What we pay workers in developing countries

On Wednesday night, I was out talking about my research. Since the fashion industry had been on my mind lately, I decided to use it as an example of how we can measure companies’ sustainability. When I was about to speak I realised the audience was, apart from two women, only men. On average 50+. A crowd that might not be so concerned with fashion.

In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t adjust my examples to the audience.  I suspect 50+ men do not get preached to about environmental problems and working conditions in the fashion industry so often. They were surprisingly interested. I was asked about child labour, so there is some awareness in this crowd too.

This time, I used working conditions in the supply chain as one indicator of how ambitious a company is in regards to sustainability. These issues are of course not limited to the fashion industry. A recent Swedwatch report shows that the tobacco industry might be worse. Child labour in combination with hazardous argochemicals is a  very bad combination (smokers- choose organic and Fairtrade!). While wine production might not be equally bad, there’s still good reason to consider how certain wine stays so cheap.

There are many components to working conditions but one of the most important ones is wage. There are certain key terms or certifications that we can look for as they indicate what the company is paying the workers.

Many companies simply pay minimum wage. This is the legal minimum in a country and part of what lures companies to start production in a ‘new’ developing country. But these ‘new’ low wage countries come with problems, as HM recently learnt (again!) when it got out that they (again) had child labour in the supply chain earning less than the minimum wage. Getting labour in Myanmar as cheap as a third of the hourly rate in China must have been very tempting.

Paying the minimum wage is, in many cases, not sustainable as it is not necessarily enough for workers to support themselves. Consequently, the companies get trouble over time because workers have to work overtime to support themselves.

Recognising that they have to go beyond minimum wage, some companies then decide to pay a ‘fair wage’. It is sometimes unclear what this exactly entails, but it is should be more than minimum wage. Norwegian Varner (Dressman, Bik Bok, Cubus, Volt, Solo etc.) is in the process doing something in this area but we don’t know what they will eventually decide on.

A little more ambitious and well defined is the concept ‘living wage’. According to most, a living wage should at least be able to support the worker and a child or half a family. If you’ve seen documentaries where female workers send their children away because they cannot take care of them, then living wage sounds pretty good. HM has said that they will pay a living wage for ‘strategic’ suppliers from 2018. It’ll be interesting to see if they achieve this goal.

A decently ambitious standard that requires companies to pay living wage is SA8000, used by for example Aiayu.

Some companies go further and adopt some kind of Fairtrade certification. This generally means that the community of workers get paid a little extra in order to invest in the community. Two examples are  Patagonia (American Fairtrade) and Serendipity Organics (FLOCERT).

Even more ambitious are, from my point of view,  artisan collaborations. Rather than putting people in factories, when working with local artisan groups and communities companies support people in their existing traditional craft skills. This has a cultural value of its own. One fashion example in this category is People Tree. Within furniture there’s American West Elm. IKEA also has occasional collections in this category.

It is always important to check how big part of the production any of these initiatives apply to. Sometimes companies announce these initiatives so boldly that it seems as if it concerns the whole company when in fact it is only a pilot project.

A final note on poverty. Many chains argue that by placing orders in developing countries they help alleviate poverty in that country. It would be worse if they closed production (as if paying minimum wage or closing production are the only two options). However, if companies wanted to alleviate poverty there are many other ways to do so. Putting people in factories for long hours and paying minimum wage (and sometimes failing at that) is arguably not the best way. 

Another thing we often hear is that Western companies pay more than local companies. So Western companies are already doing something good by being slightly better than these companies. But that’s why our companies placed the production there, because its among the lowest wages in the world. How difficult is it to be ‘good’ when you are comparing yourself to producers acting at the bottom?

Antibiotic resistant bacteria found in children

New research findings this week report that one in five of kindergarten kids carry antibiotic resistant bacteria. This was in Sweden, one of the countries with the lowest antiobiotic use in the world (Norway is one of the few better performing countries). Until now, Swedes could feel safe knowing that relatively low national use in humans and animals is enough to keep antiobiotic resistance at bay.

But we live in a globalised world. Our import of food from countries with extensive use of antibiotics keep increasing. We also travel extensively and pick up resistant bacteria when doing so, particularly if we take antiobiotics in countries where resistant bacteria is common.

There are some aspects here we as individuals cannot control. National and International politics have to work on lowering antibiotics use for example in China and the US.

But there are also things we can do. Antibiotic resistance is one of the most important arguments for buying Swedish or, even better, Norwegian food. While some think antibiotic resistance only concerns meat and is avoided by going vegetarian, unfortunately it is not as easy. All vegetables has to be pollinated and bees used for this purpose are also treated with antibiotics, just like animals. Resistant bacteria are found here too.  So to limit the use of antibiotics and hence resistance, we should buy food from low antibiotics countries. The question is not so much which foods we buy as the amount of antibiotics the producing country allows. 

By importing more and more food from countries with high antibiotic use, as we’ve done the last decades, we contribute to the antibiotic resistance problem.

While it is easy to make conscious choices in the supermarket, a lot of the imported foods are consumed when eating out. We can always ask though, which country the food comes from and let it inform our choice.

Norway this year strengthened the requirement to consider social and environmental aspects in public procurement.  I hope schools, hospitals and public work places will take this opportunity to consider antibiotic use when buying foods for schools and hospitals. Because these are the places that will most likely suffer from antibiotic resistance when it increases.

Plastic pollution: what we can do about it

There’s been a lot of talk about plastic in the news lately. There are at least three reasons to be very concerned about the plastic pollution.

Animal welfare. Plastic is filling the oceans and researchers estimate that if this development continues, there’ll soon be more plastic than fish in the ocean.  In fish and shellfish, plastic is found in one out of three. We recently heard about the whale that died because its stomach was filled with plastic. Surprisingly, the animal right movement is not doing much on the issue.

Human health. In our turn, when we consume fish and other seafood  this plastic accumulates in our bodies. Scientists have not yet studied the consequences on us.

Resource use. Plastic is not all bad. There are occasions when plastic is absolutely needed and where we don’t have a good alternative yet, for example in health care. However, most of our plastic use is for one time purposes like packaging, cups and cutlery. Basically, we should save plastic, a non-renewable source, for when it is absolutely needed.

Although we could wish that our policymakers were looking out for us, in the meantime, there are a lot we as consumers can do about plastic pollution:

  • Choose natural fibres and textiles. Plastic fibres are released into our waters when we wash polyester/acrylic/elastane garments at home. Scientists have concluded that such everyday washing is a bigger source of plastic pollution than the microplastics in skincare.
  • Choose plastic free skincare without mineral oil and microbeads. Look out for PE, PET, PP, PVC, PS, PVA, PMMA and PTFE.
  • Avoid plastic bags. Our grandmothers carried shopping nets with them when they we’re out and about because our convenient plastic bags didn’t exist.
  • Avoid plastic bottles. Glass is better but best is of course to refill your own bottle.
  • Avoid one time cutlery, packaging and cups. In Sweden, only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled. The zero waste movement offers a lot of inspiration on how to avoid unnecessary plastic waste.
  • Don’t throw cigarette butts on the ground, the filter contains plastic and is a threat to wildlife that may mistake it for food.
  • Recycle your plastic and turn in old plastic. Regulation of new plastic has improved but a lot of the old and toxic plastic is still in use.

Do you have another favourite trick for reducing plastic pollution? Please share it with us in the comments!

2017, the year without shopping

‘I own so many things, I probably don’t need to buy anything for the rest of my life’.

This thought hit me while looking into my wardrobe yesterday. Unable to shake off this thought, I made up my mind. I will only use what’s in my wardrobe for a year. Then I will see if it is true. If I really don’t have any need for ‘new’ items. If it is only desire, identity and social impulses that make me buy new things (which this podcast discusses so well).

I used to be a passionate shopper, although somewhere in the back of my head aware about the issues in the fashion industry. I guess I thought buying more expensive items meant less environmental and social issues. I’ve since learnt that it isn’t necessarily so. Price isn’t a good indicator of quality production.

I finally decided to do something with the knowledge I had. I took on a sustainable fashion challenge during Autumn 2015, and since then I only buy sustainably produced garments. You can find how I defined ‘sustainably produced’ here. Acting in new ways during six month efficiently changed my habits. Of course, I’ve had at least one relapse (staying away from the sales still requires self-discipline!). But otherwise, how I acted during the sustainable fashion challenge describes well my current purchasing behaviour. As a result, I buy much less clothing (maybe five in a year) and I’ve saved money, a bonus.

Since Autumn 2015, I’ve learnt a lot more about the textile trash issue in society. From what I’ve read, throwing or giving away what you’ve once bought is not sustainable. So personally, I want to limit my contribution to the textile trash problem. This means taking responsibility for what I own by using it, mending it or refashioning if it doesn’t fit anymore.

How will I practically manage a year without clothes shopping? I will use what I have and if there is a clear need for something, I am allowed to make it myself. Making it myself means knitting or sewing or some other technique I haven’t learnt yet.

But as visualised in my homemade ‘Sewarchy’, focus should really be on the lower parts of the pyramid: on mending what I have. Making new items from scratch should be rare events. Luckily I am a very slow maker. I am not able to sew or knit so many things in a year.

 

The only exception to the no-buying rule is gifts to others. And then I will aim for sustainably produced items.

Has anyone similar experiences? Please share your thoughts!