Throughout the noughties, awareness was raised, and paranoia spread about the employment of ‘sweatshop’ style labour by many British High Street stores. In 2008, BBC Three aired the documentary Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, which spurred a wave of interest into how factories all over the world are filled with garment workers struggling to survive on a life of extremely low pay, despicable working conditions, and an absolute lack of trade union representation.
When Kate Moss launched her line at Topshop in 2007, a newspaper investigation suggested that Sir Phillip Green was using Third World sweatshops, where workers would work for 70 hours a week at 40p an hour, so as to maximise profits. His name was pulled through the mud once again in 2010. Channel 4’s Dispatches sent a reporter to work for three months in Leicester, stitching garments in factories for retail chains, including BHS, which is part of Sir Phillip Green’s Arcadia Group, along with Topshop. Throughout the investigation, the Dispatches reporter found the factory environment to be “dangerous” and to contain “pressurised sweatshop conditions”. In a separate report issued in 2010, Taking Liberties: The story behind the UK high street, it is mentioned that Arcadia is not a member of the Ethnic Trading Initiative. While the report goes onto explain that members of the initiative, like Debenhams, Monsoon and Next do not take the initiative seriously enough, we must ask ourselves why Sir Phillip Green and his Empire have made the decision not to enlist in the initiative at all.
We asked a representative from the Arcadia Group to comment on the on-going problem, wanting to know if the High Streets of Britain were still being clothed by sweatshops in 2012. We were directed to the ‘Fashion Footprint section’ of Arcadia’s website, and instructed to read the ‘Responsibilities Report for 2012’. The report is encouraging, and while it does not mention the word ‘sweat’ at any point, there are extensive listings of every charitable project that Arcadia is embarking upon in 2012.
Still, it is pretty telling that many of Arcadia’s stores have at some point carried an overpriced Fairtrade line. Are we really supposed to be impressed that the shops, which clothe a great majority of the British public, are kind enough to make a few items fair for the workers? Surely, if these stores had left the sweatshop horrors in the past, their bosses would be preaching from the mountaintops by now.
Obviously, it is near impossible to find an actual list of stores that exploit their workers, but one thing is for certain: anti-sweatshop stores are incredibly proud of their ethical status. American Apparel, for example, boasts being ‘100% sweatshop free’. But of course, they have the off-putting price tag to match. Like it or not, the option of wholesome clothing raises a question more horrifying than the issue itself: do we even care? Or have we as a nation become so desensitised to the amount of shit that happens, that we’ve all just developed an all-round ‘shit happens’ attitude?
Kate Middleton’s decision to step out in Reiss’ ‘Shola’ design dress, was the most recent sweatshop shame to hit the British press. Despite the widely publicised revelation that the garment had been manufactured in Romanian factories by workers being paid 90p an hour, the dress sold out within 24 hours.
The fact that even today, Fairtrade clothing is a great novelty is enough to prove that workers are still being extorted by retail monsters. And although the majority of us may shudder and adopt some pretend political views when we are forced to think about where our wardrobes originate from, we then most likely start mindlessly browsing the web and daydreaming about new purchases. It would seem that today’s fash-fans are widely apathetic-istas, and until this changes, the heads of the High Street will continue to pull the wool over our eyes and the rug from beneath their workers’ feet.