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Home / Tim Worstall /So, just what is ethical fashion then?

So, just what is ethical fashion then?

Summary:
The Guardian tells us that cheap, or fast, fashion is unethical. The reason being that those working in the factories are making less than some think they should be making. This strikes us as being remarkably obtuse about ethics.We bow to no one in our insistence that of course the consumer should express their preferences. If a label claiming “sustainability” or “ethical” adds to utility maximisation then not only go for it if you wish to, you should go for it. And yet:In 1970, for example, the average British household spent 7% of its annual income on clothing. This had fallen to 5.9% by 2020. Even though we are spending less proportionally, we tend to own more clothes. According to the UN, the average consumer buys 60% more pieces of clothing – with half the lifespan – than they did 15

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The Guardian tells us that cheap, or fast, fashion is unethical. The reason being that those working in the factories are making less than some think they should be making. This strikes us as being remarkably obtuse about ethics.

We bow to no one in our insistence that of course the consumer should express their preferences. If a label claiming “sustainability” or “ethical” adds to utility maximisation then not only go for it if you wish to, you should go for it. And yet:

In 1970, for example, the average British household spent 7% of its annual income on clothing. This had fallen to 5.9% by 2020. Even though we are spending less proportionally, we tend to own more clothes. According to the UN, the average consumer buys 60% more pieces of clothing – with half the lifespan – than they did 15 years ago. Meanwhile, fashion is getting cheaper

Clearly this process is making us, us here, richer. We are gaining more - much more - for a smaller portion of our income. Clothing poverty was, after all, a real thing. “Sunday best” is now just a phrase and one that we expect to drop out of the language as the actual experience - of having just the two sets of clothes, workaday and that Sunday set - rolls on to being a century and more old.

We’d also essay a supposition. Those collarless shirts that have been so popular these past few years. An older phrase for them is “grandad shirts” when shirts were made with detachable collars. So that one could wear the same shirt for several days but with a clean collar each one. A generation before that there were also detachable cuffs. Both shirts and the washing of them were expensive. Or read old novels, the phrase “fresh shirt” and the putting on of it. No one writing now would emphasise that for it’s assumed rather than the event it used to be.

So, our experience is better. What about those factory workers?

Their research suggested that the textile factory in Izmir received just €1.53 for cutting the material, sewing, packing and attaching the labels, with €1.10 of that being paid to the garment workers for the 30-minute job of putting the hoodie together. The report concluded that workers could not have received anything like a living wage, which the Clean Clothes Campaign defined, at the time the report was released, as a gross hourly wage of €6.19.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has some very odd ideas about what a living wage is. In Turkey they seem to think that it’s 120% or so of the average national wage. Well, OK, maybe that is the income required to gain the lifestyle that the campaign thinks all should live at. It rather becomes an ethical question as to how to get there, doesn’t it?

At which point, Paul Krugman:

.... the wages earned in one industry are largely determined by the wages similar workers are earning in other industries....(...)...Second, the link between productivity and wages is thoroughly misunderstood. Non-economists typically think that wages should reflect productivity at the level of the individual company. So if Xerox manages to increase its productivity 20 percent, it should raise the wages it pays by the same amount; if overall manufacturing productivity has risen 30 percent, the real wages of manufacturing workers should have risen 30 percent, even if service productivity has been stagnant; if this doesn't happen, it is a sign that something has gone wrong...(...)...It is a fact that some Bangladeshi apparel factories manage to achieve labor productivity close to half those of comparable installations in the United States, although overall Bangladeshi manufacturing productivity is probably only about 5 percent of the US level. Non-economists find it extremely disturbing and puzzling that wages in those productive factories are only 10 percent of US standards.

Those numbers are a little old but the points still stand. Wage rates are set across an economy, not by individual factory. Krugman again:

But matters are not that simple, and the moral lines are not that clear. In fact, let me make a counter-accusation: The lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through. While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers.

Those textile factory jobs are better than a life staring at the south end of a north moving water buffalo. Which is why people voluntarily take them. This biggest advertisement for the process being Bangladesh, the country most reliant upon the schmutter trade. Yes, wage rates are low by our standards. They’re also double what they were a decade back and quadruple those of the turn of the century. As one of us put it in somewhat salty fashion, this does actually work as a method of reducing poverty.

Those Third Worlders are becoming less mired in destitution. We benefit too. Perhaps that second shouldn’t matter ethically but it is the vital ingredient that makes the process self-supporting. That we gain is the feedback that keeps the development cycle going.

Which gives us two very different possible ethical approaches. To purchase less but more expensively, thereby paying those living wages to whatever small number of people is required to produce that restricted consumption. Or, when passing that shop of £1 t-shirts, looking at that screen of 50 pence bikinis, buying the second and the third selection because why not aid the poor?

We insist that the ethical choice here is the hyperconsumption of fast fashion. As we’ve been known to remark, ethics require that we buy those things made by poor people in poor countries. For who wouldn’t - or perhaps who shouldn’t - prefer to make entire countries rich?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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