We’ve Made Our Choice, Now it’s Fast Fashion’s Turn

“I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it,” read tags found within garments purchased at a Zara flagship store during the first week of November. This act is the latest happening in a battle that has been waging for over a year between Spanish multinational clothing company Inditex and workers of one of its third-party factories.

Bravo Tekstil is one of many factories that produces garments for Zara, which is owned by Inditex. In its prime, Bravo Tekstil also produced product for Zara sister companies Next and Mango.

According to the “Justice for Bravo Workers” page found on the petition website Change.org, as of July 2016 the 140 workers who were once employed by Bravo Tekstil were owed three months worth of wages by their boss. The situation escalated when the factory was swept by creditors a month later in August of 2016. Workers claim the manager of Bravo Tekstil disappeared around the same time the factory’s valuables, including sewing machines, were taken by these creditors. The manager, who remains unnamed, left the factory foregoing the three months of owed salary and a severance package. Those formally employed have accused Inditex of selling clothing produced by unpaid labor.

The notes were found sewn into garments at a Zara location in Istanbul. It can be assumed that these workers from Bravo Tekstil went into the store themselves and manually sewed the tags into the clothes. This is the most direct action taken by the factory’s ex-employees.

A simple Google search will reveal that Zara has a good ethical track record on paper. There is a code of conduct that Inditex expects every outsourced manufacturer to follow, and a traceability protocol that allows the company to know exactly how and where their products are made. A ban on both forced and child labor is also instated.

However, it seems Inditex flounders in implementation of their ethical standards. Just last year an investigation of Turkish sweatshops discovered that Syrian refugees had been working 12 hour days in a factory distressing jeans for both Zara and Mango. In 2011,  an investigation by Brazil’s ministry of labor revealed that Inditex’s traceability protocol, ban on child labor, and code of conduct had all failed when a factory in São Paolo — which employed fifteen workers, including one 14 year old — was making use of sweatshop tactics.

The factory had been subcontracted by AHA, the main producer of Zara goods in Brazil. Zara tried to deflect these findings by stating it was not responsible for unauthorized outsourcing by its third party manufacturers even though the code of conduct directly bans these unapproved actions.

Based on sales accumulating within 7,292 stores worldwide, Inditex is the largest fashion retailer in the world. In 2016 alone, it generated $27 billion in revenue and $5.8 billion in profits.

Prior to the placement of these notes of desperation, the individuals formerly employed by Bravo Tekstil had been working with their union representative, DiSK Tekstil. The union, in conjunction with the Clean Clothes Campaign and the IndustriAll Global Union has been negotiating with Inditex for more than a year in hopes that the company itself will compensate the factory workers for the wages they were owed by Bravo Tekstil. So far, Inditex has only offered a quarter of the workers’ 2,739,281.30 Turkish lira claim. This is the equivalent of 704,620.21 US dollars…less than 0.01% of Inditex’s first quarter sales in 2017.

This begs the question, why would a company as profitable and as “devoted” to ethical practices as Inditex refuse to pay such a relatively small amount in full? Yes, it was Bravo Tekstil’s estranged manager who withheld wages, but Inditex, knowingly or not, still went on to make a profit out of clothing manufactured with unpaid labor.

Furthermore, the lines that distinguish luxury market goods from mass market items are blurring, but at what cost? Zara peddles items like knock off McCartney Falabella Cross Body Bags for less than $100. Yet, these “copycat” tendencies are not necessarily the issue. The problem is what Zara sacrifices when it produces dupes of designs from a luxe retailer as environmentally and sustainability conscious as Stella McCartney for much, much less. Is the toll taken on outsourced factory workers really worth it?  

Zara promises ”the latest trends in fashion every 13 days” and sells over 1 billion units per year, but it also implements a code of conduct that looks perfect on the website, yet is not so spotless in execution.

At a time when high fashion brands are stumbling to make sense of the see now-buy now attitude of the consumer, sellers of cheap and affordable garments are succeeding in vending looks that have seemingly walked right off the runway onto the bargain rack.

Fast fashion will not be, or rather should not be, disappearing anytime soon. Is it not a beautiful thing that the average consumer can at the least look like they wear luxury prêt-à-porter?

Consumers have already decided between the knock off Gucci embroidered coats and the Vetements reminiscent sock booties, but now it is up to fast fashion retailers to decide how they would like to precede. Zara can choose to leave the Achilles heel of its unethical policies vulnerable. They can be predictably liable for losing their place at the forefront of this unchartered territory in the apparel industry OR they can align the perfection of their sales floor with what occurs “backstage” in order to cement their presence and influence over the fashion industry.

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