The Spice Girls and Comic Relief: from ‘girl power’ to ‘sweatshop scandal’

Published: Posted on
Credit: Image by Comic Relief

By Dr Charika Channuntapipat, Lecturer in Accounting
Department of Accounting, University of Birmingham

To the delight of many, the Spice Girls have announced a reunion tour starting in June this year. A group that has long stood for gender equality and female empowerment, the band have been credited with sparking the fourth wave of feminism and inspiring confidence in young girls everywhere. They exploded onto the British pop scene at a time when female archetypes were very limited and offered a new and unique philosophy on what it meant to be female.

Ahead of their tour, the Spice Girls have commissioned t-shirts to raise money for Comic Relief’s ‘gender justice’ campaign. The t-shirts are selling for £19.40, of which £11.60 is earmarked for the Comic Relief campaign. However, as reported by the Guardian, it has come to light that, rather than supporting gender equality, the t-shirts are actually made in a factory in Bangladesh where the (mostly female) machinists earn around 35p an hour and work a 54 hour week.

Good intentions but lacking awareness

The irony of the t-shirts being sold to promote gender justice, paired with the fact that they are being promoted by the Spice Girls, makes this a story worthy of headlines. But this is not the first time that celebrities or brands have been involved in this kind of scandal. It is just one example of the exploitative practices employed by various retailers worldwide.

According to the Guardian article, both the Spice Girls and the charity stated that they had checked the ethical sourcing credentials of the company who were commissioned to make the t-shirts (Represent). However, the company later changed the manufacturer without their knowledge. This means that the promises made by the brand (and the manufacturer) regarding ethical sourcing do not really lead to any accountability. Represent said they take ‘full responsibility’ for this issue and have offered refunds to customers. The organisation which owns the factory has said they will investigate the claims.

These actions might be short-term attempts to tackle issues relating to reputation and customer rights, but long-term mechanisms to promote transparency and ethical sourcing in the supply chain are needed. Furthermore, social and educational campaigns are necessary to raise more awareness of fashion consumption.

Who is responsible?

From the perspective of responsible business practices, creating value by promoting gender equality is a good thing, but this value creation should not come with the cost of exploiting others. The distance between consumers (and commissioners) and the workers at the other end of the supply chain means this labour abuse is often invisible to those who buy the garments, or parties further up in the supply chain. Therefore, we need the tools to promote further transparency in the supply chain of the fashion industry.

Instead of trying to find out who is to blame in this situation, we should start questioning the products we are buying, being conscious of our consumption, and focus more on value – not costs. If you do not know where to start, you can explore Fashion Revolution’s guide to take action and inquire about supply chain transparency from your favourite brands.

If you want to find out more about the Centre for Responsible Business, you can follow us on Twitter or visit our website. If you’d like any further information on the Centre’s work, please email Sophie Sinclair, our Engagement and Operations Manager.

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