08 July 2007

How healthy are your clothes?

I had an eye-opening time at ASDA today - even more eye-opening than a visit to ASDA normally is. It's the in-place to buy school uniforms, so, as my first born is due to start school in September, I was duly dispatched to buy the final item not already purchased: polo shirts.

Gone are the days of ties and poly-cotton - these days its all sweatshirts and soft collars. Gone too are the days of "official" school uniform shops in these globalised times of free markets. And the benefits are certainly plain - at £1 per polo shirt, my son's school uniform is actually cheaper than my own school uniform was, purchased some thirty years before. Not just cheaper in relative terms, but absolute terms.

Our friendly Walmart outlet clearly hopes we don't question how this counter-inflationary, not to say counter-intuitive, price shift is possible. My pound-per-shirt outlay is clearly not enough to sustain a minimum wage in the UK, so I wonder how much of that ends up in the hands of the sweated labour in Asia who undoubtedly made the garment? At a time when many products are undergoing heavy scrutiny as to their provenance, I think we should be allowed to know the same about clothing.

Take food. Most supermarkets are falling over themselves to show exactly how many calories, grammes of fat or likely coronaries are in their food. But they'd never think of doing it with other products they sell. I think ASDA should be made to show where, of the £1 per polo shirt, the different parts of that quid are spread along the supply chain from cotton bush to shelf. Like Sainsbury's, maybe we could adopt a "traffic lights" system: red for clothes made predominantly by 5-year-old orphans in China, amber for adult labour, green for where more than 10% has been earned by the manufacturer.

Across ASDA stores, carrier bags and advertisements, it asks: "Why pay more?" With such a scheme, we might finally get the answer to that question.

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