We're used to logos on our products. Pick up any item and, along with the brand name and variety, you'll also be bombarded with other information: What is it made of? Where was it made? How much does it weigh? What size is it? What's the nutritional information like? Any potential allergies? How do I dispose of it? How do I store it? How do I wash it? Can I tumble dry it? and so on and so forth.
There are already logos out there to help consumers distinguish 'good products' from bad ones. The Fairtrade logo is perhaps the most iconic of all of them - you'll almost definitely find it on your bananas. There's also the Soil Association's 'organic' certification, the Rainforest Alliance logo to look out for on tea and coffee, and the Forest Stewardship Council's certification. If you're in the UK, you might also be familiar with the Red Tractor logo which you can look for on animal, dairy, and fresh produce. The 'leaping bunny logo' is the only internationally recognised symbol proudly showing that no new animal tests were used in the development of any product displaying it, and that funny kite-looking symbol on your helmet or smoke alarm is a quality assurance mark given out by the British Standards Institute.
There are hundreds of these things. And all of these logos mean something - they're simple, graphical signifiers that help consumers make better, safer, and more ethical choices. From ensuring fair-pay for workers to supporting better environmental standards, consumers pay attention to these symbols when looking to buy.
And yet, despite all of these symbols - spanning food to window-fittings - I can't seem to find anything that marks clothes as 'sweatshop-free'. As in, no money anywhere along the supply chain, from cotton-picking to sewing to screen-printing, goes in to the hands of sweatshop owners. No symbol telling me the product I am about to buy has not ever touched a sweatshop in its creation.
Yes, while individual companies proudly tout some of their range as 'Sweatshop Free', these companies have differing definitions of what a 'sweatshop' is and their criteria for checking and certifying themselves, which is never a good sign anyway, varies wildly.
This isn't even a new idea. Seventeen years ago - 17 years! - Naomi Klein wrote a book called 'No Logo', in which she expressed the same concerns.
Already, a common imperative is emerging from the disparate movements taking on multinational corporations: the people's right to know. If multinationals have become larger and more powerful than governments, the argument goes, then why shouldn't they be subject to the same accountability controls and transparency that we demand of our public institutions? So anti-sweatshop activists have been demanding that Wal-Mart hand over lists of all the factories around the world that supply the chain with finished products.
Klein fears a 'No Sweat' logo will become 'just another logo for the conscientious consumer' - and I agree. But consumers, all consumers, conscientious or not, are people. People who need to eat and buy clothes. And as people who need to buy products, buying better - and publicising the ways in which to do so - is one of our most powerful forms of protest.
Yes, that pretty dress is only be £4. A bargin! And yes, technically speaking, it has already been made so you wouldn't be forcing a child to make it for you... but that isn't how this works. Don't fuel the need for bad companies to make bad products by buying it. Don't line their pockets with your hard-earned cash, while your pockets were stitched by people working for as little as 60p per day.
Even with the absence of a centralised and independently certified 'No Sweat' logo, we know the companies to avoid. Primark links to an entire page about their ethics, front-and-centre on their website and yet has been littered with plenty of allegations in the past.
If you think sweatshops were just a thing of the nineties, think again. In 2013, disaster struck in Bangladesh. Rana Plaza, a garment factory creating clothes for the likes of Matalan, Primark, Walmart, and Bonmarché, collapsed. 1,135 people died, around 2,500 were injured. The Bangladesh Fire Service said the upper four floors had been built without a permit. The architect, Massood Reza, said the building was planned for shops and offices – but not factories.
Primark claim they don't own the factories, but that doesn't mean they can wash their hands of the affair - and while Primark did compensate families (to the measly sum of $200 USD1, and only if they could provide DNA evidence that they had lost a relative), prevention is always better than cure.
Lush - the UK-based cosmetics company - has the right stance. They don't buy products from suppliers who test on animals. Even if they're buying a totally different product; if the company tests on animals, the company is a no-go. They don't want to see money - customer money - pouring in to the hands of practices they do not believe in. I think that's a respectable decision taken by a heavily respected company.
All of the certifications I've listed have strict criteria, controls, and checks in place to ensure the company or product is worthy of bearing their mark. I am no expert on sweatshops but allow me to hypothesise the criteria for what a 'No Sweat' logo might look like:
- Nowhere along the supply chain, from cotton-picking to screen-printing, designing to distribution, is anyone paid less than a decent, living wage in the country they are working in. By rule of thumb, people making the garments should be able to afford the garments.
- The minimum working age should not be lower than the age for completing compulsory education in the country they are working in.
- The supply-chain should be audited and tested regularly, independently of the company and its shareholders. It would be good practice to demonstrate traceability to consumers.
- The factories should be built to the standards of the stores, with sensible and adequate health and safety regulations, and facilities for employees.
- Employees should be entitled to the same staff benefits as others: holidays, paid sick-leave, maternity and paternity leave, regular breaks, and paid-overtime.
- Employees should feel safe in their environment, free to raise concerns, protest and unionise.
There could, of course, be many, many more criteria to measure.
For employers, higher pay means heightened efficiency, a better and more consistent quality of work, stronger employee morale, and, ultimately, retention rates of skilled workers. For employees, higher pay is often a path to the 'American Dream' for their families: education, stable employment, and home ownership.
So, the next time you walk in to a highstreet store, gander at the price-tag and catch yourself in surprise, ask yourself: How can cotton picked in Brazil be packed, shipped and processed in China, stitched in Vietnam, get shipped to Europe for screen-printing, before being shelved in the UK ready for you to buy? By squeezing costs right along the line, from overheads to labour.
1 $200USD is about three months wages for a garment worker in Bangladesh. My point is: to multimillion dollar companies like the ones listed, $200 USD is just a nice staff lunch.