Take a closer look at what you’re wearing. Do a bit of a personal inventory. Do you know where any of your garments were manufactured – or who made them?
If you’re starting to worry that this feature is going to be guilt-inducing, let me confess that my own outfit includes a dress from (I’m embarrassed, but I feel compelled to be honest) Primark. Yes, Primark. Said dress is seven years old and cost £8. But I’ll come back to the budget British fashion chain later.
WHAT WOULD JESUS WEAR?
Jesus taught one simple way to show the world what the Christian faith stands for: to love God and our neighbour. We’re to care for ‘the least’ (Matthew 25:40), and ‘remember the poor’ (Galatians 2:10). Giant of the faith William Wilberforce applied these teachings to industry in the late 18th to early 19th century, making the abolition of slavery his life’s mission. But in today’s fast-fashion-loving world, how do we love our neighbour? Is it even possible to shop for clothing in an ethical way, and on a budget? If Jesus were here today: what would he be wearing?
THE COLLAPSE OF RANA PLAZA
On 24th April 2013, history’s worst industrial disaster took place in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Rana Plaza, an eight-storey commercial building hosting clothing factories, a bank, apartments and several shops collapsed in just 90 seconds, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, around 2,500 injured and 800 children orphaned. says Charlotte Instone, a Christian student at the London College of Fashion, who has set up what is now London’s largest annual ethical fashion show, alongside studying for her degree.
LEADING THE FASHION PACK
Instone is just one of many Christians pushing for a more ethical global fashion industry. Keen to see the momentum continue for improving working conditions after the initial impact of Rana Plaza had begun to fade, Christian fair trade pioneer Carry Somers coined the concept of Fashion Revolution (Fashionrevolution.org). The first official Fashion Revolution Day was launched on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza.
Disputes continue over whether the £24m compensation promised to the tragedy’s victims will ever materialise. So far, only seven of the 28 retailers linked to factories in the building (which included Primark) have paid into a UN-backed compensation fund. Primark has donated the largest amount, but to date only a quarter of the total promised is thought to have been given.
The tragedy precipitated some muchneeded change for Bangladeshi garment workers’ conditions. More than 150 brands have since signed an accord, consenting to independent audits on the safety of their Bengal suppliers’ buildings.
But swathes of workers in the global garment industry (including here in the UK) still work in unsafe conditions and do not receive a living wage, and the industry still plays host to trafficked workers. Stop the Traffik’s recent Make Fashion Traffik-Free campaign highlights the sham Sumangali ‘apprenticeship’ scheme in the Tamil Nadu region of India, which has seen 200,000 young women trafficked to work in the cotton industry.
‘These workers are our brothers and sisters. This is the most necessary social movement in our generation. We need to stand up for their basic human rights,’ disaster and consisted of a host of international and online awarenessraising events. Backed by writer and activist JP Flintoff and Guardian columnist Lucy Siegle among others, Somers and her compatriots at Fashion Revolution are urging consumers to ask questions about who made the garments we wear each day.
Many fashion brands appear to be ignorant of (or perhaps reluctant to reveal) the full details of their supply chain. Somers cites a recent Australian Fashion Report that found that 61% of brands didn’t know where their garments were made, and 93% had no understanding of where their raw materials were sourced (Behind the Barcode, published by Baptist World Aid).
‘Without consumer pressure to manufacture products using fairly paid workers operating in safe conditions, brands have no incentive to fully investigate their supply chain or become transparent about their manufacturing process,’ Somers says.
WHERE ETHICS AND PROFIT MEET
Somers launched her own fair trade fashion business, Pachacouti, which sells hats made by a women’s co-operative in the Ecuadorian Andes, 22 years ago. Initially set up as a part-time project as part of her PhD research, she felt compelled to continue running the business – even sacrificing the completion of her PhD in order to do so. ‘Seeing the injustice that the workers in the Andes were experiencing inspired me,’ she says. ‘It seemed that I was the only person who could do something to help those people at that time. I had a choice to do something selfish and continue my PhD, or to help them.’
Somers’ goal has been to show that you can combine ethics with profit. Her panama and felt hats are now sold in 25 countries and she has won a raft of ethical business awards as well as attending a reception held by the Queen to recognise the achievements of top UK businesswomen.
Just as significantly, her business has empowered and improved the lives of hundreds of local artisans in a povertystricken location. Exemplifying what she believes every brand needs to work towards, Pachacouti maps the supply of all raw materials and components involved in its supply chain, and Somers has even traced every individual maker to their GPS coordinates.
PRINCIPLES ON THE PRICE TAG
Researching Pachacouti’s brand story reveals the company’s model ethical approach. But few consumers have the time or inclination to investigate a brand’s ethical policy before making a purchase. And with no sustainable fashion industry standard beyond Fairtrade certification, there’s no quick way to determine which brands are ‘safe’ for the ethically minded shopper.
Graeme Hodge, communications director at Ethical Goods, a pioneering company dedicated to creating partnerships between businesses and charities, believes this is needed. ‘Consumer decisions are so quick that unless there is information on a price tag, or clearly positioned above an item, it’s difficult for people to think about how ethically produced a garment might be. And for non-cotton products, it is very hard to get the Fairtrade logo onto your item,’ he explains.
Fashion brands such as Beulah London and Zoe Boomer – both of which also have Christian founders – fall into the ethical category because they invest a proportion of profits into charitable projects. Both brands work with charities seeking to combat human trafficking. With each garment sold by Beulah comes a bag made by Freeset, an organisation employing victims of human trafficking based in Kolkata, India. Beulah founders Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan have received two UN commendations for their work.
Shoe manufacturer TOMS operates what it’s defined as its One for One model – pledging to give a pair of shoes to a child in need every time someone buys a pair. Donations are also currently being made towards funding safe water systems in Guatamala and a conservation project with Virunga National Park in the Republic of Congo. Jollie Goods is a small ethical start-up that also gives a pair of socks to the homeless for every pair purchased.
IS FAST-FASHION SLOWING?
So are there signs that the West’s disposable approach to fashion is on its way out? ‘Fast-fashion is a trend. It’s about to die…but we are just at the very beginning,’ said opinion leader in sustainable clothing Orsola de Castro at the recent Fashion Revolution event.
Hodge also believes that consumer demand for more ethical fashion is increasing, with luxury brands leading the way. Luxury watch and jewellery brand Chopard recently launched the world’s first watch made from Fairtrade mined gold from South America, for example. ‘The landscape is starting to shift…big brands are starting to feel the consumer pressure to become more ethical. Despite the recession, the ethical market is beginning to rise,’ Hodge says.
Many shoppers are willing to pay more for ethically sourced goods. Somers says that the average garment would cost around 6p more in order for Bangladeshi makers to have fair working conditions. And to triple their wages, we’d be paying the princely sum of an extra 18p per item. A YouGov poll found that the majority of consumers would be willing to pay 5% more to know that their products were sourced ethically.
Change at the budget end of the industry looks less imminent, with Primark’s sales stronger than ever. It reported a healthy sales increase in the past year, and plans to open stores in the US in 2015. H&M stands out as a high street brand that is seeking to put ethical policies in place, however. It has launched products made with 20% recycled material from collected garments, doubled its usage of more sustainable cotton in the last two years and has clothing and textile waste recycling bins in almost every store.
FASHION SHOULDN’T COST THE EARTH
So how can we approach that next clothing purchase differently? ‘When we buy a garment, it’s about asking: “Who is my neighbour?”,’ says Somers. ‘We are not just buying a garment, we are buying a whole chain of suppliers.’ Somers also advises investing in quality clothes. ‘They’re more timeless and less likely to go out of fashion,’ she says.
One of the aims of Instone’s ethical fashion show is to draw attention to small, ethical brands selling at high street prices – showing consumers that shopping ethically doesn’t have to mean sky-high price tags.
Instone recommends buying from charity shops or going to jumble sales and clothes swaps. While the garments you’ll get hold of may still have been produced in sweatshops, this is a step towards a more environmentally friendly way to dress. ‘It is better that clothes are re-worn than go into landfill,’ she says.
Ethical brands for him
Idioma Where is my bicycle?
Havana Ochre, £56
Men’s pants, £17
4. Nudie Jeans available from
Urban Outfitters, £89
5. Ethletic Skater Shoes, £44.80
THINK BEFORE YOU BUY
Christian author Vicky Walker, who has worked in fashion PR, retail and design, has witnessed first-hand the working conditions in the sweatshops of China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan. ‘Would we still shop where we do if workers, in the conditions they experience daily, were right in front of us? If their poverty and disadvantage was obvious?’ she asks.
But we need to do more than just switch our brand allegiances. It’s time we thought harder about what we can do personally in order to help effect change for the garment industry’s poor. ‘Be curious and look up a brand’s ethical policy on their website; ask where they source their items,’ says Somers. ‘Ask the person at the till where an item was made. If enough people ask, eventually the manager will hear about it, and it will filter up to higher levels. Tweet an image of something you’re wearing to its producer and ask who made it.’
‘It’s only by ongoing pressure and awareness that things will be likely to change,’ says Walker. ‘Retailers will forget this as soon as customers let them.
‘We may have to be prepared to live differently – whether it’s sacrificing that Primark bargain, getting involved in campaigning, looking at the economics of our decisions on a global scale or working at high levels in the fashion industry and using our influence well. We can all do something.’
Looks like it might be time to wave goodbye to my fondness for Primark.
THE JOLLIE GOODS STORY…
Jollie Goods was launched in December 2012 by Ed Vickers and Benji-Alexander Williams. Their first product was gentlemen’s socks.
The brand was launched after Vickers volunteered for a homeless shelter. ‘He kept being asked for socks, which he thought was a bit weird,’ Williams explains. ‘He asked the woman who runs the shelter, “Is this normal?” and she said, “Yes, it’s just like soldiers – if you’re on your feet all day, with no chance to wash, that becomes the major hygiene challenge – it’s not just about warmth”.’
Jollie Goods was launched with a desire to find a solution to that problem. Vickers prayed and sensed that he was to start where the problem began: with socks. ‘The aim was to find a sustainable way to solve these problems, but a fun way too – we didn’t want it to feel guilt-driven,’ says Williams.
‘At the time I was doing a lot of work looking at post-financial crash business ethics. What emerged was how divorced for-profit initiatives had become from more socially focused problem solving. This seems absurd, given that by definition a company should be trying to find a solution to a social problem, otherwise it’s not going to find a market,’ he adds.
Jollie’s Socks are made in England and Williams and Vickers have visited their suppliers. The company has a ‘Wear a pair, share a pair’ policy – meaning that every time a pair of socks is purchased, a partner pair is released to a homeless shelter local to the point of purchase.
Watch this space for new Jollie Goods products.