At Labour Behind the Label, what we do is driven by the demands and needs of workers – one of our primary aims is to create space for their voices and needs to be heard, over here in this country.
Over the years one of the things we have steered clear of is boycott – unless for some specific reason workers in a producer-country ask us to initiate one. The reason for this is that no matter how much a boycott may make a symbolic dent in the profits of a big clothing brand, ultimately that cost will be passed on, to far greater detriment, to the vulnerable workers at the bottom of the supply chain.
So, the issues are complicated and also take into account ideas of over-consumption and fast fashion – these are very negative factors which LBL are more than happy to stand up and shout about as they create high-pressure working environments and unrealistic targets for workers who come under a great deal of stress with very small recompense for their efforts – in effect they are trapped in a relationship of dependence on work, but with such low wages and unstable conditions that it is impossible to escape. Where LBL fits into this is not to say, ‘no, do not buy clothes produced by these people,’ but to say ‘hey, why are these people not being respected and treated as we would expect workers to be treated in the UK under our own laws and conventions?’ The dialogue is between companies and governments and suppliers, and bodies such as LBL or the Asia Floor Wage Alliance who are constantly trying to initiate change in order to benefit workers – changing country laws on minimum wages; persuading companies to promote union rights so that workers have the means to fight for their own rights; leaning on brands to ensure bad practices are taken note of and action taken.
All this is very important but although it encourages the consumer not to over-consume and be swept along with cheap throwaway fashions, it does not tell you what to do instead! Because a lot of our work can be very sensitive we must retain optimum transparency and because of this LBL cannot endorse or recommend any brands to you. This means even the ‘ethical’ fashion producers as we do not have the capacity to audit them and inspect their supply chains. Consequently, we cannot empirically tell what their standards are, despite the best of their intentions. This is not to invalidate the worth of these brands – we hope they are doing the best they can to create garments that do not bring harm to those who make them. But this is not something we are able to vouch for.
So, we concentrate on the high street brands, fast fashion brands, and some luxury and international brands and try to intervene in what we know needs to be improved. The Let’s Clean Up Fashion report that we publish each year details the progress that each of these companies has made in work on wages, union rights, and other worker issues. You can read through and make your own judgements as to who to shop from and who to avoid and remember that always, the voice of a customer is worth something – if you do shop with a brand, try sending in your receipts and asking what that company is doing to improve the lives of the workers sewing their clothes.
It’s a small action, but many voices will make a difference.