Students in university clothing

Generation Y fair trade clothing?

Student reporter Chloe Neal explores student reactions to poor working conditions in garment factories in developing countries, and proposes fair trade as an alternative.

A store can awaken a lust for things you never even knew you needed. And when your fingers grasp those shiny, new bags…oh yes…oh yes…

Oh yes, I just quoted Rebecca Bloomwood from the hit film and book ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’. After all, her zest for all things material is something that I reckon most of us can relate with to some extent. Purchasing that new jacket, those new jeans (which you simply have to buy) is always a buzz.

But how often do we focus beyond the colours, prints and patterns? How often do we consider exactly where our clothes come from? More importantly, do we care?

University student, Olivia Ampofo, states: “I care in theory, but not really in practice. If you have to think about who picked the cotton and sewed the seams every time you want to buy a t-shirt, it just seems like a lot of effort.”

Effort aside, the harsh reality is that since 2005, there have been a total of 1728 deaths within Bangladeshi textile factories which work for brands that fill our high streets. Very recently, we all witnessed the largest contributor to this death toll in terms of the Rana Plaza factory complex collapse, occurring on 24 April 2013.

Such factories are synonymous with extremely low wages, poor infrastructure, and grossly inadequate safety measures. Essentially, they were, and in some cases still are, tragedies waiting to happen.

The necessity of fair trade within the garment industry, so as to prevent any similar deaths and disasters, is therefore evident.

You may already be familiar with the concept of fair trade, described by umbrella organisation FINE as working to establish ‘a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade’.

Ensuring the payment of fair wages, good working conditions, and capacity-building are just a few of its more specific objectives. Under this broad umbrella of fair trade are certification systems, such as Fairtrade International and the World Fair Trade Organisation, which aim to undertake and regulate these aims.

We can proudly recognise the University of Edinburgh as Scotland’s first Fairtrade University. In this role, the university is affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) whose purpose is to ‘combat sweatshops and protect the rights of workers who make apparel and other products’ .

In the wake of the Rana Plaza factory complex collapse, it was the WRC, alongside the IndustriALL Global Union, the UNI Global Union, various Non-Governmental Organisations and the Clean Clothes Campaign, which oversaw the compilation and signing of the ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ by over 100 companies to date.

This agreement obliges the signatories to commit to ‘the goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment (“RGM”) industry in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures.’ Such measures include regular credible inspections of the factories in question, the renovation or adjustment of unsafe fire, electrical, and building standards, as well as the establishment of thorough fire and building safety schemes.

Out of the 3500 textile factories across Bangladesh, 1619 of these are covered by the accord. Such a figure is undoubtedly promising. However, this also means that there are still 1881 factories which do not benefit from its rigorous rules and supervisions.

This is where we come in. Some of our generation, the so-called ‘Generation Y’ and potential future of trading relations, may ask ‘why fair trade clothing?’ The answer is simple: because there are still thousands of textiles factory workers who lack even the most basic and decent of working conditions and rights. Consumers hold the power to change the practices of corporations, to make informed buying decisions and, in turn, challenge a system which is still far from fair. Surely it’s worth the effort?