finishes, transport, packaging, labor, etc. It is a comprehensive authentic 3rd party accredited certification, which speaks to the very highest standards of excellence as a truly organic/sustainable textile product – for both apparel and home fashions. A recent breakthrough includes the USDA’s recognition of this standard as the textile counterpart to their USDA NOP seal that most people recognize on organic food products.

Nadia: Are there any companies that you think are taking the right steps towards sustainability?

Absolutely. For the mass-market, H&M has launched their “Conscious Collection.” Nike, Puma, and Adidas use sustainable fibers in their products. In high fashion design: Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Ilaria Venturini, Fendi, and Vivienne Westwood have all introduced Eco-Fashion. Eileen Fisher also has begun integrating organic and sustainable fibers into her collections.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

In addition to Under the Canopy and Portico, there are several other pioneering fashion brands making sustainable fibers and transparent ethical sourcing practices their focus: Lara Miller, Linda Loudermilk, Edun, People Tree, Kuyichi, Madera, Stewart & Brown, LoomState, and soon to be launched – FASE (Fashion-Art-Soul-Earth)!

Eco-fashion designers at NY Fashion Week share their mission to fuse style with sustainability, and counter ‘fast fashion':

Nadia: I of course would love to hear about your label FASE, why you launched it, and how you hope it will change the perception of Eco-fashion and the face of fashion in general?

Marci: I wanted to address this new FASE-to-face movement, and the idea that we are all connected, from the people making the products to the ones who are buying them. In Spanish the word means ‘phase,’ so it also has a double meaning of entering into a new phase of humanity and social justice, of shifting the old broken paradigms. It’s time we do an about FASE and FASE forward, to FASE the facts, to FASE the future. FASE offers a new engaging and experiential platform to make people think, and connect. With its cache, creativity, accessibility and influence, I believe that fashion is the most powerful vehicle for change in consumer products.

Fashion is a form of expression and a way for people to make a statement. I don’t think the answer to consumerism is so black or white that we should tell people, ‘stop shopping.’ It’s really about shifting the paradigm of the fashion industry to a slower, more conscious, more sustainable way of engaging with the textiles we wear and use and the people who make them.

Nadia: And can you tell us more about your upcoming documentary Thread (trailer below)?

Marci: We hope that Thread can do for fashion what Al Gore did for climate change, which is to educate consumers about what is going on behind the scenes, to unveil the harmful human and environmental impacts behind the fashion industry that hides under the guise of glamour.

Beauty has always been inspired by nature, but because of modern-day society and commercial pressure for “more, faster, cheaper fashion”, and the industrial movement which has depleted and destroyed our Earth’s natural resources, we’ve destroyed the essence of true beauty.  Fast fashion is destroying our environment, the ecosystem that is a part of every one of us, disconnecting us from each other and from the roots of real beauty. Sabotaging our planet is compromising humanity’s ability to radiate from within, to be alive, thriving and confident, revealing the ultimate source of beauty. Universal consciousness is the soul of authentic beauty, with the notion that we are all interconnected on a very deep, energetic level.

I believe that in 2012, we have entered a new era of consciousness, one which will awaken us to come full circle back to our roots in nature. The Internet, social media, documentaries and YouTube are allowing us to pull the curtain back on what we’ve been taught and brain fed by mainstream media. We are finally able to counter advertising that feeds us false messaging, or denounce companies that employ non-sustainable practices that hurt the environment and people.

Nadia: As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “By the time you have finished your breakfast, you will have relied on half the world.”

Marci: And we should start every day with a sense of gratitude and abundance.

Nadia: Any last thoughts before we wrap up this series?

Marci: Yes, I just want to make it clear that this movement is about best efforts and better choices, not about perfection. With a commitment to consciousness, responsibility, authenticity and transparency, together, we can make a real difference, where the “alternative” can become the new “norm.”

For updates on Marci Zaroff’s other Eco Fashion ventures, check out her website at marcizaroff.com.

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