I have to say, I had mixed feelings about this part of my job, it was an opportunity to get off the beaten track and be involved in the manufacturing side again but it came with many challenges. The need to turn into an investigator and maintain a relationship with the factory was one of many.
However, I admit, I don’t really miss some aspects of the job, in particular, the culinary treats served up in China. The lively bowls of insects welcoming you at restaurant entrances, the puppies sold on street corners (not as pets), monkeys in cages, snake soup, chicken heads placed in front of you as the “honoured guest” occasionally locking eyes with it in anticipation of the next course.
I thought of the factories I audited with my very fine technologist “tooth comb” in hand, birkenstocks and mini magnet. In search of signs of child labour, abusive factory owners, poor food and drinking facilities, overcrowded dormitories, and loosely controlled needles, as well as insisting on implementing some stringent quality systems and metal detection procedures.
I can honestly say the technologist wasn’t the factory managers favourite person as the visit generally involved them needing to make changes within THEIR factory. Changes their other customers didn’t require! (allegedly)
“No one else asks us to do this”
Implementing systems and asking for change can be a tough negotiation process but if approached from a financial gain point of view it can happen. The best advice I was given was “don’t go completely native but be appreciative”. My strategy was to keep a psychological advantage and ensure no one loses face, which basically involved eating anything they served me up in true bush tucker trial style. Just don’t ask what it is!
My factory auditing days took me to Portugal, Turkey, China, Hong Kong, Mauritius as well as the UK, each country having its own particular manufacturing challenges to overcome. The determination to address any ethical or quality issues were on occasion met with phrases such as “you need to go home and bond with the egg” (not women’s work apparently) and such like. Always a good sign as it means progress is being made and they are ready to make the changes. (Back to that losing face again)
The problem for retailers and suppliers is that the factory know you are coming. They prepare for your arrival so any unethical practices are given the day off.
The only way to completely ensure your factory is ethically above board is to visit during production or hire private detectives…… Now some retailers do have 3rd party visits carried out on all production runs and this will ensure peace of mind for that product…but once you/they leave, what then? Also just how practical is it to stand over every style being made, counting to ensure nothing has been outsourced..and can you trust the 3rd party not to be persuaded to turn a blind eye? Now no gasping! Yes it happens.
But let’s not bash the factories. Many I audited were incredible places to work and I spent days in some sorting out production issues. The pressure they are under to deliver on time within tight leadtimes or face penalties will force them to problem solve and potentially outsource to a cousins, brothers, sisters or friends factory. It’s normal practice. The outsourced factory will most definitely have not been audited. Will there be kids working there? Who knows?
When I read of children found working in factories I ponder over the obvious questions.
Is education available and free for all kids in this country?
If not, what do the children do all day if the parents have to work?
Can the mothers take them with them to work? What do they do while at the factories with their mothers…there ain’t no creche facilities, that’s for sure!
What is the alternative? Prostitution? Begging?
What are the circumstances of the children working? None are acceptable but the one situation we can sympathise with is the mother doing her best for her family. We can’t control what people do to stay alive, the basics of food and shelter can be a struggle to be met and that creates the situation for exploitation amongst the unscrupulous factory owner.
The Ugly, Victorian work house situation. It’s unthinkable to be wearing something next to our skin or our children’s or our babies that may have passed through the hands of a child in forced labour.
It’s a sad sad situation. Yes retailers absolutely follow the ETI base code as well as ask that the countries own labour laws be adhered to as a minimum. This is checked during an audit with clipboard and never ending tick sheets.
So why does it happen?
Short Lead times on fast fashion?
The reality of how tightly production is managed and how that late approval of a print strike off, lab dip or bad communication re fit and pattern changes can force you out of your production slot….think flying and how that one passenger holding up the flight means you can’t take off on time as your slot has been taken! Delays, delays delays…but thankfully we don’t all immediately grab our phones and call the pilot asking for a discount or call in a penalty ……in which case he might be forced to head “off piste” and to hell with the runway let’s just head over the grass to keep on time and if we are still not quick enough….everyone out and push, children included? An odd analogy I know but it’s all about keeping production running. Factories can’t afford any down time. Their workers are piece paid in many of these countries and if the work dries up they pack their bag and head to another factory. So any factory manager worth their salt will get your production out on time, just perhaps not having taken the path you hoped and asked for.
In short, you can do everything possible to ensure best practices by using auditors, accredited 3rd party companies and agents but this is an industry which involves a lot of problem solving and how a factory manager in a country with a 8 hour time difference decides to solve a production issue is not always within your control.
So as an ex tech who has started designing and making for myself I can honestly say that being all too aware of the many pitfalls and difficulties that can arise in garment manufacturing, I prefer to make as locally as possible. My knitwear is knitted in Hawick in the Scottish Borders.
I am lucky and safe in the knowledge that my kids are safely tucked up at school, fed, watered and clothed and know no children were used in the making of my products…ehh except when I ask my kids to try one on and let me take a photo! Exploited? They would shout “exploited? hell yeah!” A word they use , like “I’m starving”, but will thankfully, never truly understand the real meaning.
I am choosing to manufacture in the UK ..that’s not to say I won’t go overseas, but if I do, it will be with eyes wide open. Looking closely for tyre tracks across the grass and the imprint of small feet and hands amongst the fibrous dust.
Keeping it close, for me, also means a lovely drive through the countryside to arrive at an ethically sound factory where there is always on offer a good cup of tea and a biscuit, plenty of banter and no translator required.
Please note I have written this prior to the airing of the Panorama programme and may revisit the subject after I have seen it.