Crickets chirping noisily around me, observed with blinking indifference by long-tailed lizards as mosquitoes circled in periodic diving raids, I trudged the last hundred or so metres of rising dust to the rear of the factory compound. The corrugated iron fence, ragged but ten foot tall in places, seemed to offer no insight into the interior and it would not be long before the security guard’s round returned him to this spot. A two-hour drive from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, this was a long way to find nothing out about one of the largest garment factories in the country, yet it was perhaps inevitable. After all, with rumours long swirling of large-scale deforestation associated with the industry, it would hardly be surprising if the evidence of illegal activity were hidden from view.
Heat and tension rising precipitously, I was on the point of turning back to the main road when a chink of light in the iron caught my eye. I cupped my hand over the rusty mug-sized hole and finally, years after first hearing indistinct reports of the practice, saw what I had been looking for. Forest wood, unmistakable in its crooked, gnarled mounds, lay ready for use in a factory producing and processing garments for major brands in the UK, US and European markets. “Zero deforestation” indeed.
What I saw through that fence unsettled the comforts of sustainable consumption in the rich world, that comforting salve to the nameless, rising unease in the bellies of so many citizens unable to reconcile the news they see and hear with the bold and reassuring claims that accompany their every purchase. Yet in reality my little periscopic glimpse into the hidden world of global production was nothing, barely even a microcosm of one issue in a small part of one supply chain. A few weeks later a drone would reveal what really lay behind that fence. Those gnarled branches were merely the outer edge of a vast expanse of recent trees, piled high and hundreds of metres square. Diggers made to look like Dinky Toys, humans barely even ants. And all of this refreshed by truck after truck each night, all to power the boilers that make the steam to iron your clothes and mine.
Scenes like this don’t appear in the adverts you see for clothing on the tube. They aren’t present in the images of clean green youth and nature, nor in the bold proclamations of the companies that commission them. Carbon neutrality, zero waste, forest protection: these declarations are sophistry facilitated by the lucrative obscurity of a global economy in which we rigorously regulate home turf, but pay only the most casual of lip service to production overseas. And whilst this was once a side issue, it is no longer. For many countries, especially in the UK and Europe, overseas is the factory. This is now where the majority of what we eat, wear and use is produced. Yet because it is made beyond our borders, it is out of sight and minimally inspected. After all, without legal repercussions, where is the incentive to find something that might undermine those eye-catching claims?
The inconvenient, unsettling truth is that it isn’t there. Companies are highly motivated to appear green, but actually being green; genuinely, rigorously backing up those claims? That’s a lot more expensive and no more profitable. In economic terms, it’s a no brainer for global brands: don’t ask your “partner company” too many questions, don’t peer behind those corrugated iron walls, don’t puncture the lucrative illusions of green capitalism. Until we have laws to properly govern our international supply chains, sustainable consumption is meaningless, a red herring, just another filibuster.
So, the next time you find yourself researching which brand of t-shirt, coffee, or petrol is the greenest, save your time, go home, and write a letter to your local political representative demanding a rigorous supply chain law. Your letter on its own will make no difference, because individual voices are all too easily drowned out, but with enough of us involved change is possible. Each time you return from the supermarket, convince one more friend or relative to send a letter and eventually the weight of public opinion will tip the balance. If you can spare the time, get involved in local politics; join your council or local political party and encourage as many people as you can to make their voice heard.
This is not easy, because before you can begin to build a movement for change you have first to wean people off the opium of sustainable consumption. Do not discourage or disempower, but redirect the energies of the people you encounter towards politics and legislation. It may seem hard-hearted, but taking away the moral pressure valve of the ethical purchase is imperative. The majority of people are deeply concerned about climate change, but their efforts are channelled fruitlessly down blind alleys. Each green decision, each eco-conscious choice, should instead be a demand for scrutiny, justice, and change. Demand a light be shone into the dark corners of our global supply chains. Put down your ethical consumer guide and pick up your pen and your phone. And when people ask you how they can avoid the worst aspects of the global economy, when they ask what they can do about them, tell them plainly. As individuals, nothing, but collectively, we can demand an end not to one abuse, but many, by taking back control of our economy, our production, our climate.
Laurie Parsons is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and Principal Investigator of the projects The Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of UK Imports and Investment Overseas and Hot Trends: How the Global Garment Industry Shapes Climate Vulnerability in Cambodia. His other books include Going Nowhere Fast: Inequality in the Age of Translocality and Climate Change in the Global Workplace.
Call to action: Rather than seeking out green products, consumers must use their voice to lobby for oversight of those products: an independent authority to ensure supply chains are as clean as they appear. For a long time this has been unthinkable, but the first green shoots of change are sprouting. In January 2022, the German parliament passed the Supply Chain Act, a law that opens the door for independent oversight of global supply chains based in Germany and action against corporate offenders. It is far from perfect and critics brand it a political compromise, but it marks the beginning of a paradigm shift away from corporate self-governance of the supply chains that underpin our lives.