Why your Merchandise Matters


Workers in Bangladesh protest against working conditions that led to the deaths of thousands in the Rana Plaza disaster.

It is 9.27pm. Rabeya still has another 12 sleeves to attach to t-shirts before her daily quota is met. She and her colleagues cannot leave the factory until this order is complete because the shipment is scheduled for the next day. Tomorrow is Saturday, but she still must work, leaving her one-month-old daughter in the care of her neighbours.

Can you blame sweatshop workers for wanting better working conditions?

In December 2016, tens of thousands of sweatshop workers in Bangladesh went on strike, demanding higher pay and better working conditions after a spate of factory fires, collapsed buildings and continually poor working environments. Of these protesting workers, 1,600 were sacked, and 35 union leaders were arrested.

Unlike the constant bombardment of advertisements promoting the latest ‘must have’ apparel by fast fashion giants such as H&M, Zara and Topshop – all of whose garment production is heavily contracted out to Bangladeshi factories – this struggle was neither thoroughly documented in mainstream media, nor in the collective conscience of consumers.

Bangladesh has imposed increasingly coercive strategies on garment factory workers, such as police violence, arbitrary detention and death threats to intimidate workers from rallying for better conditions. In fact, the Industrial Police unit was established in 2010, during the surge of strikes, for the exact purpose of crushing dissent in the textile industry.

It is highly likely that some of the clothes in your personal wardrobe have been made in Bangladesh. The merchandise sourced for different branches of the ANU is no exception. – the ANU Shop, clubs, societies, residences and ANU Sport all use exploitative brands.

We must address the disconnect between the true social and environmental costs within production processes, global supply chains, and the desired items hanging off racks and shelves. This is a core objective of organisations such as Fashion Revolution, Good On You, United Students Against Sweatshops, and our ANU collective, Students Wanting to Eliminate All Textile Sweatshops (SWEATS).

SWEATS runs grassroots campaigns around the university to increase awareness of sweatshops, ‘sweat-free’ alternatives and ethical consumerism. We are advocating for the ANU to become the first university in Australia to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and source its apparel from ‘sweat-free’ brands. WRC affiliation would place the ANU within a global ‘sweat-free’ movement of 185 colleges in the US, Canada and UK, including all Ivy-league institutions.

The WRC is an independent organisation specialising in carrying out investigations of and publishing reports about textile factories worldwide. More specifically, it focuses on eliminating sweatshop practices in factories producing university-related apparel. If the ANU were to join the WRC, this would guarantee that all its merchandise would be produced transparently, incorporating the WRC’s Code of Conduct into its manufacturing process.

Tertiary institutions such as the ANU serve an important purpose beyond teaching and research: they are a catalyst for social change and innovation and have a responsibility to respect human rights in the ways they operate. University communities have a great tradition of providing moral guidance and resistance in critical periods – such as the anti-Vietnam War movement and the ‘second wave’ of feminism. If this tradition is to continue, it is imperative that university communities take a stand against sweatshops.

Ultimately, one of the main goals of the movement is the elimination of a common justification for the preservation of sweatshops: that workers voluntarily ‘choose’ to enter into free contracts with their employers. Textile corporations have found that violence is often not necessary because other powerful and subtle motivators exist. As Professor Noam Chomsky succinctly argued in correspondence with SWEATS: ‘If people have the choice between starvation for their families and slavery, they might choose slavery. That’s not an argument for slavery. Rather, for eliminating that criminal choice. Same with sweatshops.’ This is the essence of the ‘sweat-free’ movement.

It might seem that as students, the thought of campaigning to completely eradicate sweatshops is an ambitious task. However, there are multiple steps we can all take to avoid fast fashion and make more ethical consumer decisions.

Along with the conventional advice of utilising Clothes Swaps and Op Shops to avoid the destructive cycle of fast fashion, there are many other resources available. Apps such as ‘Good on You’ let you search for brands or stores and find ratings of their environmental and social impacts, and Baptist World Aid’s annual Fashion Reports detail what the fashion industry and individual companies are doing to address child labour, forced labour and exploitation. When buying new clothes, you can look for the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) accreditation, which guarantees the transparency of supply chains for ‘Made in Australia’ clothing, footwear and textile goods.

Fashion Revolution Week – which runs from 24 – 30 April – starts with the commemoration of the Rana Plaza disaster, and then involves campaigns that encourage millions of people to demand greater clarity in garment production processes and ask brands, ‘Who made my clothes?’

In Fashion Revolution Week 2017, SWEATS – in collaboration with other branches of the ANU – will be running events to raise awareness of ethical consumerism, ‘sweat-free’ alternatives and complex production processes and supply chains. Join our social justice campaign to encourage our university to use its economic clout for good, and have its purchasing practices aligned with the principles of the ANU community. We can sew together the fabric of humanity!

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