What does globalization mean in sweatshop industry?

It is an analysis of a long form article: THE MYTH OF THE ETHICAL SHOPPER

link: http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/the-myth-of-the-ethical-shopper/


This long story tells us how the whole sweatshop industry works in this era of globalization and tries to find solutions of eliminating sweatshops.

Despite starting with an eye-catching video, making the topic of sweatshops quite closer to ordinary people, this article also uses other ways to make it more accessible. One is using vivid and emotional stories. For instance, that 1200 workers in Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh weren’t allowed to stop working even when the building caught fire really shocks readers. Another is making comparison. For example, after mentioning Li & Fung’s $19.2 billion revenues, the author added “more than Ralph Lauren, Armani and Tommy Hilfiger combined”, comparing it with western companies which readers are more familiar.

In the chain of sweatshop industry, there is not only abused labors and cruel managers, but also megasuppliers, big-brand companies and customers. Anti-sweatshop advocators, auditors and inspectors involve in the development of industry either. The author used several parts in the article to illustrate different roles these people play.

Actually, anti-sweatshop campaign all started in the mid-’90s and it worked for a while, but when it comes to the present situation, the author concluded that “Boycotts have failed” and “Our clothes are being made in ways that advocacy campaigns can’t affect and in places they can’t reach”. Why? There are three major reasons.

Firstly, it’s about the flawed audits. By the end of the ’90s, a society-wide consensus had formed on how companies should operate their developing-country factories, while the structures are just designed to make factories look like they are, according to the author. It means that factories just do something superficial to deal with audits. For example, in a 2009 survey, Chinese auditors referred to their work as a “cat-and-mouse game”. Rachelle Jackson, director of sustainability and innovation at Arche Advisors, said that sometimes employees answered before you asked the question. An examination of ten years of Nike inspections also found that from 2001 to 2005, the paperwork audit showed working conditions in almost all of Nike’s suppliers were steadily improving, but when researchers  checked the qualitative audit, nearly 80 percent of them either hadn’t improved or had gotten worse.

Secondly, it’s the opaque megasuppliers that make advocacy campaigns ineffective. In this fast-fashion era, factories have to compete on how many and how fast they can produce. However, western brands can’t afford the luxury of working with the same suppliers and ensuring that they meet the company’s standards, so “most of them have outsourced this coordination to megasuppliers: huge conglomerates that can take a design sketch, split the production between thousands of factories, box up the goods and ship them to stores in less time than they’ll stay in style”. It develops a business model of this industry. Megasuppliers play an important role as coordinators. Take Li & Fung as an example. Li & Fung is the largest apparel megasupplier, which produces everything from Wal-Mart basics to Disney plush toys to Spanx. It has 15,000 supplier factories in 40 countries, but doesn’t own or operate any of them. What it does is configuring various suppliers into a straight line just long enough to deliver one order to one buyer, and then reconfiguring them for the next. Besides, megasuppliers play a role in keeping buyers separated from factories. It firstly benefits megasuppliers themselves because the buyers, mostly big brands, have to rely on them. Also, they allow these big brands to “avoid bad publicity and legal liability when things go wrong” by “adding a layer of insulation between reputation-conscious retailers and often poorly treated workers”, as The New York Times article about Li & Fung violations wrote. Such sub-contracting seems to facilitate big brands to pass the buck.

Thirdly, it’s the changes in global consumption. This story mentions that in Delhi’s garment cluster, there are still problems violating western markets standards such child labor. That’s because sweatshops in developing countries work not only for western markets, but also for domestic markets where they don’t need to comply with social standards. Actually, domestic markets are much bigger than western markets in these countries, and they also sell for each other. For example, fifty-six percent of the clothing produced in China is for the Chinese market. Garment exports from Bangladesh to other poor countries have grown by as much as 50 percent per year. In the next 15 years, rich countries’ share of consumption is expected to fall from 64 percent to 30 percent. Such changes in global consumption are more likely to intensify sweatshops problems in developing countries since fewer legislations of protecting workers there. Even consumer advocacy campaigns are never going to improve working conditions in the developing world: Western markets simply don’t matter as much as they used to.

“If globalization is a race to the bottom, where lowest wages win,” said Cathy Feingold, director of international affairs for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., “Li & Fung is the sherpa showing companies the fastest route down that slope.” It’s in the NYT article. Sweatshop is a greet global concern not only because many western countries and developing countries involve in the story, but also because development of this industry reflects many problems of globalization.What does globalization mean in this industry? Does it mean miserable sweatshops arising several centuries ago in western countries now shift to developing countries? Then what’s the difference between these days and the olden days? That’s by no means a balancing development. Besides, there is a great gap of standards between western markets and domestic markets in developing countries. There are also tangled interest relationship of big companies, megasuppliers and bottomed factories.

Undoubtedly, there are many difficulties to eliminate sweatshops. The author tried to find a possible solution to bring about better labor conditions in poor countries by giving the case of Brazil. Working with public prosecutors, inspectors in Brazil unearthed an obscure judicial statement that prohibited companies from outsourcing their “core” activities. “Instead of empowering domestic agencies with a mandate to prevent abuses, we rely on international corporations seeking to insulate themselves from bad publicity.” It’s quite interesting that it is the interest relationship between international corporations and domestic factories in Brazil, on the other word, globalization, that takes effects in this case. Efficient and autonomous inspectors also play a great part in its success. Though Brazil case might not be duplicated all over the world, it shows “real leverage is with our policies, not our purchases”, which just echoes the lead “We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015”.


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