Just over a week ago, the charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan reported on how 33 children were rescued from bonded labour in Wazipur Village near New Dehli in India. After being bought from their parents for a small fee, with promises of a better life, the children were trafficked to shoe and garment factories where they were forced to work 12 hours a day confined to living in appalling conditions in a small 10 x 4 room.
Before you switch off and tell yourself that this is sad but doesn’t really affect you, you might be interested to hear that these children are not isolated cases. NGO’s including the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions estimate that the number of children in child labour in India could be as many as 60 Million (although the Government puts the figures at far less), that is equivalent to more than 80% of the population of the UK, with the majority of them working to make products for the Western world.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan is a charity working with Government authorities to rescue children from bonded labour and trafficking in India restoring their childhood, freedom and diginity. Since 1980, the organisation has been involved in the rescue of 82449 children from bonded labour and slavery. It also works on campaigns to help prevent child labour.
Whilst incidents on this scale do not receive anywhere near the level of press coverage as the Rana Plaza disaster in April, where 1129 people died and around 2500 were injured in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, they continue to prove that the fashion industry has a long way to go in terms of ensuring that people are treated ethically in its supply chains.
Brands often hide behind a complicated supply chain conveniently turning a blind eye to how their clothes are made, whilst consumers are happy to satiate their constant desire for new clothes blissfully ignorant of the misery and suffering that has been caused by their manufacture. The buck has to stop somewhere though!
I strongly believe that government policy and legislation can go so far, but I whilst there is a demand for cheap fast fashion, there will be someone in the world prepared to satisfy it, no matter what the human cost. It is us as consumers that can really make a difference to the lives of so many people by taking the time to find out how and by who our clothes are made.
In theory the answer is as simple as checking where and how your clothes are made, in practice nothing is ever that simple. Many companies now have extensive corporate responsibility and ethical policies, they do not always state or explain the facts as clearly as they could or should. We can often read more into what they don’t say than what they do say. But if you have got the inclination, there are ways of finding out more and using your consumer power to make a difference and help reduce child labour in the clothing industry.
Measureup.org.uk is a handy online tool which allows you to access and compare companies ethical policies of fashion brands. Whilst it does not actually address the issue of child labour directly, measures such as whether the factories are audited every 2 years, whether company staff visit factories and whether unannounced factory visits are carried out, can help us to understand the degree of responsibility being taken by a brand.
Ethicalconsumer.org also have comprehensive reports on many UK fashion brands and how they perform in respect to various ethical and environmental criteria. They also have a useful tool which allows you to compare the scores of different brands.
Even as someone who obsesses on a daily basis over where and how my clothes are made, I find many ethical policies difficult to understand. For me the simplest and most effective option is to seek out brands that have both sustainability and ethical values at their core. These brands not only work directly with the people and factories that manufacture their clothes to ensure that everyone working in their supply chain is treated with the respect that every human being deserves, but in many cases they are also making a really positive difference to the lives of people in some of the poorest areas of the world. I have found that this approach does not involve any compromise in terms of style, in fact quite the opposite, since making the switch to buying only from ethical fashion brands I feel my wardrobe has been transformed. It is now filled with beautifully made clothes featuring fresh and innovative designs, intricate details and fabrics that feel great against the skin.
There are now hundreds of ethical fashion brands to choose from including choices to suit most styles and budget with most available online. Some of my favourites include People Tree, Komodo and Seasalt Cornwall for men’s and women’s wear and Bibico, Braintree Clothing, Johari, Lowie and Nancy Dee for women’s wear. For jeans both Kuyichi and Monkee Genes are great and for t shirts Rapanui and A Question of, all of which use organic cotton. For shoes, Beyond Skin (vegan shoes), Timberland, Veja, Dream in Green, Swedish Hasbeens and Pikolinos all offering ethically manufactured, comfortable and stylish choices.