Following the tracks of a Zara hoody
Zara’s parent company Inditex presents itself as extremely transparent – and claims that the interests of the people who produce its clothes its highest priority. Is that true? We followed the tracks of a hoody’s production and didn’t give up until we had found the Turkish factories where it was produced. Our conclusion: even for Zara’s ‘Join Life’ line, which is supposed to be particularly sustainable, the price pressure on producers is so immense that ultimately those who pay the highest price for Inditex’s profit are the people who make the business possible in the first place – the factory workers.
1 597 260 495
That’s the number of items of clothing that the Spanish fashion giant Inditex sold, according to its own figures, in 2018. Zara, by far the company’s biggest brand, is a well-oiled machine: twice a week shops receive deliveries, the range changes monthly and anyone who doesn’t visit its shops or look online at the right moment misses the latest trend. Last year, the Zara brand accounted for over 70% of Inditex sales, which overall totalled 26 billion euros. Inditex’s net profit in 2018 was nearly three and a half billion euros – more than that of any other fashion group. It’s not as though Inditex founder and majority owner Amancio Ortega is desperate for the money: with a fortune of over 69 billion dollars, he’s currently Forbes’ sixth richest person in the world.
On the one hand, the retail prices of Zara clothing are not exorbitant. On the other, its parent company makes huge profits. This begs the question of what is left over for the people who produce the clothes. We want to find the answer. First of all, we take a look at Inditex’s latest annual report. “Quality, traceability and sustainability are the watchwords of our model” claims Pablo Isla, the Chairman, on the sixth of a total of the impressive documents’ 434 pages. “We firmly believe that our model only works if it is sustainable”, he continues. Therefore, workers in the supply chain are placed “at the centre […] to foster initiatives that promote social progress”. The chapter entitled “Workers at the Centre” alone takes up 32 pages of the annual report. The words ‘transparent’ and ‘transparency’ appear a total of 71 times in the comprehensive document.
What does «Respect» mean?
We decide to put this to the test: we want to purchase a typical item of clothing and find out as much as possible about the conditions in which it was produced. We decide to go for a black women’s hoody whose slogan seems quite fitting to us:
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the title of the song that catapulted US soul icon Aretha Franklin to world fame in 1967, which is printed on the front in capital letters, with part of the chorus underneath: “Find out what it means to me”. And that’s exactly what we want to do: find out what producing this hoody means for the people involved in the supply chain. Are their rights respected?
The hoody is part of Zara’s ‘Join Life’ line – Inditex’s flagship sustainability line. According to the firm, the products in this line are produced “with the most sustainable raw materials and/or those that are manufactured with the best and most efficient production processes” and by factories that have obtained the highest marks (A or B) in social audits and environmental assessments – so factories that either operate in full compliance with Inditex’s Code of Conduct for Manufacturers and Suppliers, or at most only breach “minor aspects”.
Grappling with customer service
At the beginning of May we order the hoody from Zara’s online store for 45.90 Swiss francs (39.67 euros). “Made in Turkey. 84% cotton, 16% polyester” we read on the label. We are not surprised that the hoody was made in Turkey. Zara’s successful business model relies largely on its ability to react faster to trends than the competition. Zara manages to bring an item of clothing from the designer’s computer to market in three to four weeks. That is only possible because the clothes are produced not far from the distribution centre in Zaragoza, Spain, and the important European markets. According to Inditex, over half of the group’s 7,235 supplier firms are located in Spain, Portugal, Morocco or Turkey.
At the start of May we order the hoody from Zara’s online store. “Made in Turkey, 84% cotton, 16% polyester” we read on the label.
In Turkey alone, over a quarter of a million people work in factories that produce clothing for Inditex. We write an email to Zara’s customer service. In its annual report, Inditex states that it provides “information on the origin of our articles, as well as the conditions of the workers involved in their production, whenever requested”. On 18 May we write that we’d like to know which factory this hoody was produced in and what information could be provided on the working conditions there, where the cotton came from and what exactly is meant by ‘organically grown’? The same day we receive a response telling us that the enquiry has been forwarded to the relevant department.
Ten days later we send a friendly reminder. We are told that our enquiry is being “dealt with and looked into by the relevant department”. Nine days later we ask for more information. Nothing. Six weeks after our initial enquiry, customer services writes to us to let us know that they are still waiting to hear back. Two weeks after that we are told: “We will address your enquiry in the relevant department.”
Initial information ten weeks later
The situation would probably have continued a while longer had the French research bureau Le Basic not also contacted Zara’s customer services in late July. Together with our partner organisations at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Collectif Éthique sur l’étiquette from France and the Schone Kleren Campagne from the Netherlands, we’d asked Le Basic to model a breakdown of the price of the hoody (see “The calculation” at the end of this article). As a result, Zara receives nearly the same question – about the same product – from both Paris and Zurich. And bingo, just a few minutes apart on 30 July, both we and Le Basic receive the exact same response, in two languages, from Zara. It is insubstantial: The cotton is produced 100% organically, the cotton yarn comes from Turkey and it is certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). With regard to the factory and working conditions the firm remained silent.
It is time to put a series of specific questions to Inditex’s chief sustainability officer (CSO). Does the cotton yarn originally come from Turkey? Which factory is the yarn spun in, where is the fabric made and where is the hoody sewn together? What do the workers in these factories earn? And what price did Zara pay the supplier for the item of clothing from the factory?
In mid-August, following a renewed enquiry, we finally get a sign of life from Zara’s chief sustainability officer. He is “so sorry” that he failed to answer the questions sooner, he writes. He would make full enquiries internally as to what went wrong, because it was “completely unusual” for such questions to go unanswered. He would provide us with the relevant information as soon as possible. “Yeah sure”, we think, and don’t expect to hear anything further. A week later we get a surprise: the CSO sends us an email detailing the name of the companies responsible for ginning the cotton (located in India) and for spinning the yarn (located in Turkey). He also gives us the names of the three factories where the fabric is produced, where the pieces for the hoody are cut and sewn together and where the garment is printed with the word R-E-S-P-E-C-T – though he does not state where in Turkey they are located. Given that Inditex, unlike its competitors H&M, C&A and Nike, still adamantly refuses to disclose its suppliers, you have to take this email as a veritable transparency offensive.
Of course, the CSO quickly becomes vague again on potentially awkward questions. For instance, how much workers in the production chain are paid. “All the factories involved in the production of this garment have been registered and supervising [sic] without any breach about the salaries of their workers.” And on the question of the price that Zara had paid for the hoody he is even more vague: it was “enough to cover all the steps in the production, from the raw material till the finishing”. But under what conditions? We want to find that out for ourselves. The chief sustainability officer does not respond to our request for the exact addresses of the production companies. Our research reveals that all three factories that are involved in actually producing the hoodies – from producing the fabric to cutting and sewing to printing – are almost definitely located in the port city of Izmir, in western Turkey. So we head to Turkey.
The price is “enough to cover all the steps in the production, from the raw material till the finishing”. But under what conditions? We want to find out for ourselves, so we head to Turkey.
The powerful intermediary
We spend three days researching in Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir. We find out that the hoody is indeed produced in the three factories that Inditex had stated. But there is another company that plays a key role – a company that Inditex did not mention. It’s called Spot Tekstil and is headquartered in a magnificent white building with blue-mirrored windows, surrounded by black fencing, in the Izmir Atatürk Organized Industrial Zone, northwest of the city centre.
Its owner is a powerful man: among other things, he’s chairman of the Aegean Textile and Raw Materials Exporters Association. On its website, the company presents itself as a producer of clothing, though in this case it doesn’t produce anything itself. Rather, it acts as an agency for Inditex and awards contracts to individual factories.
The business of the company, which set up a subsidiary in Barcelona in 2011, seems to be booming: In 2017, Spot Tekstil made 57 million euros in revenue. A manager of one of the producer factories complains that “they don’t contribute anything to the production, but they earn 1 to 2 euros for every item of clothing” – one or two euros that the workers who produce the hoodies could really use.
Our field research shows that the pricing pressure that Zara exerts through its partner Spot Tekstil has ramifications on those who Zara claims are “at the centre” – the factory workers. Fashion chains like Inditex have the power to push down prices because of their high sourcing volumes – this is what we learn at the next stop on our investigative tour, the company that knitted the fabric for the hoody according to information provided by Inditex. The opulent headquarters are located only a few minutes’ walk from Spot Texstil’s palace and look almost exactly the same: mirrored glass facades, whitewashed walls, and also secured by a tall black fence.
When we present ourselves at the gate, holding our hoody in our hands, two friendly men from the marketing department invite us into a meeting room. They tell us that Inditex and H&M are their two biggest clients. The fashion giant’s contracts were generally for one to 200 tonnes of a specific fabric. One of the managers tells us that such volumes are very attractive for the company – “you have to keep the machines running.” But of course, these quantities also enable Inditex to pursue “aggressive pricing”, he says. Companies like Inditex always look at several bids in which the costs of each component are listed in detail – from the purchase price of the fabric to the costs of colouring to adding zips or buttons. And then they decide what profit margin they’re willing to pay for each step of the process. Reading between the lines, we understand that the supplier is not the one who decides the price, but the client. Yet they stress that they have nothing to complain about: “in the end, all parties must be happy, and usually they are”. Is that also the case for the workers who weave and colour the fabric? One of the managers points out that there is fierce competition in the area. “I f they’re not satisfied with their wages, they can start somewhere else the next day.” We are not able to speak to the company’s employees. A high-ranking trade unionist from Izmir tells us that it's hard to contact them.
Fear of losing the contract
With over six hundred workers, capacity to knit 900 tonnes a month and a turnover of over 43 million euros in 2014, the fabric producer is itself a heavyweight in Izmir. If it has to, it can get by without Inditex contracts. “If it doesn’t pay off for us, we don’t do it” says the younger of the two managers in a self-confident tone. It’s a very different story for the two other factories – the one in which the parts of the hoody were cut and sewn together and the one in which the printing took place. There is no information about their revenue in the relevant company databases and they don’t have whitewashed headquarters. They are two simple factories, one equipped with fabric printers, the other with sewing machines. We visit both of them and speak to people with an excellent insight into the conditions. Some wax lyrical about Inditex and Spot Texstil. Others complain that the prices they pay are far too low – just to immediately assure that they won’t be directly quoted. There seems to be an overarching sense of fear.
There seems to be an overarching sense of fear that Inditex or the agency could react with punitive measures – or simply stop contracting them.
Fear that Inditex or the agency Spot Texstil could respond with punitive measures – or that they would suddenly stop contracting them. That would be a disaster. We are told that in the factory where the fabric is printed, Spot Texstil provided the pre-financing for the machines. We are also told that clothes for Inditex account for over half of the production volume. The factory where the hoodies are cut, sewn, labelled and packed seems to be even more dependent on Inditex – we hear that the factory produces clothing almost exclusively for the company.
Huge pressure on prices
This set up makes it tricky for us to report what we learnt about the reality of the conditions in these factories. We don’t even have the option of citing statements anonymously. Remember that it was Inditex that gave us the name of the suppliers. That means that as soon as we publish the specific points of criticism put to us, Inditex would know immediately where they had come from. We can therefore do little more than report what we found out in the two factories in general terms. In relation to the huge pressure on prices for instance, our information indicates that the printer was paid not even 10 cents per print. And that the factory where the 20’000 ‘Respect’ hoodies were produced was paid nine Turkish lira per hoody, which equated to 1.53 euros in 2018.
In light of these prices, Inditex’s second focus in its “Workers at the Centre” programme, namely “Responsible Purchasing Practices”, seems almost cynical. On its website, Inditex states that the purchase practices also have a “direct impact on the wages earned by our suppliers’ workers”. Purchasing teams are given training on how to account for sustainability criteria in their decisions – thereby helping workers in the supply chain to earn a “living wage”.
We confront Inditex with these findings and among other things, ask the following: “We learned from insiders that the company responsible for Cutting, Stitching, Ironing and Labelling/Packaging received around 9 Turkish lira per Item from Inditex (trough Spot). Can you confirm this amount?” Inditex first asks for an extension to the three-day deadline to answer our questions and finally gives an evasive answer: “We would need more detailed information with regards to this allegation, since you do not mention which of the processes (Cutting, Stitching, Ironing and Labelling/Packaging) you are referring to.”
This answer is surprising in two ways: firstly, it was the company itself that gave us the name of the factory that carries out all of these procedures. Can Inditex simply not imagine that the amount for all of these processes would be so low? And secondly, if the company does indeed implement its principles on purchasing practices outlined in their answer to us, then it should have detailed knowledge of the payments made to manufacturers and the wage costs included in them. Inditex writes that it commits itself to the purchasing principle of ring-fencing, which means that in price negotiations there is a guarantee of a fixed, non-negotiable wage cost.
Yet the company is either unable or unwilling to say what they paid to the factory in this case, or what proportion of that sum went to wage costs. Instead, Inditex claims to supervise “the way in which our purchasing teams implement practices that have a positive impact on the working conditions of the people employed in our supply chain”. Nice words which do not seem to correspond with the reality that we encountered in Izmir. In fact, the prices that factory owners are paid leave them with only two options if they themselves want to run a profitable business: either they pay workers less than they should be earning, or they let them work longer than they should be – or are allowed to. We encounter indications that both are happening.
Low wages and day contracts
We hear about monthly wages of 2,000 – 2,500 Turkish lira for factory workers, which equates to about 310 to 390 euros. That is roughly the statutory minimum wage in Turkey. But it is only about a third of the 6,130 lira that would provide an actual living wage, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign – a wage that would enable two adults and two children to live a dignified life. In its code of conduct, Inditex writes that suppliers must pay wages that are “enough to meet at least the basic needs of workers and their families and any other which might be considered as reasonable additional needs”. And the second focus of its “Workers at the Centre” programme is “achieving living wages in the industry through worker empowerment and participation”. In addition to this, apparently not all workers receive these 2,000-2,500 Turkish lira. From people at one factory we learn that many of the workers are employed on a daily basis; without any assurance of having work the following day. We’re told that their daily wage is dependent on how many items they produce. Inditex gives an evasive response to this: “We can confirm that having reviewed our records, workers at these factories are paid above the amounts you mention in your email.” But what does ‘workers’ mean? All workers? Or only some? Is Inditex referring to gross wages or to what the workers actually receive? It all remains unclear.
The second main problem is excessively long working hours. In one factory we are told that people work around the clock in two shifts: one from 8.30 am to 7.00 pm and the second from 7.00 pm to 8.30 am. The day shift has a break at midday and one in the afternoon, while the night shift has one break at midnight and another around dawn. A night shift of 12 hours? This would not only violate Inditex’s code of conduct (“working hours are not excessive”) but would be illegal under Turkish labour law, which clearly stipulates that night work must not exceed 7.5 hours.
Inditex writes that a 24-hour operation in only two shifts “is not acceptable” under its code of conduct and affirms that “if we were ever to find evidence of the working patterns you describe, a Corrective Action Plan would be put in place immediately”.
These plans are implemented when it is established that the code of conduct has been violated. According to Inditex’s annual report, Corrective Action Plans were implemented for 191 factories last year. Does that include one or more of the factories involved in producing this hoody? And if so, what part of the code of conduct have they breached? Inditex doesn’t answer this question for us. The firm simply confirms that it has audited all of these companies.
In 1967, Aretha Franklin re-wrote Otis Redding’s original composition ‘Respect’ in line with her own interpretation of the word respect, making it into an anthem of the women’s rights movement. Together with her sister, she re-wrote the lyrics so they would no longer describe the story of a man demanding respect (and submission) from his wife – but the call of a woman self-confidently demanding respect. Among other things, the Franklin sisters added an acronym to the refrain that is printed on the back of the Zara hoody which bears the song lyrics. The acronym, TCB, is an abbreviation popular in the Afro-American communities at the time. It stands for “taking care of business”, meaning “do what has to be done”.
When you consider that the working conditions in Turkish factories are unlikely to be worse than those in Zara’s supplier companies in Bangladesh, India or Cambodia, it seems Inditex is still a long way from truly embracing Aretha Franklin’s demand for respect, which they print on their own hoodies. A long way from being genuinely interested in what it means for the people in the supply chain to produce Zara clothing. A long way from respecting them – by finally paying suppliers prices that make it possible to pay their employees living wages.
How much respect for fair wages is there in Zara’s ‘Respect’ hoody? As Zara’s parent company Inditex discloses neither wages nor purchase prices, we analysed dozens of sources to produce our own detailed estimate of the breakdown of the price of producing a hoody.
Together with our Dutch and French partner organisations from the Clean Clothes Campaign, Schone Kleren Campagne and the Collectif Éthique sur l’étiquette, we tasked the Paris-based consultancy Le Basic with compiling a detailed estimate of the distribution of the supply chain costs and earnings of the different actors involved in producing the ‘Respect’ hoody. To do so, Le Basic analysed dozens of financial reports, trading data and further sources, and consulted experts.
The main conclusions of its calculations are outlined below:
- Zara (or its parent company Inditex) sells the ‘Respect’ hoody at an average international price of just under 27 euros . According to our estimates, the firm makes 4.20 euros in (pre-tax) profit on each hoody.
- The income and wages of all the workers involved in production – from the cotton fields in India to the spinning mill in Kayseri, central Turkey, to the factories in Izmir where the hoodies are sewn and printed – totalled an estimated 2.08 euros. That would be less than half of the profit that Zara makes.
- For the workers in Turkey and India involved in the production to be able to life off their wages, their pay would need to be multiplied by a factor of 1.9 – 3 depending on the stage of production. Nevertheless, the difference per hoody would only equate to 3.62 euros – slightly less than what Inditex alone earns from each item.
You can find the whole calculation at www.publiceye.ch/hoody
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Text: Timo Kollbrunner, Public Eye
Translation: Kim Park
Photos: Timmy Memeti (Hoody) / Public Eye (Izmir)
Disclaimer: This version is a translation of a text which was written in German. In case of discrepancy between the different versions, the original German text will prevail.