This Sunday it will have been three years since the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, the Bangladeshi complex of garment factories whose customers included Primark, Benetton and Matalan. The disaster killed 1,134 people, making it the deadliest accidental building collapse in history, and sparked a global debate about labour conditions in the fashion supply chain.
You might expect the bad publicity to have been a disaster for a company like Primark, but its run of speedy growth continued unabated. Its sales were up 17% in 2014 and 13% in 2015, adjusted for currency fluctuations. Its PRs might argue that’s partly because of all the work it has done to clean up its act in the months since. But it seems plain that for all the protests on Oxford Street, consumers didn’t really care. In the words of Iain Davies, a marketing lecturer at the University of Bath who specialises in ethical markets, ‘People feel sorry for what’s happened but there’s very little translation into consumption behaviour.’
To be fair to Primark, it was among the top performers in the ‘Fashion Transparency Index’, an analysis of companies’ commitment to cleaning up their supply chains, which was published this week to mark the anniversary of the disaster. Of the 40 major fashion companies it looked at, 40% don’t have a system in place to monitor and improve labour standards at a board level (Primark is one that does). Only 11 ‘show evidence of working with trade unions, civil society or NGOs’ to improve conditions.
‘Lack of transparency costs lives,’ says Carry Somers, fashion designer and co-founder of the pressure group Fashion Revolution, which commissioned the research. ‘The public do not have enough information about where and how their clothes are made. Shoppers have the right to know that their money is not supporting exploitation, human rights abuses and environment destruction.’
But surely if people really did care about the provenance of their £5 jumper then fashion brands would be falling over themselves to talk about their ethics? It’s commonplace in the food industry, and not just at the Waitrose ‘free to fly’ quail eggs end of the market either. Sainsbury’s only sells free range eggs, as does McDonald’s UK, which proudly trumpets its 100% British and Irish beef burgers.
That could be because people are more concerned about the livelihoods of the animals they eat than about the people that make their clothes. A Mintel study found that 74% of UK consumer said animal welfare was among the top factors that make a food company ethical, compared to just 57% for looking after their workers. But it’s also because in the food industry, ethics are seen as a signifier of higher standards.
‘In some product categories, having an ethical claim is seen to mean that it is a better quality product,’ says Davies. ‘The vast majority of people are buying them because they are a better product, not necessarily because it’s ethical.’
While ‘ethical food’ may conjure up images of wholesome, ruddy-faced farmers who nurture their animals like a doting parent, ‘ethical clothing’ is more likely to inspire thoughts of hessian, hippies and hemp. That's not a particularly fair perception - there are plenty of small fashion brands that make ethically sourced clothes that are comfortable and cool. And many mainstream brands, including Primark, have taken real steps to ensure their supply chain is transparent and responsible.
But you won't often find them shouting about it, and you'd be fairly hard-pressed to find a 'responsibly sourced' sticker among most high street chains' clothing racks (with the notable exception of H&M) akin to the Fair Trade, Red Tractor and Soil Association logos that plaster supermarkets. The onus is on conscientious people within big fashion companies to show that dressing ethically needn't mean wearing a hair shirt.