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Attitudes towards working practices within the textiles industry have been changing over the past few years, with links to exploitative labour conditions now hugely damaging to a fashion house's reputation. Yasmin Jones-Henry reports on how the industry is reacting.

The past few years have been a tumultuous period for the global textiles industry. After nearly two decades of redirecting manufacturing operations from Europe to destinations in the Far East, followed by the global recession of 2007-08, many UK and European brands continued to search further for cheaper, more competitive overseas manufacturers in their attempts to sustain profits. 

China, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia once featured regularly in the top 10 of destination cities for textiles manufacturing FDI. However, in the aftermath of 2013’s Rana Plaza tragedy in Dhakar, Bangladesh (a building collapse that left more than 2500 injured and over 1000 dead), closer scrutiny into supply chains and the use of sweatshops has promoted shifts in both labour practices and operational patterns within this sector. 

The cost of cheap labour

Whereas using unethical practices such as exploitative labour was once considered a relatively common means to cut costs, now the stigma attached to their use – and to the businesses associated with them – has consequences in terms of bad PR and a loss of consumer confidence. As a result, many governments, trade boards and fashion houses around the world are in discussions over how to implement radical changes to the global textiles industry. 

In Denmark, the publication of the CEO Agenda Report in July 2018 also saw an initiative backed by firms such as Kering and H&M to deliver industry-wide reforms eliminating exploitative practices and pollution. Rana Plaza was again cited as a catalyst for change. However, the report also made the economic case for change – demonstrating the revenue saved and value added by having a safer working environment.

Orsola DeCastro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, says the industry is beginning to embrace reform. Consumers have begun demanding products that are ethically sourced, and brands have responded with an increasing willingness to deliver more transparency in their manufacturing processes. 

The culmination of the 'Who Made My Clothes?' campaign earlier in 2018, delivered by Fashion Revolution, has also demonstrated how the changes in consumer trends are forcing manufacturers to reform their own labour practices. 

“Being ethical, using organic materials and investing in waste reduction is now being seen as a value-added product,” says Ms DeCastro. “Factories in Asia will begin to see this new ethical movement as a means to compete for new contracts. If they do not reform their practices, they risk losing their existing business.” 

Fast fashion

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018 published in July, fashion is listed in the top five industries still fuelling the use of slave labour. The demand for cheap, rapidly and mass-produced apparel traces back to the rise of 'fast fashion' during the early 2000s. 

Fast fashion was designed to imitate the trends seen on the catwalk at a heavily discounted price, and companies such as Primark, Marks & Spencer, Topshop and Zara all invested in mass textile production, favouring countries such as Bangladesh and Turkey as key locations. However, during the period between January 2008 and June 2018, there has been a pivot from textiles manufacturing and production in China, India and Turkey to countries such as Serbia, Vietnam and Ethiopia. 

The countries that were previously FDI recipients are now source investors of many of the new international projects. Take China, for example – a long-standing player in the mass production of apparel that is now involved in multiple FDI projects within the textiles quarter of Addis Ababa, according to greenfield investor monitor fDi Markets. Hawassa Industrial Park, built by a Chinese state-owned construction company, is a paradigm of this new model. The Ethiopian Investment Commission valued the cost of construction at $250m. 

However, in a recent Bloomberg report, journalists discovered that the predominantly female workers at Hawassa earned less than $30 dollars a month each, and often had to sleep in squalid conditions. The venture makes clothing for big name US brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, demonstrating that outsourcing to developing economies is used by high-end as well as fast-fashion retailers. 

Concerns over whether poor labour practices are merely being transferred from one destination to another have prompted further scrutiny into China’s involvement with the Ethiopian textiles market. With each new project creating an average of 2433 jobs, Ethiopia is emerging as a popular destination for outsourced labour, and as recently as May 2018, Shangtex Holdings invested 54m birr ($1.9m) in a new manufacturing facility in the Eastern Industry Zone in Addis Ababa. The facility will make sweaters for the Belgian, Brazilian, Italian, Polish, Japanese, Turkish, North American and South African markets. 

Show and tell

The ‘value added’ benefit of transparency was visible at this year’s Pure Exhibition in London. The UK’s leading international fashion trade show, Pure Exhibition attracts designers and manufacturers from countries such as Portugal, Italy, Turkey, China and Mauritius, and is a useful window into future trends in the global textiles industry. Noticeably, 2018 marked the launch of a new exhibition, Pure Origin, a division within the exhibition that operates as a platform for the manufacturers to have representatives in London to deal with potential queries and orders for future business.  

Organisations such as the Istanbul Apparel Exporters’ Association and the Economic Development Board (Mauritius) were on hand to promote Turkey and Mauritius as attractive destination for FDI while highlighting their ease of doing in business. The Economic Development Board fielded advisers to speak to potential clients, outlining tax breaks, government incentives and available logistical support for investors in a bid to secure FDI for domestic factories, many of whom were also present at the trade show. 

The ability to interrogate the gate keepers of the industry’s supply chain was a major success of the biannual show, which attracts 17,000 international visitors to each event. 

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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