Naked and ethical. Everything that’s wrong with our clothing

By Klaus Rohrbach, December 2018

Every person has basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Physical needs include clothing – it should keep us warm, protect us and, as an add-on to cater for our feelings, have an aesthetic design. We also experience it as an expression of our individuality. It is nevertheless the case that much in its production continues to be ethically, socially and ecologically questionable.

Photo: © Zhanat Kulenov, wikicommons

The average European goes through about 20 kilograms of textiles per year, Americans as much as 35 kilograms. After food, the textile and clothing industry is the second largest consumer goods sector in Germany. The processed materials come from China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Bangladesh. Only about five percent of clothing is, however, manufactured in Germany; the rest comes from so-called low-wage countries.

What is cheap cotton worth?

Cotton is preferably grown in dry regions because rain can easily make the plants rot. The problem here is irrigation. At least 2000 litres of water are required for the production of a single cotton shirt alone. Uzbekistan is one of the largest cotton suppliers worldwide. In order to obtain this position, the country was prepared to accept one of the largest environmental catastrophes in the world: the almost complete drying up and poisoning of the Aral Sea. As long ago as the time of Stalin, water for the artificial irrigation of the cotton fields was taken from the Kazakh and Uzbek tributaries of what was then the fourth largest inland sea on earth. From the 1960s onwards, the water level began to fall dramatically; ultimately only about ten percent of the original water mass remained. The lake split into two remaining basins; an attempt is being made to save the northern one, the southern one is drying up all the faster.

The great increase in salinity, together with additional pollution through pesticides and poisons such as the defoliant Agent Orange, destroyed the once famous biodiversity of the “oriental wonder”, as the Aral Sea was still called in the nineteenth century; the once productive fishing industry has been completely devastated. Previously prosperous port cities today lie many kilometres distant from its shores. It is as if they have died. Where at the time there was busy shipping, today the wrecks of vessels sit in a desert of sand and salt. Many people have fallen ill with tuberculosis, cancer or immune diseases, infant mortality is higher than in the rest of Central Asia.

Forced labour for export

Everything takes second place to the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. In order to have sufficient hands for the harvest, hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, post men and women, every civil servant, but also pupils, students and even pensioners are conscripted into forced labour. Previously that also included about two million children from the age of nine, but since 2013 child labour has no longer been in evidence – following protests.

The pickers work for ten hours a day in burning heat; food and transport to the fields has to be paid for by the pickers themselves. The quota to be picked is a high one: pupils and students, for example, have to pick 50 kilograms of cotton a day, in some regions even 80 kilograms. They get about four euro cents per day but 25 kilograms are deducted for the paltry lunch. And anyone who fails to fulfil their quota has to buy the remaining kilograms.

During the harvest period, these people are missing from their real jobs. When 21-year-old Umida Kulieva gave birth to her first child, a little girl, she was born dead; she had suffocated during birth. The young woman had lain in hospital with painful contractions for two days, but there was no medical assistance because the doctors and midwives had to pick cotton …

In the fields, the pickers come into contact with poisonous fertilisers, the accommodation is cramped, damp and dirty. Many Uzbeks return ill from their summer deployment. “But this is cotton, our bread, our money,” says a vocational teacher and smiles.

At the end, the whole of the cotton harvest is bought by the state at an arbitrarily fixed price. That is about 3.5 million tonnes of raw cotton and one million tonnes of cotton fibre annually. Up to 800,000 tonnes of the “white gold” are then exported. The most important buyers are Russia, China, Korea, India and Bangladesh. Numerous European and US textile firms operate their sewing shops in these countries.

When information about the forced labour and the devastating environmental pollution became public knowledge, there was an official boycott of some large wholesalers such as H&M, Adidas and C&A. But few practical consequences have resulted; the trade routes and value creation chains in the textile industry are too complex.

Bangladesh wakeup call

Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of textiles worldwide. Three-and-a-half million people, mostly women, work in its factories. When on 24 April 2013 just before half past eight the two sewers Rosina and her sister entered the textile factory on Rana Plaza, an eight story building in Savar near the capital Dhaka, they could already see the cracks in the walls. Then the whole building collapsed. It had been built and approved as an office block and was not suitable for the heavy machinery of the factories which had rented it. The people in positions of responsibility knew about it. Rosina survived after lying unconscious for a long time, but in extreme danger had to cut off her arm, buried under the rubble, before she could be pulled out by rescuers.

Altogether 1,129 people died, 1,524 were injured and 322 were never found. The disaster triggered worldwide shock. It soon became clear that Rana Plaza was not the only factory with wholly inadequate safety standards and that more than two dozen American companies such as Walmart and Gap as well as European and German ones including New Yorker, Lidl, Kik, Primark (Irish), Benetton (Italian), Adler, H&M (Swedish) or C&A were having their products made in Bangladesh.

The woman sew for up to twelve hours a day under neon light, with bad ventilation, and for rock-bottom wages equivalent to 30 euros per month – raised to 53 euros after violent protests. But that is not enough to live on in Dhaka. That is why many children have to labour in the factories as well in order to ensure the survival of the family.

It took the companies concerned a year to agree to pay into a compensation fund. But public pressure also had other effects. Safety standards were raised and there were more inspections. But protection against fire is still extremely inadequate. Serious building defects really need to be rectified. But these investments are difficult to finance even for producers who want to do so, for the fashion chains in America and Europe wage a brutal price war. Yet we are talking about just five cents more per t-shirt.

But the caravan moves on. Some years ago, fashion groups such as H&M discovered an even cheaper manufacturing location: Ethiopia. Here the sewers work shifts for the equivalent of 32 euros a month, eight hours a day, six days a week, without any holiday days. Many women live together with others in a single room. When the money runs out, as often happens, they have to borrow. And yet they don’t complain because it is better, they say, than where they come from: a village where they are married off at the age of twelve, have no freedom, and earn no money at all …

Second-hand clothes collection – a good deed?

Actually that dress, t-shirt or those trousers are still fine because they have not been worn very much. So we put them into the second-hand clothes collection and in doing so are even doing a good deed.

The reality looks somewhat different. With the second-hand clothes collection we are servicing a global “full-profit” industry which sells donated goods in such large quantities that the domestic textiles industry in many developing countries, particularly in Africa, has meanwhile closed down, above all the small and medium-sized businesses.

More than 250,000 tonnes of old clothing are meanwhile collected commercially in Germany each year, including through aid organisations such as the Red Cross or the Hospitalers. They get about five cents per kilogram. That is where the road to profit starts. The largest textile sorting plant in the world is located in Bitterfeld-Wolfen in the German state of Saxony Anhalt. Every few minutes lorries deliver up to 300 tonnes of clothing per day. Fully computerised, the goods are sorted by quality. Only 15 percent is recycled in other ways because it is no longer usable. The best items go to second-hand shops in the countries of the former eastern bloc and the Arab states. The ones of inferior quality, about 60 percent, go to Africa – not always legally – where they are sold, not donated as the majority of German citizens think!

Everywhere, for example in the larger cities of Kenya, thousands of traders offer the millions of articles of clothing in markets which can stretch for kilometres. A shirt costs the equivalent of one euro, Armani jeans are available for two euros. The items are called “mitumba”. The good German items are particularly in demand. Many of the sewers, who have been made unemployed because the domestic small businesses have been forced out of business, sit at the side of the road with their sewing machines and reduce the XXL sizes from Europe which people have bought – at least some incidental earnings for them.

And what might ethically aware behaviour look like? The response of an expert sounds cynical: “Cut up the clothes you want to donate; then it’s usefully recycled into paper!”

Sustainable clothing or just “greenwash”?

Some perspectives have meanwhile changed. Many customers have become more aware and ask not just about the price and quality but also about the working conditions and environmental pollution in the producing countries. And criticism helps. Thus H&M and Levi Strauss undertook to stop using the so-called sandblasting method to make new jeans look worn because the quartz dust which the workers inhale damages their health. Although the general public continues to buy as cheaply as possible, the counter-movement with an awareness of sustainable, organic and fairly produced textiles is growing and fashion spreads on green fashion have meanwhile become something quite normal in women’s magazines.

One of the pioneers was Heinz Hess. In 1976 he founded “Versand naturgemäßer Waren” with his wife Dorothea, which subsequently became Hess Natur, with an organic range of fair trade products. The company is a member with 150 others in the Alliance for Sustainable Textiles (Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien) which was established in October 2014 by the German minister for development, Gerd Müller, as a reaction to the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh.

It has as its objective to improve the situation of ecological and social production particularly in the developing countries. Large fashion chains – responding to market pressure – have developed labels to support this, so far considerably more than 20 different ones. Yet this often affects only small segments of total production and the standards are not uniformly regulated. Fundamentally, caution is indicated! Because there are many companies advertising “green” products, thus ensuring a good conscience for their customers, when in fact all they are doing is “greenwashing”. For in reality their products are not environmentally friendly and they continue to be produced in conditions that are harmful to health and exploitative.

As a consequence, the German environment minister has for some years tried to introduce a label, the “green button”, which is intended to signal that the article of clothing has been produced in a fair and sustainable manner. Critics, however, point out that seamless monitoring “from the cotton field to the hanger” was only possible with small production volumes, not with the mass products in global competition. Thus a simple shirt, for example, passes through 140 different stages in a complex value creation chain. The textile alliance has perhaps taken a first step – but on a path on which there is still a long way to go.

Becoming a conscious consumer through how we act

The aspects described above make the important task of handwork lessons in Waldorf schools particularly clear. The children start making articles of clothing from as early as class 3. This culminates in a textile product which the young people make with a sewing machine in class 9 and which they have designed themselves to fit their own body. Their own activity and experience thus give rise to impulses for their own development.

And complementary, possibly interdisciplinary, lesson content in history, economic geography, social studies and so on can create an extended awareness of the complex economic interrelationships in the textile business – and as consumers perhaps to a responsibly acting citizen of the world.

About the author: Klaus Rohrbach was an upper school teacher at a Waldorf school for 38 years in the subjects of German, geography and ethics; he still works in teacher training; various publications.