There’s something rotten at the heart of the fashion industry. We all know it, but we don’t know what to do about it. The Rana Plaza factory collapse of April 2013 in Bangladesh, which killed 1,133 men, women, and children dead, and over 2500 injured, was just one amongst many headlines in recent years that has forced us all to face the fact that pretty much every high street purchase we make has a questionable moral impact.
But how are we, as shoppers who care, supposed to know which brands are good and which are bad, if even the most well-meaning companies in the market do not know themselves? It’s not realistic to expect everyone to buy absolutely everything locally from craftspeople we can physically meet; and anyway, we don’t want to take industry away from markets abroad. Ideally we would be preserving craftsmanship and the economy on both a local and a global scale.
The real problem with outsourcing as it generally functions is the extended, convoluted nature of the supply chains, meaning that the products that most of us buy on a daily basis are virtually untraceable. Where products are untraceable, there is no accountability. “There are so many retailers on the high street who have not got a clue where even their cotton is from,” says Lucy Siegle, leading British journalist of social and environmental justice. “It’s just a question of getting more information out there. It’s pathetic that we still don’t know anything about the suppliers. [The companies] haven’t been forced to know until now, so it would be very interesting if they were.”
With the development of new technology, ethical fashion campaigners like Siegle would like to see phone apps develop to show the ethical credentials of any given brand, available at your fingertips as you stand on the shop floor. In fact, ethical shopping apps like Orange Harp are emerging that are trying to do just that, while the Ethical Consumer website provides rankings and reports to help guide socially and environmentally conscious consumers.
Movements such as the Fairtrade organic cotton certification scheme, as well as the recently available Fairtrade certified gold, are all positive steps in the direction of creating transparency in the fashion industry. “The Fairtrade system allows companies to demonstrate complete transparency and traceability of their supply chains,” explains Josie Nicholson, a Business Development Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation. Whether it’s gold or a pair of jeans, it seems that clearer labeling has a vital part to play in a more just (and sustainable) future.
The sustainable fashion industry and the opinion of the public at large, however, is divided in its reaction to the efforts of high street brands to market themselves as ethical. Sally Ramsden, an investigations executive at the Advertising Standards Authority, points out that “in the gold rush to be green companies can sometimes be guilty of blowing hot air. Being seen to be green is fast becoming a key commercial battle ground as companies vie for the custom of environmentally conscious consumers.”
As Rob Harrison from Ethical Consumer says, “Being ethical shouldn’t really be a choice. We look for companies to implement ethical issues across their product ranges.” He points to Topshop as an example, saying, “There is tokenism around its ethical behaviour. Not much of it is deeply embedded.” Indeed, Topshop carries various ethical lines such as People Tree, but in 2012 a BBC Dispatches investigation uncovered that the Arcadia Group, which owns Topshop, uses sweatshops in the UK staffed by illegal immigrants paid below the minimum wage in poor working conditions that would hardly be considered legal. A ‘made in Britain’ label, therefore, is unfortunately not a guarantee that clothing is ethically produced.
On the other hand, Emily Pearce, previously former Senior Manager at the Ethical Fashion Forum, has a more positive attitude towards high street chains trying to take steps towards a more sustainable future. She takes H&M as an example: “It’s one of the biggest retailers in the world, and for them to start using some organic cotton will have a massive impact. Things can’t change all in one go, and it’s better to do one thing at a time, do it well and make a difference.” H&M is currently the biggest buyer of organic cotton on the UK market. Some might call working with imperfect big brands selling out, but you have to admit that it is vastly increasing the market for organic cotton in the mainstream fashion industry, and that has to be worth something. At the very least it is a step in the right direction.
Anyone who tries to harness the massive economic power of the fashion industry for the good often has to swallow their objections and work alongside the very companies that are doing the most damage, opening them up to a lot of criticism in the process. As Andy Selsberg wrote in ‘Conscientious Clothing: Visions of Artisanal Underwear’ for Believer Magazine, ‘[if] you’re going to advocate for a better way of doing something, you have to be prepared for some blowback… If you become a vegetarian, someone will point out rough conditions at soybean farms. You might hear that the Prius is a pose. Some say Whole Foods is mostly image—a way for people with more money to feel better about spending it. I have to think that some effort is better than none.’
There are certainly many issues with the fair trade movement, and a lot of room for improvement. The problem does not really seem to be with the ideals behind it; I have never actually heard anyone argue in earnest that livable, just wages and safe working conditions are bad things to work towards. Critics of the Fairtrade certification system, for example, point out that you have to pay a lot to become certified, making it hard for already struggling farms and producers to get certified, and that the rules and regulations surrounding the certification process prevent the diversification of crops in certain areas where diversification would benefit the surrounding communities.
A retailer that sells bags made by hand by producers in struggling communities in Ethiopia once told me that many of their producers can’t afford to work with major ethical brands like People Tree because they have a slightly unforgiving business model; they would place large orders and only pay when they received the products, making it impossible to meet the costs of production without taking out a large loan. This is just the way that big business works, but you would hope that an ethically-minded company could find a way around issues like this.
However, while these are all very valuable and constructive criticisms that needs to be taken on board, they are only useful in so far as they help improve the industry. It is all too easy to criticise without proposing solutions, and brands and movement who are trying to do things differently should be encouraged and praised even if they fall short of perfection. As Tiny Fey said, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”
In 2010 the Observer slammed Monsoon for discoveries that there were child workers and pay below the minimum wage in their supply chain, but these things were actually first discovered by Monsoon themselves during an internal audit of the company which they published back in 2008. The fashion retailer claimed to have already dealt with the issues that they uncovered, but their reputation was badly knocked. While it’s obviously upsetting to uncover corruption and abuses in the supply chain, it is also laudable to pursue greater transparency and accountability by conducting internal audits like the one that Monsoon did, and it’s important not to discourage companies from doing the same.
One particularly cynical criticism of ethical trade initiatives is that we are all hypocrites just trying to feel better about ourselves, retailers and consumers alike. While it’s true that these things tend to make us feel better about ourselves, this isn’t an inherently bad thing. Isn’t it, rather, something that can refresh our faith in humanity? It shows that we want to be good, and to have a good impact on the world; we’re just a bit lazy, and don’t have that much time or money or know-how. Yes, the human race in general can be really clueless and tends to just follow the crowd a lot of the time. But that instinct, that deep preference for what is right and just is a redeeming characteristic of ours, and should be encouraged to flourish.
‘The capitalist system is under siege,’ wrote Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer in the Harvard Business Review back in 2011. ‘In recent years business increasingly has been viewed as a major cause of social, environmental, and economic problems. Companies are widely perceived to be prospering at the expense of the broader community.’ The concept of ‘shared value’ that they propose is one that refuses to accept that there has to be a trade-off ‘between economic efficiency and social progress’. Where governments and civil society try to address the problems of social injustice ‘at the expense of business’ they have often ‘exacerbated the problem’. The solution is to move societal issues from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘core’ of business practices; instead of having corporate social responsibility slapped on as an added extra in an attempt to appear ‘ethical’, ‘Companies must take the lead in bringing business and society back together.’
As Porter and Kramer explain, the principle of shared value ‘involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.’
I am in the process of launching a new socially and environmentally aware lifestyle website called A Better Place which will act as a comprehensive guide for people who want to make positive consumer choices in every area of their lives, from cleaning and technology to fashion and food. My motivation is the idea that the more mainstream and easy it becomes to shop in a way that impacts the world for good, the more we can transform the way that business work for the better.
We might be taking baby steps, and we might have a long way to go before we have this thing totally figured out, but from my years of experience in the ethical fashion movement I have to say that things are just about so bad at the moment that any change is a step forwards. If that doesn’t seem like a very empowering message to leave you with, just consider this: every single decision you make whenever you buy anything has the power to change the world. I believe in your good intentions, and will do everything I can to make it easier for us all to remain faithful to those good intentions. Together, we can make good things happen.