If you’re strapped for cash and your child needs new uniform – having lost three school shirts last year – you may be incredibly tempted by the old BOGOF offer down at your local supermarket when September comes around.

But do you know – or more importantly, care – whether the cheap school uniforms you buy are ethically sourced?

What do we mean by that? There are lots of issues when it comes down to ethical sourcing. It could be that someone was paid a fair price to make garments under good working conditions,  or that the material used was ethically sourced. There are also issues regarding carbon emissions from manufacture and transport. But as an ethical consumer, how do you know what’s the case for your smart new uniform? That’s tricky, especially if your chosen retailer has something to hide.

Repeated claims from retail giants

Despite repeated claims from the retail industry that all is well, there’s no denying that people’s initial instinct is almost always that things are cheap for a reason … and they wouldn’t be wrong to assume they may be the products of sweatshops.

In 2010, an Observer investigation found some of the nation’s biggest fashion retailers at the centre of a major scandal after staff were found working at their Indian suppliers up to 16 hours per day, with those refusing to work the extra hours told to find new jobs.

Despite the claims, those retailers concerned told the reporting journalist that they were totally committed to ethical trading and would not tolerate abuse in their supply chain.

How do you know if the cheap school uniforms you buy are ethical?

Superstores like Asda seem to bring their prices down year on year, frequently advertising school uniform for bargain basement prices. While this may be a loss leader tactic – cheekily used to coax consumers into the shop –  it’s no wonder that minds start racing as to how on earth their clothes can be so cheap.

George says it recognises the importance of ethical sourcing and to meet its commitment, employs a team of ethics specialists in the countries where its clothes are produced.  Its role is to ensure that while UK customers benefit from value for money, it doesn’t come at “unacceptable cost” to workers.

Marks and Spencer claim that their suppliers are required to comply with ethical policies, requiring them to provide employees with good working conditions, fair treatment and reasonable rates of pay.

However, just because stores selling school uniform are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), this is not concrete proof that garments have been made fairly, as has previously been found in factories abroad.

Cotton production

Sourcing of sustainable cotton is a serious issue in today’s clothing industry. About three quarters of the average wardrobe contains cotton; the farming of which is a livelihood for some 300 million people.

But there are workers’ rights issues associated with cotton production, especially in Uzbekistan, where there is widespread use of toxic pesticides and a high water footprint.

Some stores which stock school uniform, such as F&F (Tesco), along with well-known brands like ASOS and Levi’s, have agreed targets to source 100% sustainable cotton (organic, recycled and Fairtrade) by 2025.

Carbon footprint

According to The Carbon Trust, clothing accounts for around 3% of the global production (or 850 million metric tonnes) of carbon dioxide emissions every year – this includes the production process and emissions produced after buying the garment, such as washing and drying.

Changes need to be implemented across each stage of manufacture to lessen the impact on the environment which is being subjected to pollution directly and indirectly, for example, by the  waste polluting water sources from textile waste during unsustainable manufacturing procedures.

Labels

A shop survey by Ethical Consumer, into the labelling of school uniforms, found that  Primark did not include a country of origin on the labels.

But knowingly or not, you can be woven into different threads of responsibility when you purchase clothes that have been created at a factory where labour laws are violated.

Sadly, workers across the globe are forced to work extremely long hours in dangerous conditions, with pitiful pay if any, and under the threat of physical or sexual abuse.

Unethical working conditions

The collapse of an eight-storey building in Bangladesh, which housed factories supplying to Primark and Matalan, made headlines in 2013. Inspectors who visited it the day prior, noticed large cracks in the walls ordered a full evacuation of the substandard building.

But bosses forced their staff to return to work the following day, resulting in over 1,100 deaths and many more injuries.

Protection for garment makers

Primark has since paid compensation to the families of the deceased, and has signed up to the Bangladesh Accord this year, alongside retail giants Tesco and John Lewis.

The legally binding agreement aims to protect garment makers there. Other UK stores, including Sainsbury’s and Debenhams, are considering whether to sign up.

How to check if your cheap school uniforms are ethical

 

  • Look for fair trade and organic cotton labels so you know at least small scale farmers are being paid better prices for the materials’ production
  • Check if the company offering bargain schoolwear has a credible ethical sourcing programme
  • Try the ‘Good on You app – which provides trusted ethical brand ratings for fashion retailers

 

Long-lasting school uniforms

Once you’ve got your ethically-sourced uniform, from a supplier like Trutex, you’ll want to make sure you look after it so it lasts.

Trutex say they are committed to supplying ethically sourced uniform, and work with all of their  factories to ensure they work to the recognised Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base code – which is a set of values that ensure factories have fair working conditions including health & safety, working environment, lighting, ventilation, wages, hours of work and the age of factory employees.

Matthew Easter, Trutex Managing Director, said: “All our factories are audited by Trutex employees and also independent auditing organisations, such as SMETA ensuring social and ethical audits are thorough and fair. It is our policy to only work with factories that not only demonstrate a strong ethical position but are also prepared to further implement recommended changes and continually improve working conditions for employees.”

Here at RagTagd, we’ve developed a crafty device  – like a security tag – that can be sewn into your kids’ school uniforms, so that when an item goes missing and is placed in lost property, you get a message to let you know. Great idea, huh?

If you want more information about how your school can get involved with our scheme, we’d love to hear from you.