There has been quite a lot of talk in the press recently about ethical fashion or should I say lack of ethics when it comes to many of the high street retailers. Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For, which I am currently reading at the moment, highlights the horrific working conditions that many in the garment industry face.
Whilst not directly endorsed by fashion retailers, the work (and responsibility) is outsourced allowing them to close their eyes to it whilst negotiating prices so low that there is virtually no alternative way of producing the clothing. We as consumers could be considered partly responsible by continuing to buy these low cost clothes with the knowledge that they are made under such circumstances.
I think consumers are definitely becoming more aware of ethical issues and many are wanting change. But how can we as consumers help to drive this change?
Last week, Mark Donne wrote for the Huffington Post about a Topshop Boycott based on their unethical practices which he sites as including sweatshops in the UK and tax avoidance. He urges us to
send a message to the mercantile Sir Phillip Green and, painful as it maybe, boycott Topshop until they change their policies at home and abroad.
On the very same day, there was an article published by Jezebel, entitled
Cambodian Garment workers would like you to think before going to H&M.
The article details more hardship and suffering experienced by those in the garment industry and as covered in a film Fashion Week Internationale.
Up until recently, I have felt a bit in the dark with respect to high street retailers and their ethics. But since reading the reports by Ethical Consumer, things have become a little clearer. Ethical consumer publishes buyer guides which help consumers to make more informed descisions about what to buy and they also encourage boycott as a way of bringing about change. Their website states
For Ethical Consumer, boycotts offer campaign groups and/or individuals the chance to exert economic pressure on companies. They are particularly appropriate when governments are unwilling or unable to introduce reforms. We see them as a vitally important extension of our formal democracy.
They can also be especially empowering for consumers through the process of actively rejecting something produced or sold in an unethical way.
Their active boycott list includes some a number of fashion brands such as Liberty, Burberry, Escada, Harrods, Liberty Apparel and H&M for various reasons although at the moment the list contains more boycotts related to use of fur than factory conditions and sweatshops.
Other well publicised boycotts within the fashion industry have included clothing brands boycotting Uzbek cotton because of the enforced child labour and Britains leading fashion retailers boycotting Austrailian wool becasue of the controversial practice of Mulesing.
Personally, I decided a while back to stop buying fast fashion and only shop with ethical brands and retailers with a completely transparent supply chain and comprehensive policies regarding ethics and sustainability. I am therefore effectively boycotting the majority of the British High Street but also using my buying power to support ethical brands although I am not really taking part in a formal boycott. There must be lots of others doing the same. I am not sure that anyone has noticed, perhaps I need to accompany my boycott with letters to the companies in question.
But is Boycott really the answer? is it effective? and is it likely to provide a solution to issue of ethical/ sustainable fashion?
There have been a number of boycotts on fashion brands and retailers which could be described as successful. According to Ethical Consumer, 2010, Fruit of the Loom gave in to consumer pressure and reopened a Honduran factory that it had closed after workers had become unionised after a boycott organised by United Students Against Sweatshops in the US. It also awarded them $2.5 million in compensation and restored all union rights. They also state that in 2008, US workers in supplier factories of Donna Karan and DKNY came to a settlement with the company over their claims of discrimination and failure to pay minimum wages or overtime following a campaign from the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and the Chinese Staff and Workers Association. There are also numerous other examples of boycotts that have been successful in the fashion industry and beyond.
In these times of social media domination, boycotts could potentially be fairly easy to organise – word spreads fast and it is quick and easy to network with like minded people online. In fact Ethical Consumer even provides a simple step by step guide on how to set up a boycott.
Getting anyone to join in with a boycott against their favourite fashion brand is going require a certain amount of persuasion. This change in values away from cheaply and unethically produced fast fashion is an uphill struggle that is constantly being encountered by anyone working towards change in the fashion industry.
My other concern with regards to boycott is that in these difficult financial times, a boycott could potentially tip a company over the edge leading to job losses both in this country and beyond. The recent talk of Peacocks going in to administrations (although nothing to do with sweatshop boycotts) has really brought it home to me how tough conditions are for retailers at the moment and the potential job losses which could result in such a situation.
Some would argue that there are more effective ways of getting your voice heard and bringing about change in the fashion industry.
So what are the alternatives?
The carrot rather than the stick
An organisation which I have recently come across which offers an interesting potential alternative to boycott is Carrotmob. The idea is that instead of taking away your custom, you incentivise a company to make changes by promising to spend money with them as a group .The organisation boasts over 175 successful Carrotmobs worldwide although none yet within the fashion sector. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could incentivise companies to introduce more ethical or organic cotton ranges or to comply to SA8000 (a social accounting standard governing child labour, forced labour, health and safety, free association and collective bargaining, discrimination, disciplinary practices, working hours and compensation). At the moment most of the case studies involve smaller local businesses, I am still trying to get my head around exactly how this would scale up to larger international brands and how it might work with fashion.
Any individual can show their support for those who are setting a positive example in terms of ethics and sustainability. If these companies become successful then surely the other will want a piece of the pie and will follow suit.
Whilst many of the high street retailers have made some progress towards a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry, there are still some who stubbornly refuse to commit to an the Ethical Trade Initiative Base code. For those who are not prepared to make a complete switch to buying from ethical brands, boycotting these companies is an option. However some are critical of these audit based approaches anyway claiming that they are unreliable. These people believe that the only real answer is for companies to push ethical trade to the heart of the way they do business. Positive buying seems to be the best way to encourage this approach.
Legislation to ensure that all companies have an ethical supply chain could be difficult to enforce and would cause the cost of clothing to rise which in the current economic climate is unlikely to be a vote winner. Other ways that governments could help could include taxation on non ethical companies to make them less competitive (again causing the price of clothing to rise) or tax breaks for ethical companies as called for by Harold Tillman, owner of Jaeger and Aquascutum and Chairman of the British Fashion Council. I haven’t heard of anything about this since but I am guessing perhaps the government has other priorities at the moment.
It is possible for anyone to petition the House of Commons to make MPs aware of their opinion on an issue and to request action. e petitions provide an easy way to influence Government polisy. You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons. Again social media presents a great opportunity for spreading the word.
So over to you, what do you think? is boycott the answer? I would love to hear your thoughts and whether you are doing anything to try and help the change to a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry.
With warmest wishes