So says researcher Thomas Laudal, who put the clothing industry under scrutiny while working on his PhD thesis at the University of Stavanger.
Norwegians are buying and throwing away clothes like never before. Last year, their buying spree totalled 30 billion Norwegian kroner.
“Ethical considerations seem to play a bigger role when we decide what food we put in our mouths, than in choosing what to wear,” Laudal says.
His PhD research topic was corporate social responsibility (CSR) within the clothing industry. Laudal examined whether or not the fine words in the companies’ CSR statements were put into practice.
“It is a trend among big clothing companies to make huge investments in conveying to the public how well they perform in terms of social responsibility. But actually, they are really not that good,” he says.
The social scientist found that the entire clothing industry is struggling to act socially responsible.
Being subject to continuously changing fashion trends, and the fact that clothes still need to be assembled manually, means that the industry is characterized by small production series and labour intensive processes.
Semi-automatic manufacturing is too expensive in a fierce competition to stay in fashion. The answer is often to shift production to low-cost countries. Cheap manufacturing equals cheap clothes, he adds.
“Moreover, the price of clothes has stood still since 1984. This means that the clothes we buy today are 60 per cent cheaper today when you compare the average purchasing power of consumers in 1984 and 2010.”
Some worse than others
Mexx and Esprit are two of the villains on Laudal’s list of brand names. The Varner Group, the company behind well-known Norwegian brands Dressmann and Cubus, is also a poor performer when it comes to demonstrating social responsibility.
No expenditures on CSR activities were recorded in Mexx’s 2009 accounts, even though the company director received a remuneration of about 45 million NOK.
According to Laudal, Esprit is an equally poor performer. Its CEO received an annual pay check of nearly 70 million NOK, but there were no traces of CSR efforts in its books.
None of the eight international clothing giants studied by Laudal granted his request for a an interview.
Charity not good enough
Even if some of the brand owners had donated money to charitable purposes, Laudal makes a clear distinction between true and superficial social responsibility.
“Donating to charity or signing up to ethical trading initiatives is not sufficient for a company to prove itself socially responsible. Genuine CSR is about incorporating responsibility into its core business,” he says.
“Companies should make their production methods more environmentally sound, and secure the social requirements of their manufacturing staff. They should also be sincerely concerned about the impact of their manufacturing processes on third parties,” he adds.
Expensive is better
Hennes & Maurits and Zara are best in class, because they are making an earnest effort, according to Laudal. These two brands get the social scientist’s accolade for reducing their emissions to the environment, and for signing long-term agreements with their suppliers.
Chain-stores Lindex, Next, Kappahl and Etam are neither particularly good or bad, according to Laudal.
It is a paradox that the most socially responsible brands are luxury labels such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci, he adds. This is because they source their garments from local tailors, who are properly funded and looked after.
But the best consumers can do, is to buy less and demand more from the manufacturers, he advises.
“We are free to exercise social responsibility when choosing what to buy in a food shop. The same freedom of choice should apply when buying clothes!”
Text: Silje Stangeland
Translation: Astri Sivertsen