Work-based placement: garment supply chains

By Eilidh Morrison

As is the case for most university students, April is often one of the busier and more stressful months of the year. Essay deadlines are looming, exams are fast approaching and master’s students are frantically planning their dissertation research. I am on the Environment and Development MSc, which means I belong to the School of Geosciences. Many of my colleagues are abroad doing field research, whilst some others have decided to complete desk-based research in Edinburgh. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to complete a Work Based Placement in the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability within the University of Edinburgh looking into garment supply chains. Upon completion of the placement, I will write a report for the Department, the findings of which I can then use towards my MSc Dissertation.

Have you ever wondered where your clothes came from? Or thought about who might have made them? The global garment industry is worth at least £190 billion, growing rapidly year on year and providing jobs for millions of workers around the world – particularly for young women living in developing countries (Wills and Hale 2005). Globalisation has paved the path for multinational companies to shift clothing production to developing countries, and subcontract their supply chains in order to save costs. However, clothing production is notorious for the inherently poor working conditions that (predominantly female) labourers face on a daily basis: low pay, forced overtime and job insecurity (ibid).

Fortunately, this issue is gaining increasing amounts of attention, and there are a growing number of businesses, suppliers and universities endeavouring to ensure better working conditions and fairness in their garment supply chains. This is of particular importance to universities, as their collective purchasing power is immense (around £7 billion in the UK).

Universities in the UK are taking steps to use their power in a more ethical fashion, by joining organisations such as the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). The WRC is US-based, and monitors labour rights by investigating working conditions in garment factories around the world. Crucially, the WRC focuses on university-branded clothing, for example hoodies, sweatshirts and t-shirts that can be bought in university student shops.

Specifically, my project is to report on the University of Edinburgh’s progress in ensuring fairness and decent conditions throughout their garment and textiles goods supply chains. Not only is Edinburgh a member of the WRC, but it has also been a Fairtrade University for over ten years. The University has a commitment to sourcing fairly and ethically produced products, wherever they can. As this commitment continues, the University is broadening its understanding of fair trade, to include fairness in trade, and trade justice issues. In addition to looking at branded clothing, I am also taking into account work wear worn by staff – there are around 1540 staff working in Corporate Services, wearing uniforms sourced by the University. I am researching the University of Edinburgh’s procurement strategy and several of their listed suppliers, comparing it with other UK universities. In the final report, I will make recommendations that Edinburgh and other higher education institutions can adopt, relating to the procurement of garments and cotton textiles products.

My work based placement in the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability has been an unexpected part of my Masters year, yet a fantastic experience so far. Before the placement, I knew I wanted to research garment supply chains in some way, and now the report has given me the perspective that I needed. Whilst working among my colleagues here in the department, I have thoroughly enjoyed these past five weeks, and look forward to my final three, before I continue pursuing a career in social responsibility and sustainability.

Read Eilidh’s research report

References

Wills, Jane and Angela Hale eds. (2005) Threads of Labour. Blackwell Publishing Ltd: Oxford