Trade began to unite the West back in the 14th and 15th centuries. Tradesmen replaced roman numerals with the niftier Arabic numerals and the vulgar languages were substituted for Latin. Trading companies were the builders of Europe, a role which they have retained to this day.
Nowadays, it is Europe’s textile companies which are the key actors in promoting and exporting ‘Europeanness’ abroad. Clothing always arrives ahead of democracy. The European acquis arrives in countries which have already encountered Europe under a different guise.
The Swedish chain store Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and the Spanish firm Industrias de Diseño Textil (Inditex) have a monopoly on continental iconography. Through their interpretation of the catwalk creations of Milan and Paris into high street fashion, they are exporting a concept of ‘Europeanness’ which makes Europe an attractive prospect. This is obvious in countries like Turkey, where ten Zara stores are currently revamping archaic Islamic fashions, as well as in other future member states of the EU.
But however much textiles may ‘sex up’ the dull laws emanating from Brussels, they also give an artificial and superficial idea of what it means to be European. One could be forgiven for thinking that Europe is just another theatre of mass consumption.
H&M is the second biggest clothing chain store after the American GAP. Inditex, with its flagship store Zara, tags along in third place. But the case of Inditex is different. With seven clothing chains and almost 2000 stores located around the world, it is growing at a rate of more than 20% per annum and opens some 300 new stores every year. In the year 2000, with ‘only’ one thousand stores, Inditex sold 90 million items of clothing. Its owner, Amancio Ortega, is already the fifth richest man in Europe according to Forbes, and his business is responsible for creating the image of the Eurogeneration. Its breathtaking growth has left its competitors C&A and Marks & Spencer trailing behind. Just what is this self-made man’s secret?
In diametrical opposition to Benetton, Inditex does not advertise, but relies on word of mouth and the design of its stores to attract customers. It renews the merchandise several times a week, breaking with the traditional concept of annual collections. Inditex has changed the average European consumer. This is its secret as well as its main contribution to the modern way of life: the idea that one should make the most of each opportunity because tomorrow, the clothes will have been sold.
Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti and the rest of Inditex’ brand names are more responsive to demand because they have their own personal production method. It is unique in comparison with the other textile giants, which usually subcontract their production to other firms either on the black market or in certain Asian countries where labour regulations are not exactly progressive. Using a just-in-time production system, Inditex chooses to outsource the final assembling of the various components to independent workshops near its headquarters in A Coruna. Always in rural areas, these clandestine workshops are springing up all over Galicia.
The ‘victims’ are winning the war
Curiously enough, in the textiles price war, the fashion victims come out on top. It is the workers, however, who lose out, caught in the vice of flexi-time, and put under unbearable pressure to get the clothes finished on time. The Galician trade unions have their hands tied because the Portuguese can produce the clothes at half the price and there is talk of relocating the workshops.
It’s not just on the Iberian Peninsula that labour rights are disregarded. A report from the “Clean Clothes” campaign published by Intermon Oxfam reveals that Inditex uses sweatshops in Morocco to bring down its production costs by contracting or subcontracting to workers subjected to extremely unstable conditions and earning less than the minimum wage. The working day is more than 50 hours, children are put to work and social security is overlooked.
A worldwide campaign is monitoring the clothing companies’ behaviour using various different names - Clean Clothes, Ropa Limpia, Ethique sur l’etiquette- but working under the same flag. The campaign is active in 12 European countries, in each of which it is represented by a coalition of trade unions and NGOs. Its work involves increasing consumer awareness, applying pressure to the big firms to make sure that their merchandise is produced in decent working conditions and backing the workers’ intermittent demands.
Job insecurity, sexual inequality, imposed downsizing, exporting exploitation to third-world countries, outrageous consumerism, abuse of the cheap immigrant workforce. Inditex is creating the image of Europe.