Detective work: how can Guildhall uniforms be more ethical?

Day 1_Detectives

The labels inside the Guildhall Shopping Centre uniforms.

On Monday June 2nd, our Detective Work team promised to answer ethical fashion questions asked by passersby in Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre. This is the first of five answers. They took all week to research, but they are worth waiting for.

The first question was asked by Sheryel Ashwell, the manager of the Centre. Here’s their answer. It’s not as straightforward as you’d expect… but there’s a reason for that. 

Researching the Guildhall Shopping Centre workwear 

When Sheryel came to see us in the ‘Talking Clothes’ shop, she bought with her a Fruit of the Loom polo shirt, an Arco Trojan Breathable Polo Shirt, a Beechfield Suprafleece ski hat and a pair of Absolute Apparel Cargo Trousers. All were embroidered with the Guildhall Shopping Centre logo, and all were worn by the Centre’s 16 staff. These weren’t high street clothes bought by the staff. These were bought by their employer for them to wear at work.

Our task was therefore to understand procurement, and to find out how businesses source clothing for their employees. We knew that the French Post Office had recently won an award for its fair trade uniforms:

La Poste impressed the Jury with its track record of Fairtrade cotton purchases: to date, 100% of their T-Shirts and 40% of the work wear are Fairtrade cotton certified. This strong commitment has been backed by a comprehensive communication campaign among the postmen.

But could we find out how to help make sure that they weren’t made in sweatshops? The shopping centre is about to go through a period of substantial modernisation, and the staff workwear will be modernised too. Could we help Sheryel to find out how to source the right stuff?

We found some answers, but we also found out how difficult it was to find the answers (Turker & Altunas 2014, Seuring & Müller 2008)!

Who made these clothes?

Our first finding was that all four of the pieces of clothing have been sourced from separate companies. This complicated our detective work from the start, as they demanded multiple avenues of investigation. Finding out how ethical one company’s clothing is, let alone four, – to say the very least – is difficult. We spoke to Clare Lissaman, an ethical and fair trade consultant and co-founder of ethical menswear brand Arthur and Henry. She explained that this is because almost all companies claim to be ethically conscious, even if in practice their commitments are relatively shallow. All four companies are part of various agreements to improve worker standards.

Beechfield Headwear give no clear indication of any policies adhered to by their company.

Arco are part of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), who have a vision of a world where workers experience “freedom, security and equity”. Critically, this involves security of a living wage, or the amount upon which workers can live with basic amenities (Carey 2009).

Absolute Apparel are an ISO 9000:2001 accredited company, which they say should reassure consumers of ethically sourced products throughout their supply chain.

Fruit of the Loom are the most interesting company if you’re a student of ethical fashion. In a 2012 Apparel Industry report by the Californian not-for-profit Not For Sale, it was one of the companies “who scored the lowest statistically in the Worker Rights category” (Free2Work 2012 p.27). It has also become a textbook case of the effectiveness of procurement boycotts when:

In 2009, a group called United Students Against Sweatshops launched a campaign in response to reports of workers being mistreated, forced dismissals, factory closures, and trade unionists facing death threats in Honduras. The activists succeeded in persuading 96 U.S. colleges and 10 British universities to sever their contracts with the … company. After losing an estimated $50 million, Fruit of the Loom re-opened the factory and rehired employees who had lost their jobs (Kieler 2014, np link).

It is, however, accredited by another not-for-profit called WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) which ensures “lawful, humane and ethical manufacturing throughout the world”. Even more surprising, in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, the company has joined the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. [To appreciate why it is unusual for a brand to be in both camps, read this]

What can be derived from this? Overall, the current workwear worn by Guildhall employees could be worse. We say this because these workwear brands are involved in strategies and schemes to reduce the human costs of their clothing throughout the manufacturing process. But Sheryel has asked us to find more ethical alternatives to these clothes. That’s what we did next.

More ethical and sustainable alternatives?

We researched a number of avenues in order to explore more “ethical” workwear that Sheryel could source. These included ethicalworkwear.com and Pier 23These companies supply “ethical” workwear, and we assumed that here we would quickly be able to find what Sheryel wanted to know. But that was not really the case. It wasn’t that easy.

We searched on these websites for polos, cargo trousers and thermal hats like the ones she showed us. One brand name that kept appearing in the results was Russell (click the link to see their product range). The primary advantage that Russell seemed to offer from an ethical perspective was the fact that their manufacturing plants in Honduras now have labour unions in order to ensure workers’ rights are heard and represented (Carey, 2009).

They have also signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Woodward, 2014). So, it seems, Russell could be said to be a supplier of ethically-sourced workwear. We also managed to locate a factory in the UK which manufactures Russell clothing: Fanela Limited, of Coalville, Leicestershire). Sourcing the products from the UK would reduce the impact of air miles, and ensures the workers are protected by UK laws (Barrientos & Smith, 2007).

Yes, but…

Unfortunately, our overriding feeling when conducting this research has been that there is very limited transparency within the fashion industry, particularly when attempting to establish how ethical one company’s clothing is compared to another’s. 

Russell and Fruit of the Loom are symptomatic of this because, we discovered, Russell is owned by Fruit of the Loom. Both have unionised factories in Honduras! We suspect it’s the same factory. Fruit of the Loom are, in turn, owned by one of the world’s wealthiest people – Warren Buffett – whose holding company Berkshire Hathaway was valued at $182 billion in 2013. This finding had the effect of blurring the lines between one company and another, and the ethical distinctions we had begun to make between them.

So, what we can say after a week’s research is that the Guildhall uniforms are already sort-of ethically sourced, and the task of sourcing more ethical uniforms – and feeling confident that they are more ethical –  could be a long and difficult one.

It is certainly possible but, as we found in all of our detective work, the more you find out, the more you find out you need to find out! The international fashion industry is notoriously labyrinthine. But we have a better understanding of it now. We hope what we’ve presented here will help Sheryel source the right workwear, and hope she’ll understand why we couldn’t make a clear recommendation.

… that’s not the end.

It was perhaps easier to ethically clothe the French Post Office, with its 286,000 workers. That’s a lot of purchasing power. But even though Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre has just 16 workers, it is owned by global asset management business ‘Aviva Investors’ whose global assets under management are over £246 billion. In addition, all of its Exeter Guildhall Shopping Centre housekeeping and security staff  are contracted from a company called Control Group Services, whose employees work in over 130 shopping centres.

That’s also a lot of purchasing power! That could make a significant positive difference to the development of a more ethical fashion industry in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. Perhaps hiring an ethical workwear consultant would be a good starting point for these much larger organisations. Then Sheryel might get what she asked us for!

References

Barrientos, S. & Smith, S. (2007) Do workers benefit from ethical trade? Assessing codes of labour practice in global production systems. Third World Quarterly 28(4), 713-729

Clary, B. J. (2009). Smith and living wages: arguments in support of a mandated living wage. American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 68(5), 1063–1084

Kieler, A. (2014) If a boycott works, it’s not just because people stopped buying stuff. Consumerist 17 May (http://consumerist.com/2014/05/17/if-a-boycott-works-its-not-just-because-people-stop-buying-stuff/ last accessed 5 June 2014)

Seuring, S. & Müller, M. (2008) From a literature review to a conceptual framework for sustainable supply chain management, Journal of Cleaner Production. 16(15), 1699-1710

Turker, D. & Altuntas, C. (in press) Sustainable supply chain management in the fast fashion industry: an analysis of corporate reports. European Management Journal (online early http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S026323731400022X

Woodard, R. (2014) US: Cornell University joins Bangladesh Accord Pledge. Just Style 13 February (http://www.just-style.com/news/cornell-university-joins-bangladesh-accord-pledge_id120690.aspx last accessed 6 June 2014)

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