When first becoming interested in ethical fashion, after watching The True Cost (an absolute must watch if you haven’t already!) I decided to scour the websites of my favourite fashion brands to determine if they were ethical or not. Strangely enough, it seemed as though they were – they all had thorough statements about not supporting child labour, paying their workers well and auditing to make sure all was well in factories. Auditing is something I didn’t have much of a clear understanding of – it sounded positive, but after delving a bit further in I found that it’s really more of a marketing ploy.
So, what exactly are audits?
In the fashion industry, they are just inspections of garment factories, designed to make sure that the factory is complying to the standards set by the fashion brand. These standards include things such as having clear fire escapes, having no child labour, allowing workers to have freedom of association and ensuring workers have proper safety equipment.
Audits came about after early exposés of fast fashion brands back in the 1990s. It had been found that in Nike, Gap and Levi’s factories there had been a whole host of issues relating to the standards mentioned above. The big fast fashion brands needed to do something to ensure their customer base would remain, and so the garment factory audit was born.
Today, you will find information about audits on pretty much any fast fashion brands website. I’m going to take Nike’s website as an example of this. On their site they have a statement that says:
‘NIKE audits include detailed criteria to look at risks for forced labour or human trafficking, including the employment of vulnerable worker groups such as foreign migrants, interns and temporary workers, and high-risk practices such as payment of recruitment fees or restrictions on freedom of movement.’
This sounds pretty positive. It makes you feel like you won’t be supporting anything unethical at Nike as they have a team going into factories to make sure none of these terrible practises are happening.
However, it’s not that simple. Audits are highly problematic, most of this information comes from Lucy Siegles book ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World?’ which I have not yet finished but would highly recommend!
First of all, auditors have different levels of training, some can be trained for just a few days. Which leaves them not particularly prepared to conduct thorough inspections of factories. Auditing is often reduced to just ticking boxes, however it should be much more complex than that. For example, there are many health and safety issues that would not be visible to the untrained eye, such as if toxic dyes are being used.
There are other issues that auditors can miss, for example, child labour. There may be workers who are underage – but fake IDs are easy to make, and if the auditor is not trained well, or rushed for time, they’re not going to spot this. As well as the fact that small children are easy to hide when the auditor turns up.
Audits often involve interviews with the workers, however as well as problems with translation, the workers can be reluctant to talk. Even if they are working in horrific conditions, they may be hesitant to spill this to the auditor as it can mean they will lose their job. When many women are working to feed their families, this is not something they can risk, no matter how awful the working conditions. On top of this, factory managers will often pre-select the worker that will be interviewed so they can make sure they will say all the right things.
One example that I found both funny yet deeply concerning in Lucy Siegel’s book was how an auditor was impressed with the high-quality toilet paper in the bathrooms. When they next turned up, unannounced, not only was the high-quality toilet paper gone, so was the toilet. It turns out a fake toilet had been put there, just for show.
Lucy also shares a story of one ex-auditor who talks about how he had flagged a factory as high risk several times, yet the fashion brand took no action. It can be easier for the fashion brand to use their PR team to clear up the mess if a news outlet does write a negative report about them, rather than actually sort out the issues with their factories.
As most of the time the fashion brand will employ a third-party auditing team to conduct their audits, if a negative news story does come out about the factory, the third-party can be blamed. The fashion brand will claim they had trusted the auditing team, but they had been let down, disconnecting themselves from all responsibility.
As noted by the New Conversations Project:
‘Audits are increasingly a routine, commodified and relatively inexpensive exercise, which are outsourced to third parties, and occur over too short a time frame to uncover many problems or analyse the root causes of compliance issues.’
One example of the problems with audits that I found particularly striking relates to the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Both of the factories within the building has been though the Business Social Compliance Initiative (now called Amfori) auditing process. This is the largest labour standards compliance initiative in the world. In their audit no workplace safety risks were identified. 1,134 people died in the disaster, yet the building was claimed to be safe.
We simply cannot take the fact that fashion brands conduct audits as meaning they are ethical and their workers are safe.
I don’t think its all that radical to argue that audits exist merely as a way of brands maintaining an ‘ethical’ image and keeping their customers happy. The truth is, audits don’t do much of anything and the existence of them prevents progress. So, next time you see a fast fashion brand claiming they are ethical because they audit, remain sceptical.