Most readers would have heard of the saddening tragedy in Bangladesh that happened last week when hundreds of factory workers – mainly women and children – were buried under a collapsing building that did not even meet the most simple security standards. I am convinced that eco-labels could help avoiding such tragedies by ensuring minimal standards and a certain worker safety for the most vulnerable in global trade markets for any goods and services.
Seeking to ever lower prices for goods and only concerned about competitors, manufacturer, retailers and importers often ignore the weaknesses in their supply chains. However, low prices come at a price: the difference between the real value of a product and its market value must be covered by stakeholders not involved in the direct trade of the product and are thus described as externalities in economic terms. That is either in form of environmental degradation or negative social impacts, such as insufficient worker health, low wages and other abuses.
It is not uncommon that big companies move(d) to developing countries in the hope to reduce production costs by evading western production standards and safety controls. This usually goes on until the west becomes aware of it, mainly in the form of shocking news like in the case mentioned above. Quite often, the consequences of such events are everyone involved blaming the lack of accordant legislation and corruption in those countries to be responsible for the accident. As a mid-term result, manufacturer move to new “unspoiled” territories instead of addressing the real issues. That happens in the textile industry as much as in any other sector.
The point is that many countries from which we buy our products actually have very strong environmental and social policies. However, while corruption in most of this countries is very high and people very poor, it is very difficult to enforce law and regulations. By not respecting the principles of a sustainable development and showing enough responsibilities as regards their sourcing strategies, many importers and retailers in western countries consciously and systematically contribute to a degradation of the environment and the exploitation of the poorest in those countries. By choosing the best available alternative, this could be improved.
Tragedies don’t happen – they are a consequence of systematic and continuous failure. Degradation of the environment, human rights abuse and other terrible impacts happen in the textile industries as they do in other sectors. When buying or consuming “unlabelled” products we potentially make ourselves guilty of such crimes, especially if we do not know where those products come from.
Do you know where from and at which cost the t-shirt comes you are wearing right now? Or the fish you ate last time you dined out?
For a long time eco-labels have set standards that guarantee for a high level of environmental and social compliance. Eco-labels provide an additional and independent instance of control and are thus an extra risk mitigation scheme should all other mechanisms (i.e. legal compliance and its control by authorities) fail. Besides, it makes buyers to analyse their supply chains and start asking the questions we need to ask: where is the weakest link in the supply chain?
Next time you go shopping you should look for the best available product, not the cheapest. Remember, the cheapest products also come at their price and that the only difference is that someone else is paying for them. By consuming products certified to the most stringent standards we can help improving global trade markets and avoid abuses.
Shop for certified products, think and ask questions. Make a change.