Right now the fashion industry has one burning question to deal with - is there any such thing as ethical shopping?
"It is the naughtiness, the nastiness of fur which gives it it's current appeal. Politically correct pressure has undoubtedly created a new taboo, but in a sensation-hungry industry like fashion, taboos are made to be broken."
Slave labor and anally-electrocuted minks - issues the fashion world can't ignore. None of us wants to wear sweat-shop gear, or step out on soles glued together by five-year-olds, but what can we actually do?
Consumer pressure from the western world would seem to be the most powerful way forward. After all, virulent and emotive campaigning wreaked seemingly irreparable damage on the fur trade in the late '80s, with even Harrods Department Stores in London shutting down their famous cute'n'cuddly department.
Public feelings ran so high that the remaining fur fans hid their fabulous regalia at home, lining the dog's bed with the leopardskin when the second hand shops said 'thanks, no'. Yet with the current resurgence of fur on catwalks and in the pages of style magazines, can consumer power really be relied upon? At the moment, sifting out ethically produced clothing is harder than it sounds. Sweating is a boom business, widespread even in developed nations.
With retailers at the top of the pile, chains of subcontractors force prices down, down, down - competing for that lucrative deal with their second-hand Singer sewing machines and tumble-down shacks. And it's the people at the bottom who suffer. Because the employment link is indirect, retailers can shrug off ultimate responsibility for those that produce the goods they sell, deferring to the authority of the free market.
Cheryl Kuczynski of Marks & Spencer makes use of this get out clause: "None of the factories belong to us, they are all from the suppliers we work with." What about levels of pay? "You'd have to talk to the suppliers about that."
According to the book No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers, edited by Andrew Ross, as the apparel industry goes global, employment standards are returning to turn-of-the-century levels.
This process was hastened by the anti-Communist fervor of the Reagan and Bush administrations: intent on spreading the germs of capitalism in the developing world, they offered irresistible deals to cash-hungry American companies, enticing trade to Central America, Asia and the Caribbean with hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars. That, plus lucrative exchange rates and a desperate work force brought thousands of firms to areas where human-rights don't interfere with production. Since 1980 the US government has handed over $1,306,111,000 to 93 investment and trade-promotion projects in the Caribbean Basin region alone.
In corollary, around half a million textile and apparel workers have lost their jobs in the US, with twenty percent pay cuts for the remainder of the workforce. In the spiraling competition to undercut, almost everyone's a loser. In 1996 at the LV Mayles factory in Haiti, America's National Labot Campaign discovered that workers producing 'Pocahontas' clothing for Disney were receiving 28-30 cents an hour - or .55 percent of the retail price of each item. No exchange rate can explain away such low wages.
Compare this to the $200 million made by Disney CEO Michael Eisner in the same year. At $97,600 per hour, he was raking in cash at some 325,000 times the Haitian rate. The Disney corporation are taking these allegations seriously, and are now looking carefully at the conditions of the Haitian workers, with a view to improving any inequalities.
Yet the worldwide poverty gap yawns ever wider. Andrew Ross claims that the imbalance between the world's rich and poor is now "twice as great as it was 30 years ago. In the US, income inequality has reverted to the levels of the 1920's, before the introduction of progressive taxation. The top one percent of the families now possess 42 percent of American wealth and the economy is governed by corporations... While executive pay has swelled by 500 percent in the last 15 years, factory pay has lagged behind inflation and actually fallen by net two percent in the last five years." But a backlash is stirring. Oxfam are one of the best-known international organizations involved in the fight against offshore manufacturing outrages.
Campaign co-ordinator Sue Fluckova believes shoppers in the west hold the power to enforce change in the rest of the world: "Consumer pressure is incredibly important. If people don't want to buy clothes that have been produced in conditions of starvation and beatings, they can take their business elsewhere."
The US based clothing store Gap is now held up as a positive example for other companies to follow thanks to revelations about their slave-labor Ghanaian workforce back in 1995.
The NLC organized a national lecture tour by 15-year-old sewer Wendy Diazova, who forcefully discredited the company's wholesome image, while outside Gap stores protesters waved banners saying 'The real Gap Kids work 12 hour days'. According to the British magazine 'Ethical Consumer', "Gap are now one step ahead of other clothing retailers, primarily because they were one step behind to begin with."
As a company, Gap now have a corporate code of conduct. But is this enough for others to follow? Angela Hale of the Labor Behind the Label network, which links numerous smaller organizations around western Europe, thinks not. "The evidence so far is that it doesn't make any difference if a company has a proper code; the big issue for us is setting up systems of independent monitoring." Gap and C&A are currently piloting such schemes.
What is necessary, believes Sue Fluck, "is that what the company says it is doing can be independently checked. Legislation is still a long way off, because it will have to be done internationally."
Companies under pressure are not only those involved in clothing production, however. The injustices of Third World shoe manufacturing first hit the headlines when several of the world's sportswear giants came under public scrutiny in the western media. And with over 80% of European shoes now imported, many at the cheaper end coming from free-trade zones, we can avert our eyes no longer.
Conditions in the big factories are bad enough; in smaller domestic operations they can be even worse. Children are commonly left with the worst jobs, especially gluing. Breathing in toxic fumes day in and day out, they absorb chemicals which permanently damage their ability to breath and their patterns of development. Pay is so dire that many workers can't afford shoes themselves and are often forced to live in prison-like conditions, working 14 hour days with only two or three days off each month.
Some companies even charge their new workers a joining fee to work. In September of last year, the Catholic aid agency CAFOD launched a massive campaign to tackle these abuses, particularly targeting China and Brazil. That companies are at least starting to listen is significant - but how long will any changes last? The resurgence of fur on the catwalks of numerous designers this last winter, suggests that ethics are there simply to be assumed when public pressure becomes intense and then tossed away.
However, there is a fundamental difference between the issues of garment workers rights and the ethics of fur farming. As it is practically impossible to distinguish sweatshop produced clothes and shoes, individuals can impose only limited pressure through their shopping decisions. That 'Made in the EU' label may be false and, in any case, does not preclude sweated labor - many machinist in this country are paid as little as 25Kã an hour.
And even when clear targets arise, boycotting could do more harm than good. Instead of making efforts to improve their operations, panicking companies tend to move elsewhere, and no emerging economy wants to see job losses. But with fur, customers know exactly what to avoid and can easily cut off the cash supply. This may have decimated fur's popularity in the west, but according to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) spokesman Andrew Butler, gruesome farming methods have not changed.
"In factory farms, feces from cages above drop into the cages below. Hundreds of thousands of animals are suffering from the extremes of heat and cold, terror, malnutrition and disease... and when the time comes for death, it is by anal and vaginal electrocution to maintain perfect pelts."
In his view, as farmers are not willing to compromise, neither should the consumer. But doesn't public opinion sway with the prevailing wind? To Anna Wintourova, British born editor of US Vogue, the rejection of fur was just a passing trend.
Glossy spreads of mink bags and coats, fox collars and fur-lined boots in the magazine's October edition mixed real skins and fakes as if there were no real difference. Style pundits may hail the new renaissance, but the catwalks are a million miles from the streets. It is the naughtiness, the nastiness of fur which gives it it's current appeal. Politically correct pressure has undoubtedly created a new taboo, but in a sensation-hungry industry like fashion, taboos are made to be broken.
Nevertheless, Butler is in no doubt that the battle, in the west at least, has been decisively won: "You can see from industry journals that the fur trade is in dire straits - there are now only a handful of fur stores. In the UK and US, fur is dead! Now the furriers are looking to new markets in Eastern Europe and Asia. But whatever they do, they're fighting a losing battle. Wintourova and Karl Lagerfeld (another fur fancier) are seen as fashion dinosaurs. Cruelty has never been in fashion and clothes produced with cruelty never will be again."
Why is this? Man's fear of becoming a social pariah may be stronger than his love of fluffy critters. What does seem to have dissolved recently is the rabid anti-fur hysteria of the late '80s. perhaps such an attitude is needed to raise awareness and push forth changes, but it can also become unhealthy. Butler speaks with relish about one PETA member slapping a dead raccoon into Anna Wintourova's plate as she dined in a chic New York restaurant, wishing her "Bon appetit'.
But the fact is that moods have mellowed and matured, and once fundamental shifts in awareness have been achieved, shock tactics like this only tend to discredit the standard view. Take the eternal hemp cloth crusade - had this sensible and environmentally product not been championed by those allied with drugs and a generic form of social rebellion, we'd probably all have been wearing clothes manufactured from it years ago.
As for the future? Labor Behind the Label have just launched a postcard campaign in England, distributing hundreds of thousands of cards which you can send to those in charge of offending companies or take to the local managers. Meanwhile, the Oxfam 'Clean Clothes' tag is gaining momentum in the EU member states. The goal is to create a universally-recognized stamp of ethical approval which will help consumers make informed choices.
Ultimately, the laws on garment workers' rights must change, but owing to the international nature of the problem, this is beyond the ability of western nations to impose on the world. Angela Hale describes the work of Labor Behind the Label as "not so much to do with laws, as with publicity. As consumers in Europe, what we can do is support the efforts of workers in those countries to effect their own governments".
And campaigners also need to tread carefully if they are to treat indigenous cultures with respect. The issue of child labor is particularly delicate, outrageous to some, but commonplace to others. Generally, it is embedded in the economics of perpetual crisis, where the alternatives to toiling over a loom are begging and prostitution.
"It is important to keep consumer pressure up. This isn't going to answer workers' problems all in one go," says Hale. "It's a matter of making sure that we're all working towards the same end."
This spirit of practical collusion was reflected in the launch this spring of President Clinton's initiative to wipe out sweatshops, which includes voices from a broad spectrum of interests. Its resolutions have made a difference, but there is so much more to be done...
Photo by Jeffree Benet