Tackling child labour in the fashion industry
Throughout 2018 we’re running the Together Street Challenge which focuses on learning about a different topic each month and taking simple actions to help #changefashionforgood. This month we’re looking at the issue of child labour in the fashion industry.
WHAT IS (AND ISN’T) CHILD LABOUR?
Before we delve into this topic, the first thing to understand is that not all work carried out by children is considered to be child labour. Many children carry out work that doesn’t affect their wellbeing or interfere with their education, and often this type of work plays a positive role in the lives of children by giving them useful skills and helping them to contribute to their families in some way.
Child labour can be defined as work that deprives children of their potential and dignity; it prevents children from participating in education and harms their physical, mental, moral and social development. Although it’s distinct from slavery, the most extreme forms of child labour can involve separation from family, exposure to serious hazards, trafficking and enslavement. Simply put, child labour deprives children of their childhood. Although the number of child labourers has dropped considerably over the last decade, there are still more than 168 million children affected by child labour today, and over 73 million of these children are working in conditions that are classed as particularly hazardous.
WHAT’S IT GOT TO DO WITH OUR CLOTHES?
Child labour has been found throughout fashion supply chains, from harvesting raw materials (like cotton) and spinning these raw materials into fabrics, all the way through to the “cut-make-trim” stages where garments are put together.
According to SOMO,
“Children perform diverse and often arduous tasks such as dyeing, sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, folding moving and packing garments” and “intricate tasks such as embroidering, sequinning and smocking (making pleats).”
Child labour has also been found in the leather industry. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a district called Hazaribagh is home to over 250 tanneries. This is where animal hides are processed into leather used for making handbags, shoes and belts bound for export to countries including China, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United States. Described as one of the most polluted places on earth, the World Health Organisation estimates that 90% of workers employed in Hazaribagh’s tanning factories will die before they’re 50. Many of those workers are children.
Was child labour used to make the clothes you’re wearing today? Well, as with slave labour, you can’t tell whether child labour was used to make an item of clothing just by looking at it, and a lack of transparency in fashion supply chains makes it difficult to answer this question definitively. What we do know is that child labour occurs with alarming frequency in the fashion industry - particularly in sub-contracted factories, and a lack of transparency in supply chains allows it to continue.
Often, when incidences of child labour are exposed in a brand’s supply chain, they’ll pull out their code of conduct which’ll say something along the lines of “child-labour-is-bad-and-we-most-definitely-don’t-condone-it”. And yet, the fact that child labour has been exposed in fashion supply chains time and time again clearly shows that a ‘no-child labour’ clause isn’t enough to stop it from happening. If codes of conduct are going to be anything more than words on a page, brands need to move beyond simply stating that they don’t want child labour to happen, accept that it does, and demonstrate what they’re doing to combat it. The starting point for any brand should be to work on making their supply chains fully transparent - meaning they know exactly where every stage of production takes place - along with implementing effective monitoring systems to ensure that their codes of conduct are being upheld. For some brands this will also mean looking at how and why child labour happens, and taking an honest look at how their own business practices might be creating the conditions for an issue like this to thrive in the first place.
1. VOTE WITH YOUR WALLET
Try buying from brands with ethical values at the core. Supporting ethical brands not only helps them grow, it also sends a message that consumers are willing to put their money behind brands that can demonstrate a commitment to fairness, ethical values, transparency and sustainability. How do you figure out whether a brand is ethical? If you can answer yes to all these questions, you’re probably onto a good thing:
Is the brand a fan of taking it slow?
Show us a brand that uses a fast fashion business model and we’ll show you a brand that finds it hard to guarantee that every person who makes their clothes has been treated well. When H&M’s head of sustainability Helena Helmerrson was recently questioned on whether the brand could offer any guarantees across their ranges, she responded:
"I don't think guarantee is the right word, [a] lot of people ask for guarantees: ‘Can you guarantee labour conditions? Can you guarantee zero chemicals?' Of course we cannot when we're such a huge company operating in very challenging conditions..."
Fast fashion brands work by producing a constant supply of new styles at low prices. Rather than focusing on building relationships with suppliers they know and trust, the focus lies on finding cheap suppliers to take on large orders at short notice and deliver at speed. The average clothing brand may spread orders over hundreds of factories and the pressure on suppliers to deliver bulk orders within short turnarounds inevitably impacts the conditions of the people work for them. This model has created a industry where
“[l]ow wages, forced labour, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions and child labour are rampant...” (SOMO).
It’s much easier for brands who take a slower approach to uphold higher standards because their supply chains are often shorter and much less complicated. This makes it easier to effectively monitor what’s going on, which in turn makes it easier for the brand to spot issues and take action if necessary. Look for brands that focus on building long-term relationships with their suppliers and invest in the development of their workers. Know The Origin has a few brands to get you started.
Is it easy to find information about the people behind their products?
Slow fashion doesn’t automatically = ethical fashion (Argh!). While lots of brands are jumping on the ‘eco-fashion’ bandwagon by throwing in the odd buzzword, you can normally separate the green-washers from the real-deals by taking a look at the level of detail a brand provides on their website. Why is being ‘ethical’ important to them? How does this translate to the way they make their clothes? How transparent is the supply chain? Does this brand give you a look behind the scenes and introduce you to the people behind their products? When you have this kind of information at your fingertips it’s much easier to make an informed decision about what you’re buying. Little Green Radicals, Krochet Kids and Asquith London are examples of brands that provide information like this on their websites. Some brands, like Rapanui go the extra mile by including a unique ID code with every product. Using this code, you can trace the journey of any product you buy ‘from seed to shop’ and even meet the people who made it. Taking a look around a brand’s website to find out more about their vision, motivations and practices is a relatively quick and easy way to get an insight into whether they’re walking the ethical-and-sustainable talk.
Do they have any ethical certificates or accreditations?
Quick caveat to this one: not all ethical brands are able to gain ethical certification or join accreditation schemes for variety of reasons (Laura Cave from Just Trade explains more about that here), so don’t immediately write a brand off if the answer to this question is ‘no’. The handy thing about these schemes is that they give you a quick way to verify a brand’s ethical credentials. If you’re after clothes made from cotton, look out for schemes like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA). Both of these accreditations give assurances that high environmental and social standards (including no child labour) have been maintained in the supply chain.
Does the brand welcome questions and give honest answers?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the brands you buy from. If you can’t find all the information you’re looking for on a brand’s website, ask them about it. Often, you can get a good impression of how seriously a brand treats ethical and sustainable issues by the openness and detail contained in their answers. Which brings us on to Action No. 2…
2. IF YOU WANT BRANDS TO DO BETTER, TELL THEM
Avoiding the high street is not the only option. Whether or not you’re willing or able to use your wallet to buy from ethical brands, one simple action we can all take is to challenge our favourite brands directly. If you care about this issue, say something. Ask the brands you buy from to tell you what they’re doing to ensure children aren’t being used to make their clothes. This action can be as easy as sending an email or tagging a brand over social media. It may seem simple, but it sends a powerful message; our clothes shouldn’t be made in a way that harms people and planet. Consumers are calling for change, and the more people who add their voice, the louder that call becomes. Time for brands to listen up.