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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Diabolical Dilemma Pt II: Buying the cheap clothes and shoes, in spite of the dangerous circumstances under which they are manufactured?

Should we boycott the brands and store chains that make use of poorly treated and paid ‘slave workers’ from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in order to enforce better labour circumstances?!  And consequently deprive these people from their desperately needed income?!

This is a follow-up of the first article in this series, dealing with the 2022 World Cup Football in Qatar, which was printed about one week ago.

Everybody who is walking in a modern shopping street or mall in Smalltown, Europe or Littleville in the United States, is unperceived confronted with the Third World and in particular, the low wage countries in the Middle and Far East, where many of the clothes, shoes and accessories are manufactured.

Exotic countries and locations, like Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Pakistan or China are hosting the mega-factories and ‘sweatshops’, where the vast majority of these well-known products are produced, during long, long days of hard labour against the smallest of hourly wages.

Modern sports, fashion and lifestyle brands like Levis, Gap, Walt Disney, Benneton, Nike and Adidas or inexpensive store chains, like Walmart, Zara, Primark, C&A and H&M would be immediately out of business without these classic low wage countries. Just for the simple reason that only these countries are willing to produce their fashion and footwear at the absolute bottom prices, which are required by the frugal, modern day consumer.

As a matter of fact, this modern day consumer is a very spoilt consumer. He or she wants to have multiple brandnew collections of fashion, accessories and footwear per year, at almost the same prices as in the Seventies of last century. And sometimes at even lower prices than usual in those days.

Nowadays the fashion collections have a much quicker maturity date, which leads to a minimized earn back period for new collections and almost continuous clearance sales throughout the year. All these circumstances make that production at the absolute bottom of the price spectrum is mandatory to survive.

Only the French and Italian luxury brands, like Corneliani, Brioni, Prada, Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton still manage to produce most of their (extremely expensive) fashion and footwear in Europe (mainly in France and Italy) or North Africa, without making concessions to their production quality. However, this became impossible for the brands and store chains, which sell daily usable, ready-to-wear fashion to the lower and middle classes of Europe.

One can reckon, in 1975 an experienced seamster and tailor of ready-to-wear clothes probably made around €6 in gross per working hour in The Netherlands, which had an impressive fashion and shoe industry in those days. This amount included applicable taxes and social premiums.

In 2013, however, the same professions would have earned around €19 per hour for the same amount of labour in The Netherlands, due to inflation (see the table behind the aforementioned link).

Even when computerized looms, sowing machines and fabric/leather-cutting robots would have dramatically increased the production quantities and efficiency, as well as dramatically reduced the material usage in clothing and footwear plants, this would still mean that the same quality of clothes and shoes would cost about 2.5 times as much as they did in those days in the Seventies.

Not only the domestic manufacturing process became more expensive since then, but also the raw materials needed for the production of these fashion and footwear. About the same price and wage increases took probably place in the rest of Europe and the United States.

But now comes the strange part.

Where a basic pair of jeans and trousers from an in-store brand cost about €20 to €40 in those days and a pair of jeans from a famous jeans brand, like Levis, Lois or Wrangler cost about €50 to €60 in the seventies and early eighties, these prices for the same jeans and trousers hardly rose as of 2015. Likewise with shirts, polos, shoes and other clothing items.

The same happened with footwear and accessories, especially the ones for children. In those days in the Seventies, a good pair of domestically manufactured shoes for children cost about €35 - €60 and again this price hardly rose or even dropped in the years since then, although one might expect exactly the opposite.

One will understand that something had got to give to enable similar products at similar prices after fourty years of domestic inflation. And that something has been the production costs.

Take for instance an old and very famous Dutch brand like Oilily, which produced domestically manufactured children’s clothes of impeccable quality and an almost endless life span. This brand has been annihilated by the flood of cheap imports from the Far East, that were sold by C&A, Hema, V&D and other store chains in the eighties, nineties and zeroes.

At the price of one Oilily dress of €60, people could buy up to five dresses from the likes of C&A and V&D. When you are a lower or middle class family, with demanding children, what choice do you have then?!

Cool and fashionable brands that were traditionally extremely popular by adolescents and students, like Nike, Lacoste, FILA or Adidas did not per sé have the need to produce in the low wage countries, in my humble opinion. The presumed uniqueness, added value and fashionability of these brands would make them relatively inelastical for (limited) price changes.

However, the bloody war for the consumer and the increasingly outrageous sponsor budgets for official endorsers of these brands – famous sporters, tournaments and national teams sponsored by these brands – as well as the will to produce inexpensive shoes and clothing ranges for teenagers, made that these brands also moved their production lines to the low wage countries, in order to keep their production costs low and their profitability at an elevated level, in spite of the ever rising marketing costs.

And now the simple truth is that the domestic production of inexpensive, daily clothing and footwear in Europe and the United States is almost dead-before-dying and that our most beloved brands and store chains produce these articles in sweatshops and megafactories in the low wage countries; often under brutal and extremely dangerous circumstances.

If we don’t want to buy these brands at these very store chains anymore, for the prices that we are used to pay nowadays  and instead choose for “European / US made quality”, we enter into a world of (extremely) expensive fashion and footwear from factories in France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom or The United States.

This is a world in which a simple pair of jeans or shoes would cost about €150 - €200, men’s shirts would cost at least €100, women’s dresses would cost north of €250 and even simple things like T-shirts cost €15-€25 each, instead of €10 per three(!). And that is not even including the bedazzling marketing expenses that the famous brands spend on a annual basis.

Would this be a better world for everybody? Or would it put the ‘enslaved’ workers in f.i. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam in an even worse position: a position of ultimate poverty, without any source of income to live from.

This is exactly where our second diabolical dilemma rears its ugly head.

Should we boycott the brands and store chains that make use of poorly paid and badly treated ‘slave workers’ from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in order to enforce better labour circumstances, like decent people with an ethical view on the world should do?! 

Or should we continue buying the products from these brands and store chains, as we know that at least some of the money – albeit a ridiculously small amount of it –flows into the hands and wallets of the people that fabricate these clothes. Hands and wallets that desperately need this money to have something of a decent life for themselves, their children and loved ones. A life that can uplift whole regions in these impoverished countries

And should we take for granted that the rich “slavekeepers” in these countries (i.e. the executive managers and factory-owners of these sweatshops) and the European / US / Australian brands with their multi-billion dollar annual profits absorb the vast majority of the production payments and profits and not the people who do the hard labour during up to 14 hours a day?!

And should we take for granted that in the near future yet another production plant in one of these countries is set ablaze or collapes during an earthquake, with probably again dozens or hundreds of deaths as result.

It is like choosing between the Devil and Beelzebub (Dutch expression):

Buying one’s goods from these brands and store chains, like nothing happened before, will probably not change one thing in their unethical behaviour eventually; in spite of all the empty promises about improved ethical behaviour and production circumstances from these companies, the political jawboning from national, European and US officials and all the good intensions of involved parties during the last few years.

In the end, it are always the bottom line and the lowest price which set the standards for manufacturing and trade in the footwear and fashion business .

Boycotting these brands and store chains, on the other hand, will rob many, many families and people in the Far East from their only income and from their ultimate chance for a slightly better future for themselves and their loves ones.

Perhaps the only viable way for European, Australian and United States consumers is to accept that we endured fourty years of (in general) inflation since 1975 and that it would be nothing else than reasonable that clothes will become at least twice as expensive as they are currently. Of course, it is totally ridiculous that clothing and shoes hardly changed in price since 1975, while everything else did. And of course it is ridiculous too that store chains have no less than 5 or 6 collections per year and virtually continuous clearance sales, instead of two collections and two clearance sale periods.

The additional money coming from these higher prices could then be used to dramatically increase the income, the labour circumstances and the safety situation of those impoverished workers in the low wage countries, like what happened in the coffee and tropical fruit industry in some places and countries.

But please, let’s look at ourselves in the mirror! When for instance Zara or H&M would double their prices and the rest of the retail stores would not, we all would go to the other store chains that maintained their old, low prices. Wouldn’t we?! 

And that is the true diabolical nature of this dilemma: there are no easy solutions!

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