Media Coverage of Social Issues in the Garment Supply Chain
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Mar 11, 2012

Media Coverage of Social Issues in the Garment Supply Chain

95% of clothing sold on the UK High Street is produced abroad in developing countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. Social issues such as child labour, enforced over time, long hours and poor living and working conditions have caused concern and earned some facilities the name ‘sweatshop’.  A succinct definition of a sweatshop is found in Robert Ross’s book, Slaves to Fashion as ‘a business that regularly violates both wage or child labour and safety or health laws’.
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No Sweat

A BBC Panorama documentary aired in 2008 called 'Gap and Nike: No Sweat' highlighted the sweatshop conditions that factory workers were found in, producing clothes for Gap and Nike.  The narrator, Paul Kenyon, went to Cambodia to speak to the workers involved.  He found children as young as twelve working in the factories, forced over-time and violence towards the workers.  Programmes such as this brought the sweatshop issue to public attention, but not for the first time.
Even before clothes manufacturing was, in the main, taken overseas, concerns about exploitative working conditions had been raised in the UK.  By late Victorian times there had been repeated investigations into British factories and Victorian businessman and social researcher, Charles Booth, had reported his concerns on over-crowding, irregular hours and low pay.  One of the first ethical labels was the American ‘Anti-Sweatshop White Label’ developed by the American Consumer’s League 1899 and granted to factories which followed the League’s code of conduct.

Under the Radar

Even now, sweatshops can be found all other the world, although focus is predominantly on those in developing nations.  Equally important is to remember that factories are just one part of the supply chain, and worker exploitation is occurring in other areas.  A current concern at the time of writing is the process behind sand blasted jeans.  In Turkey, jeans are ‘sand blasted’ in the traditional way to create a certain ‘worn’ finish to denim jeans.  This is a very dangerous process, and workers can develop silicosis from breathing in the debris.  Campaigns from organisations such as the Worker’s Rights Consortium are hoping to lead to a ban on this process in the future.  In recent years, the BBC created an online ethical fashion magazine to complement their programme Blood, Sweat and T-shirts which documented six young fashion addicts as they worked in India’s cotton fields and clothing factories (2008).  This reality-style programme was aimed at teenage viewers with the hope of increasing their ethical awareness.

Moving Forward

The British government have also taken action.  The Department for International Development (DFID) has provided financial support to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), International Fairtrade Labelling Organisation and Multi Fibre Arrangement Forum.  The ETI is an alliance of businesses, trade unions and charities that work to improve conditions for workers in their supply chains, and has been the main beneficiary of funding for ethical trade from DFID since 1998.
There is still a long way to go and we may never see a completely transparent supply chain, but the industry is starting to take steps forward and part of the reason for this is the media coverage highlighting issues to the wider consuming public.
Emma Waight is a geography researcher and freelance fashion writer for www.clothes.org.uk. Follow Clothes for advice on clothing shops and fashion news.