Ethical clothing is hot news right now. Wherever you look in the fashion industry that’s what the buzz is about. So have the manufacturers and retailers finally bowed to consumer pressure and cleaned up their act?
The problem in answering that question is there is no agreed definition on what ethical clothing actually is. Some people concentrate on fair trade issues. How were the workers treated? How much were they paid? Others are more concerned with the materials used and concentrate on sourcing organic, recycled and animal free products. Still others add in transport issues and focus on the environmental costs of shipping fabric and finished articles around the world. It is rare to get a single retail outlet that addresses all these issues for even a minority of their stock.
For sure the major retail chains have cottoned on to the ethical clothing issue and are falling over themselves in an attempt to seem greener than green. Top Shop has teamed up with People Tree (which supports local community manufacturing in majority world countries) and M&S have bought up 30% of the global Fairtrade cotton supply. Primark, once labelled the least ethical place to buy clothes in Britain – achieving a mere 2.5 out of 20 on the ethical index – has joined up with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and vowed to change its way.
The ETI sounds a great idea but in reality it is simply a means by which a company can give itself a cheap green image. In order to join the ETI a retailer must agree to adopt a base code. The code is great. It covers all the things you would expect – good working conditions, a fair wage etc. The flaw, and it’s a huge one, is that the retailer doesn’t have to agree to abide by that code – only to work towards it. How many companies have joined up simply to look green?
In December 2006 anti-poverty campaigners from War on Want reported the appalling conditions and pay of Bangladeshi workers supplying Primark and Tesco (both ETI members).
In 2006 Labour Behind the Label conducted a major interrogation of the biggest fashion brands and retailers in the high street. They simply asked “What are you doing to ensure that the workers making your clothes get paid a living wage?” The majority of the responses they got back were “a combination of procrastination, stalling, and fairly transparent excuses. Only a few companies admitted that there was a problem, and even fewer that they had a responsibility to fix it.”
A follow up study in 2007 found that very little had changed.
“There isn’t a single high street company where we could say we believe you could buy their products knowing that they haven’t been made in sweat shop conditions.” Said Sam Maher, a spokesperson for campaign group Labour behind the Label.
But it is not all bad news. There are a growing number of alternatives available. Stores that are truly dedicated to providing well-made, stylish, organic and fairly-traded clothes. Most of these are only found online and until we, as consumers, give them our support that’s where they’ll stay. Let’s get shopping!