Okay so I'm not sure if you saw but my interview with Ilona Kelly, Campaign director at Labour behind the Label, for the Style Con went up in September, now that was a while back but as discussions surrounding ethical consumption continues to go round in circles I thought it might be useful to post some of the cuts here. Hope you find it interesting!
I was so struck with what you were saying yesterday about the idea of ethical fashion campaigns being used as a capitalist tool, to make a brand more appealing, could you explain this some more?
When we talk about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethical fashion, it’s important to consider that 94% of European based CEOs believe that the communication about CSR initiative significantly impacts the firm’s reputation. So what does that mean? It means that in this vast market with ever increasing competition it means a brand is more and more important. And the reputation of your brand. Most people, myself, included don’t want to do a lot of research all the time right? So the brand is ever important, and with that, becoming increasingly concerned about ethical fashion and addressing corporate social responsibility is seen as more and more imperative for managing the reputation of your brand.
Because CSR is seen as brand management and brand insurance. Essentially companies are so far removed in the West they can just feign ignorance. They claim they don’t know how it happened but bring it back to their public ethical policies. These policies are helpful in removing these ideas of accountability.
So this idea that it’s being used as a tool for capitalism, here doing the right thing is less important than saying it. We just have to again be skeptical, to ask those questions on say what their stance is on a living wage. Most companies do not endorse a living wage for the garment workers they employ.
The one thing about Fair Trade too is that as Fair Trade started becoming a trend, and people became aware of it, there have been studies to show that actually the working conditions at companies that have the Fair Trade certification aren’t necessarily better than other organisations. And the challenge is that once a company receives a Fair Trade certification there’s not necessarily a follow up to see whether they’re sticking to the principles that deem a company Fair Trade. So that’s why workers continue to be exploited. We automatically assume that Fair Trade means something remarkably different from other companies, and that’s just not necessarily the case. Again Fair Trade: a simple solution to a complex problem. And simple solutions should automatically be questioned.
The best thing you can do is be skeptical, ask questions, do research and be more involved. Learn more, think about it, consider it, and ultimately make the best decision that you can given your circumstances. And understand that being ethical isn’t just related to your buying practices. Because if you can’t afford anything other than the clothes at Primark, that doesn’t mean you can’t act in an ethical way. You can communicate to Primark what you expect from them, for a company, you can get involved in pushing them to enforce a living wage, and make concrete steps to ensure they make that a reality. Also worker solidarity: engaging with solidarity actions with workers worldwide.
It is very helpful for organizations in the UK to take action on behalf of garment workers worldwide but ultimately we take our direction from the workers themselves. And that’s our role as an ally is to elevate their concerns, their voice, and push in places they don’t have access to. We can push brands, we can have shop actions, we can meet with their company representatives. These are things that are helpful in the movement and necessary. It’s important to see this as a movement, working as allies, it’s not us driving this change, it’s the workers themselves that are calling for things like a living wage. That is a huge concern, especially with the labour movement in Cambodia.
I’m interested in discussing ‘high’ fashion and ethics. Why is it that when we discuss unethical textile industry, we think of Primark and similar big high street discount stores and not say Gucci or Versace who I know ranked lower than Primark in Labour Behind the Label’s Tailored Wages report? Is there a reason for this? I mean I definitely used to equate expensive with ethical. But there are some high fashion brands where we know nothing of their working conditions.
I don’t think there’s anything unique in terms of high fashion, just because it costs more doesn’t mean they act any different. Just because your clothes are cheaper doesn’t mean anyone was necessarily more exploited. The issues are the same in factories around the world, whether it’s Primark or Prada. One thing that’s interesting to consider is that we now make that association with cheap clothing and exploitation, we think Primark. And we might be more concerned to push our objections, our concerns to Primark. Whereas we’re less likely to do that with Prada. So that could be something to consider. But in terms of being any different? No! And potentially they could be worse. You mentioned the Tailored Wages report and that’s a great initial way to start learning about these brands and practices.
Is there anything, organizations or otherwise, that you’d like to signal boost?
Some of our partners, we work with the student organization People and Planet that fights for different issues in the garment and textile industry. We work with MADE in Europe, the Muslim Agency for Development Education, that’s a great organization. Also a great resource for folks who want to learn more is a book by Tansy Hoskins, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion.