We kicked off Fashion Revolution Week with the third annual Fashion Question Time event at House of Commons called “The Climate of Fashion”
I was invited to sit on the panel for the event, alongside Claire Bergkamp (Sustainability Manager at Stella McCartney), Jenny Holdcroft (Policy Director at IndustriALL), Guy Stuart (MicroFinance Opportunities/Garment Worker Diaries) and Safia Minney (Author of Slave to Fashion). The panel was chaired by Mary Creagh MP.
The questions focussed predominantly on the supply chain and human rights issues currently facing the fashion industry.
A common feature of the debate was the need for the race to the bottom to be halted. Issues such as pay, maximum working hours and safety standards need to be raised across the fashion industry in order to ensure that brands cannot constantly try to undercut one another in the race to cut costs. Jenny Holdcroft pointed out the Bangladesh Accord as an example of this, which lifted safety standards across the entire country in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, and said more agreements like this needed to be made.
Claire Bergkamp also highlighted the fact that until the bottom line is raised to make it a more even playing field, the brands doing the right thing are quite often penalised.
And for the brands trying to take positive steps towards becoming more transparent and ethical, there is also the challenge of communicating this transparency to inform the consumer at purchase point. How can the consumer make a more informed choice about their purchases? Considering the complex supply chain, would a labelling system work?
We spoke about the possibility of making it mandatory for brands to state the name of the factory where a garment was made, or where the raw materials were sourced from, which could be simple enough.
What is clear, is that more informed labelling can’t be something that brands opt into, it has to be mandatory – otherwise it’s open to abuse. It can’t be a measure of “ethicalness” as that’s too vague, it needs to be simple, clear facts that the public can understand.
Whilst I think labels could be improved, I also feel that we need to look beyond them. Many newer brands have websites which document stories of where and how their products are made. Story MFG are a perfect example of this, as are S.E.H Kelly – both have separate sections of their website devoted to featuring their suppliers and how/where their cloth is made. Now websites and particularly Instagram have really opened up another world for brands to communicate with the consumer – they’re not limited to a tiny square on the inside of a garment anymore.
Another thread running through the discussion was the need for fashion brands and retailers to take more responsibility for the entirety of their supply chain – not just for their Tier 1 suppliers and manufacturers. Rachel Mulrenan from Changing Markets brought up the fact that there appears to be a ‘missing link’ between raw material sourcing and clothing production – particularly in the context of viscose – it is very difficult to find information about where/which factories textiles are sourced from.
In response to this, Bergkamp spoke about how viscose sourcing is actually a good example of how the industry can make positive change. At Stella McCartney, they have been working with an NGO called Canopy, which works to protect forestry, to ensure that the viscose they use comes from a sustainably managed and certified forest in Sweden and not ancient or endangered forestry.
This work began 2 years ago and there are now over 100 companies signed up to the agreement with Canopy, including H&M, Zara and Levis.
For me, this idea of collaboration was really interesting and significant. Too often, fashion brands are scared of being exposed by the press, and perhaps lack the expertise, to handle difficult issues with their supply chains alone.
I’m sure all brands would prefer to work with experts who can come to them and say ‘this is a problem, here’s what we need to do about it’. I would like to see greater collaboration between NGOs, experts and researchers to come together to change fashion. We have all got in this mess together, so pinning the blame on a brand isn’t going to get us very far, let’s work together to find solutions.
Ultimately, though, brands do need to take more responsibility for their supply chains. Holdcroft highlighted how the complex nature of the fashion supply chain often makes this tricky. Unlike the automotive or electronics industry, which tends to employ its manufacturers – there are huge fashion brands which get the benefits of work, but it’s actually the factories that employ the workers, not the brand, so that they have very few employees and as such no responsibility. It is this lack of responsibility which often allows brands to circumvent the issues of garment worker human rights.
We did mention that the Modern Slavery Act has been important in making more brands look deeper into their supply chains, but Alessandra Mezzadri from SOAS interestingly pointed out that although this is undoubtedly a good thing, there are many other quotidian examples of simple human rights abuses, that may not be classed as slavery, but are still very significant and need to be addressed.
Guy Stuart spoke about how many female workers are forced to live in dormitories attached to factories, which gives their owners huge amounts of control over their workers, but doesn’t actually class as servitude. So the panel agreed that although the Modern Slavery Act has been a positive move, this Act does not specifically apply to the fashion industry and as such does not go far enough in tackling the main human rights violations suffered by garment workers.
We welcomed the progress with the French ‘Duty of Vigilance law’ and would like to see more countries follow suit. Stuart said the European parliament were looking to create its own vigilance legislation and I think it will be interesting in the context of Brexit to see if the UK takes responsibility and follows France and Europe’s example.
The need for more legislation was really the ultimate conclusion from the debate. Marko Matysik, Contributing Editor for Vogue China and Japan asked if it would be possible for the government to make it obligatory for all businesses to become transparent, and we all concluded that it is up to us the general public to make it mandatory for Government to include these issues in their manifestos and policy making ahead of the General Election.