A question impossible to answer…

Just a fortnight or so ago I wrote this blog post, the first of any substance for quite some time.  I was grappling with the ethics of consuming in Australia, who to buy from and what that purchase is really supporting, especially when it comes to clothing.  I abhor the incessant advertising of cheap, disposable fashion items, what does a $5 t-shirt represent and worse still what does it mean when you throw that away six months or twelve months later only to be replaced with more $5 t-shirts.

Instead of lamenting these issues on here and to my friends and family, I thought it time to express my views to those in the industry who might actually be able to change the situation.  It was after reading this article and discussing it with several friends that got me going and I targeted the chains mentioned in it.

I then got on my soap box and emailed or Facebooked Target, KMart and Big W.  They all responded quickly to their credit and I have since written again.  Here is my message and their responses.

  • Dear Target,
    I wanted to let you know that I will no longer be supporting your company due to your lack of transparency on worker conditions and safety in Bangladeshi garment factories contracted to make clothes for your stores. You have recently been asked by both Oxfam and the ABC’s 7.30 Report to provide specific information about these factories and to allow independent auditors in to assess the factories. By refusing these requests I can only assume you have something to hide.

     Hi Barbara, thanks so much for your message. Target extends its deepest condolences to all of those affected by the recent tragedy in Bangladesh.

    Target is committed to operating in a manner that reflects our high ethical and moral values and we require our suppliers to do the same, which is why we have a Target Ethical Sourcing Code that sets out strong, minimum standards for our suppliers. Under the Code, we require compliance to proper working conditions, fair pay and labour standards, health and safety, business integrity and legal requirements. We also proactively conduct regular, unannounced factory audits and, where zero tolerance breaches are detected, factories are deregistered as suppliers immediately.
    We have attached a link to our ethical sourcing code for you. http://www.target.com.au/html/aboutus/ethicalsourcing.htm

  • Thank you so much for your response. I’ve had a good read of your Ethical Sourcing Guide and appreciate the work you have done in this area to date. I would, however, still urge you of the importance of allowing independent auditors into all factories connected to Target in an attempt at openness and transparency. Unfortunately we, the consuming public, cannot rely on industry or company self-regulation. As we have seen recently this has failed time and again.

    I am also concerned that much of your code of practice relies on factories following local laws and regulations, however in many key parts of the world local laws or regulations are flimsy or ill-enforced. Though I understand you have a series of supplemental Target-specific requirements I still thought there were areas lacking in appropriate codes of practice to protect workers rights, health and safety especially when it comes to working hours and rates of pay.

    I look forward to hearing how Target is improving practices globally in the areas discussed above and how your company is embracing transparency so that customers can feel reassured when making purchases in your stores.

    I sent the same message to Big W, they’re response,

    Hi Barbara,

    We understand your concern and want to reiterate that we have no connection to the recent tragedy.While we generally don’t discuss the details of our suppliers publicly we would nevertheless be willing to meet with the appropriate authorities to share to our ethical sourcing standards as part of the process of continuously improving how we work with suppliers.Thanks for writing to us. Your feedback has been passed onto the team internally.
    Regards,Suz

     Dear Suz,
    I’m so pleased to hear that you are open to sharing that information with appropriate authorities. Being open and transparent about the ethics of your sourcing procedures is as important as anything. It sends a message to the industry and consumers that all the people involved in getting the clothes on your shelves are valued and their rights protected.

    As much as it would be nice to think that individual companies could be self-regulating this is unrealistic and has been proven ineffective time and time again. Reliable and independent auditing processes are vital to the protection of these rights for vulnerable workers in countries where corruption is rife. I look forward to hearing further about Big W’s efforts in these matters.

    And to KMart…

    Dear Joanne,

     This is a tragic event and our thoughts are with those involved.  At Kmart, we work closely with our suppliers and their factory team members to ensure they understand the importance of safety.  More importantly, we made a decision some months back not to engage with any new suppliers who have factories above marketplaces, such as the garment factory reported in Bangladesh, or in shared premises due to the possibility of accidents occurring and safety concerns.

    Kmart enforces a robust Ethical Sourcing Program to ensure compliance with all local legal requirements applicable to issues inclusive of child labour, bribery, wages and benefits, working hours and health and safety. Our Ethical Sourcing Code sets out our minimum requirements and requirements that our suppliers must comply with as a condition of maintaining our business relationship.

     Kind Regards,

     Kimbley Brown

    2IC | Kmart Customer Service Department

    My response to them was similar to those above.

    I was then listening to 774 Melbourne with Raf Epstein last Friday and this issue came up again.  It was driven by this incredibly haunting and confronting image taken by a Bangladeshi photographer at the site of the building collapse.  It was of two workers who had lost their lives in the tragedy but had found each other and embraced in their final minutes.  What she had to say was so poignant.

    Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable — it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number — not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.

    Raf was also at a loss about what to do.  Do you stop buying the clothes and have the factories shut down, with thousands losing their jobs, or support the industry even with these incidents occurring?  One text suggested we need a ‘Fair Trade’ system for clothes like we have for chocolate, coffee and tea.  I thought what a great idea, I would happily support that.  In the meantime I think we need to pressure the big players to take responsibility, tell them what we want from them and then vote with our dollars, spend it at the places doing the right thing and doing it openingly (where you can find them) and avoid those doing nothing or too little.

    I’d love to know your thoughts?

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3 Responses to A question impossible to answer…

  1. Susan says:

    Wow, that is a very thought provoking post you write there. Personally as a reader of history, this senerio has been played out before, it is the industrial revolution all over again. I applaud your letter writing and bringing this to the attention of people like me.
    We too often do not know the source of our goods and the conditions in which they are manufactured…….couple this with a book that someone recommended to me ” Eichmann in Jeruselum” and we do all run the risk of contributing to the banality of evil.
    This can stop when we stop worshipping money. We all work to feed a machine that only serves to make a FEW very wealthy, the rest of us are just grist to the mill.
    Thank you again for time to write to those companies and post their reply.

    • Barbara Good says:

      You’re right Susan, it has played out time and time again. I teach the industrial revolution to high school students and can’t help but think of these historic examples of appalling working conditions and wonder why we haven’t yet learned this lesson.

  2. Jo says:

    I’m reading your blog for the first time, and loving it, but this post is just overwhelming. The human cost of our wealth is unacceptable. Kudos to you for writing letters. It truly is hard to find ethical clothing alternatives, but the one upside of disasters like this is that it shines the spotlight on conditions that are normally hidden. If enough social pressure is brought to bear, there may be improvements.

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