I found myself contemplating the origin of a pair of shorts. They are comfortable, 100% cotton shorts in Uniqlo’s highly functional minimalist style, casual but neat. They extend to mid-thigh, have two side pockets, and are held up with a threaded cord. They are “branch bankers’ rig”, to borrow Les Murray’s description in The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever, sending signals of respectability without excessive formality in Australian and Singaporean society, and while Murray correctly notes they are “ideal for being served last in shops of the temperate zone”, I can confirm that on the equator they are perfectly adequate for being served Sunday brunch in a five star hotel on Orchard Rd, at least if worn with a collared shirt and a sufficient sense of entitlement. They were bought this year at the enormous Vivo City shopping mall in Singapore, and are purple, because I let my young daughter choose the colour.
Uniqlo, part of the corporate parent Fast Retailing, is known in the industry for maintaining high quality at a cheap price point. To achieve that, it carries a relatively small number of styles, but in dozens of colours. The dyeing process is tightly quality controlled and capital intensive. For example Uniqlo suppliers like Lu Thai Textile describe precise dyeing plant relying on specialized mechanical equipment for dipping and computer assisted design (CAD) for looms. Lu Thai is a vertically integrated company including cotton farms and spinning. Lu Thai’s website describes cotton farms in Akesu in Xinjiang province, so perhaps these shorts were made from cotton farmed in Xinjiang, and shipped elsewhere in China to be weaved and dyed. Lu Thai also has a presence in Shandong province, for example, which is more industrialised and with more middle class jobs. Shandong GDP per capita is US$13,262 vs US$8,755 in Xinjiang, and factory operator versus cotton farmer pay would typically reflect this difference.
Uniqlo also mentions China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh as significant production centres for the company. Uniqlo has an internal system of technical specialists parallel to its management structure, at the top of which are around twenty takumi, or fabric masters, situated in production centres; going by the annual report they are mostly Japanese. Stitching is typically a more labour intensive process than dyeing, and in the case of these shorts, relatively unsophisticated compared to a dress shirt. This makes it likely to be focused on cheaper labour sites, though the label for these shorts states they are MADE IN CHINA. As noted in the course, and shown in the movie China Blue, sewing machine operators in South and East Asia are most often women. Lu Thai Textiles, which also makes shirts, features a photo on its website of a large factory floor where the sewing machine operators are 80% female; this is part of the company’s public narrative for this work. Fast Retailing was the subject of the 2011 book The Glory and Disgrace of Uniqlo, accusing it of “harsh, slave-like conditions” at overseas factories. Uniqlo’s business strategy of a small number of styles allows them to make massive bulk purchases from suppliers, sometimes taking the entire stock. This drives down unit costs through economies of scale, but also through tremendous pricing power over small suppliers. As Uniqlo has been expanding rapidly, this puts pressure on the more vulnerable participants in its supply chain, people like Jasmine in China Blue.
|Highly unethical, review of contract||2||0||7||1|
According to their own Corporate Social Responsibility reports, as Uniqlo supplier factories increased from 132 to 170 from Financial Year (FY) 2010-2013, severe ethics violations went through a spike of 21 to 41 in FY 2012, with 7 contracts reviewed in that year, and some contracts cut. For comparison, the one contract reviewed last year for Uniqlo is more typical. Two Chinese factory contracts were also cut for use of excessive, unpaid overtime and child labour – a fifteen year old working a job requiring a sixteen year old.
It is dismaying to learn that Uniqlo, until a few years ago, seems to have payed more attention to fabric quality than the health and safety of people that make their company successful. Fast Retailing only seemed to improve the working conditions supply chain under consumer scrutiny, the power of their global brand working against opacity. It is also interesting how speculative this process of investigation has to be. The tag on these shorts has a 45 character code on it, which in a firm with Fast Retailing’s robust quality culture, is almost certainly a unique identifier for tracking from early in the supply chain all the way through to retail stores. I wonder what it would mean to make that information public, or to use technology to connect specific participants in the supply chain in a social network built around a specific item. Would such a panopticon of shorts be an ignorable gimmick, a huge invasion of privacy, a way of re-establishing human connection over the top of abstracted capitalist commodity exchange, or a way for privileged rich people to harass their unwitting global servants online?