Fast Fashion Brands Can Afford To Pay Fair Wages, They Just Choose Not To

by: Lucy Jones | 9 months ago | News

Image: Women in the sewing division of a Cambodian factory. Image Source.

Most international fast fashion companies do not pay garment workers fair living wages. This means that hundreds and thousands of garment workers, most of whom are women, are living below the poverty line. Not only are these workers unable to afford basic necessities like food, shelter and water, they are also forced live in squalid makeshift homes and work for up to 100 hours a week. A new Racked report suggests that the reason that brands have failed to fully address these human rights abuses might be that they don’t see them as a priority. 

In 2013, H&M announced that it would pay all of its 850,000 factory workers a fair living wage by the end of 2018. With this deadline fast approaching, the company still hasn’t achieved this goal. H&M’s latest living wage strategy update states that its goal for 2018 is to “have improved wage management systems in place at suppliers representing 50% of our product volume”. 

Ben Vanpeperstraete, a representative from the grassroots activist group Clean Clothes Campaign, told Racked that this update dances around the issue of fair living wages.

“A number of elements in those updates seem to be generalist, not concrete enough, and to a certain extent, immaterial or irrelevant to the question: Well, as a result of this, are workers producing clothes for H&M getting a higher salary, yes or no?” he explained. “And that’s the crux of the question. Everything else is relatively irrelevant fluff.”

The company maintains that it is doing all it can to ensure that its suppliers pay their workers fair wages. “We have always been clear on what our goal is; to set the foundation and mechanisms needed for fair living wages to be paid by suppliers,” H&M social sustainability manager Cecilia Tiblad Berntsson told Racked. “We have an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and report annually both to stakeholders and media about the activities and actions within the fair living wage strategy.”

Companies have to contend with factory owners as well as local governments in order to establish fair wages. This is a complicated process that takes time, but Vanpeperstraete says it would happen a lot more quickly if companies made fair wages a priority. 

“Companies can be extremely efficient organisations when it comes to achieving specific goals, but only if they’re set on doing so,” he said. Fast fashion companies are known for their ability to deliver "ripped from the runway" looks at break-neck speeds, he added. “If they would have the same commitment to paying living wages, then that would probably happen, not necessarily overnight but in a very short time span.”

The cost of fair wages wouldn’t necessarily fall back on to the consumer either. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a garment worker’s wage only accounts for 1-3% of the total cost of most garments. This means that a company would only need to dedicate a tiny fraction of its annual earnings to wages in order to cover this cost. A Labour Behind the Label report claims that it would cost H&M 1.9% of the $2 billion it made in 2016 to pay Cambodian workers a fair living wage. One annual advertising budget would cover those same wages for six and a half years. These figures prove that H&M could be paying a fair living wage today if it really wanted to. In fact, according to Vanpeperstraete, H&M is in the position to be leading the way on this issue. 

“H&M is in a crucial position to do stuff because it has those long-term relationships and those large buying volumes with a lot of factories,” he said. “If H&M calls a factory owner, they’ll listen. People pick up the phone for H&M.”

Read the eye-opening report in full here.

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