Audits are designed to protect a corporation rather than the workers. There are many different kinds of audits. When you hear a company say, “Oh, we conducted an audit, and found no evidence of forced labor,” I would push back and say that means nothing. You need to review a lot more information.
Was it a standard audit? that costs a couple hundred dollars and only checks for cleanliness of the factory, quality of the merchandise, simple things like that. That kind of audit cannot detect something as complex as illegal, hidden subcontracting to labor camps. There are more expensive, comprehensive audits called social compliance audits, where they look at wage documents, how many employees the factory actually has, and how much you’re actually producing. Those could cost $1,000 or more. Then you have another tier of audits that cost about $5,000, where they really cross-analyze the wage documents of all the departments in the factory. How many companies are actually doing those kinds of audits?
So people try to cheat the system.
It all comes back to our Western desire for extremely trendy and cheap products. So a lot of corporations will demand that factories meet all these regulations and standards, but they won’t actually pay them more for those standards. So factories have no choice but to revert to cheating the system, including software that can create fake timesheets. They will even have the holes stamped out and in irregular ways to make it look authentic. It can be very hard for even a good auditor to find out the truth.
If we can’t rely on audits, what’s the best way to bring greater transparency to the fashion supply chain? How can consumers demand greater accountability?
We start by asking our favorite brands to reveal how much they’re paying their factories to make their products. Currently, the words “sustainability” and “transparency” are just marketing buzzwords. They’re essentially meaningless. If you look at the sustainability pages of brands-—to the unknowing person—it would look amazing. A lot of companies list their first or second tier factories and their addresses. But what actually goes on in those factories?
Through your research, have you come across any products that you own, that you realize might have been made through slave labor?
I’m starting to realize everything is potentially made by slave labor. There’s no way to really confirm unless companies start revealing more information about how they’re auditing their factories and what their sourcing practices are.
For years, Chinese goods have been disparaged as low quality or made under sweatshop conditions, and you talk about the Nike boycott in the 1990s as part of that history. But more recently, now some of the most advanced textile and garment factories are in China. There’s a sense that maybe some of the “Made in America” stuff was basically just racism in disguise. On top of this, China is becoming the largest consumer of fashion goods in the world. So a lot of brands are investing quite heavily in not just making things in China, but selling things in China. Is there a more nuanced position?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think the solution is necessarily avoiding all made in China products or pulling out of China entirely. Because I don’t even think that would be possible. With how far globalization has gone, I don’t think we could just turn back the tide like that. There are good factories in China and good reasons to source from China, but I think we also have to be a lot more aware of how our sourcing practices contribute to factories using forced labor. And if we do find out that one of a brand’s suppliers is using forced labor, we have to be able to drop them immediately.
Ultimately, brands do respond to consumer demand. If they can find that this particular demand is lucrative and marketable for them, then they’ll go in that direction, but we as consumers have to start saying we care. Until brands suffer significant PR damage from something, they won’t be compelled to act.