Who is the ethical consumer?

At LBL you might be detect an audible sigh when a consumer asks “where can I get ethical clothes?” or a journalist “do Gap produce in unethical conditions?”

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical fashion’ has come to mean “an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing, which is both socially and environmentally sustainable” (Ethical Fashion Forum). But it signifies more than that: it is a fashion trend in its own right, a segment of the market, like petite or smart-casual or goth.

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical trade’, means that companies, “take agreed steps to ensure their supplier companies respect the rights of their workers by adhering to national labour laws and the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)” (Ethical Trading Initiative).

There are three issues with the first sense of the word ‘ethical’, and much of the media discussion so far:

  • First, ethical has become a kind of value-added characteristic, a selling feature, an optional extra. “Do you want the basic jeans or the boot-cut ones?” “Shall I get the plain T-shirt or upgrade to a logo one?” “I could get that standard skirt, or splash out on an ethical one as a treat.” But ethics – in the way that I understand it – is not an optional extra, an either/or: it’s a minimum standard, based on human rights. “I’m not wearing this, it’s real fur,” “I don’t shop at Next because their trousers make me look like a hippo,” “I can’t buy those pants, they were made in exploitative conditions.” That’s the kind of category that ethical decision-making belongs in.
  • Second, ethics should not be about expanding a niche, but infiltrating the mainstream. We need to transform a whole industry, and while the ethical fashion niche market can create examples for the others to follow, there is a danger that it will do all the hard work for the mainstream retailers: why expend all that time, money and effort on implementing a code of conduct across hundreds of factories when you can please the same consumers by stocking a few organic, fairtrade cotton lines or a concession from People Tree, which does nothing for your existing factory base?
  • Third, there’s the problem that ethics is subjective, and a product can be simultaneously ethical and unethical in different ways. It may be made from organic cotton, but in a factory where trade union rights are suppressed; it could be hand-stitched by a Fairtrade women’s cooperative in Nepal, but then flown or shipped to the UK at significant cost to the environment. So to say a product – or a consumer – is ‘ethical’ is to oversimplify.

I said above that we want to transform an industry, and this is the fundamental point. I don’t want to see the ethical consumer satisfied, I want to harness her anger and energy and enthusiasm to have the biggest possible impact on the industry: it’s not enough if she is placated by being able to spend her money guilt-free – she needs to become active, not just a passive consumer. In short, I want to get my hands on her before Stuart Rose does.

We don’t want the industry to meet the demand from ethical consumers: we want demand to always outstrip supply, both in its volume but also in the depth of what the demand is for. It’s no good if marketing executives can sit in a room looking at data to find out ‘who is the ethical consumer’ and build a strategy to take her money away: the ‘ethical consumer’ needs to be everybody, and needs to want nothing less than across-the-board respect for workers’ rights.

Yet the only way that will work is if we see ethical trade for the complex, progressive approach that it is. The biggest obstacle is still the either/or discourse: ethical/unethical; sweat-free/made in a sweatshop. The reality is that some things may be more or less ethical than others, or perhaps as ethical in different ways, but so long as they are produced through a fashion industry model that has exploitation running through its veins, they will not be perfect. Therein lies the challenge, but also the opportunity.


15 Responses to “Who is the ethical consumer?”

  1. Genvieve LeFoll Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the second point.There is an absurd paradox when retail chains such as Marks and Spencer and Top Shop jump on the ethical trade bandwagon and start stocking fair trade ranges that sit alongside their mainline, presumably unfair trade ranges.

    However Fair Trade brands play an important role. They work directly with rural artisans and marginalised groups who fall outstide the mainstream work force in developing countries.


    Friends if you want to witness ethical fashion in making and in practice we invite you to Sri Lanka. Pls come and explore for yourselves how we are partnering our world’s leading labels in not only building a culture of ethical business, but also build communities and welfare projects around it.

  3. jay Says:

    but what about then people who say fairtrade is not entirely fair because some ‘fairtrade’ factories still pay unfair wages? how is the ethical consumer supposed to respond to that? this one genuinely has me worried.
    Please reply soon.

  4. Fairtrade - Gut, böse, Marketing-Gag? - Nachhall Texter Says:

    […] Sehr lesenswert in diesem Zusammenhang ist der schon etwas ältere Blogeintrag: Who is the Ethical Consumer? Tags: Bio-Supermärkte, CO2, Fairtrade, Marketing, Nahrung, PR, World Trade Organisation (WTO) Zum […]

  5. jazz Says:

    if your interested in learning more about fashion with a social conscience why not check out Edun Live, the ethical clothing company set up by Ali Hewson and Bono. http://edunlive.blogspot.com/

  6. Beanie Says:

    I see your point and agree with you entirely that clothing must be ethical as standard, not a “niche” range, just the same as food should be free from harmful chemicals as standard, not as a luxury. But you are making the classic ethical / eco campaigner mistake – you are lecturing and sound preachy and nothing that anyone does is good enough for your high moral stance. This just alienates people who think “oh whats the point then!”
    The strategy needs to be realistic – you cannot force an entire industry to change from what it has always been in a very short space of time. I think its great that 2 important mainstream retailers (M&S & Topshop) have started stocking ethical ranges & applaud the likes of People Tree etc who are making an effort. Its a start, and way better than what many others are doing, so you should be picking on the likes of Tesco, George@Asda, Primark, H&M, Nike, Adidas etc instead to pull their finger out!
    You say these ranges placate the consumer instead of activiting her but thats not true. The type of activity that retailers respond to is sales. If consumers buy into these ranges, retailers respond by rolling it out further. Thats just how they work. If we boycott these ranges on the principle that every item in the shop is not ethically produced, it just sends them backwards again & they would not listen.
    The same goes with consumer mentality. Many consumers of all ages have never even heard the phrase “ethically-produced clothing”, so in-fighting amongst various organisations who have a shared goal, about what does/does not constitute “ethical” helps no-one, and just shows a weak and non-allied front. Sorry to make it sound like a war but its the only metaphor that worked!
    I think the best approach is educating consumers – particularly women as they are the ones who spend the most on “fast fashion” and probably do not realise where it comes from.

  7. Sir Yodle Says:

    I have to agree with Beanie; though I love what you’re doing here (and I really do), coming across “holier than thou” only speaks to those already hot about the issue; in fact, as Beanie said, it will only alienate the lukewarm.

    And what IS lukewarm, except an easy opportunity to become hot (or vice versa…)? Those consumers who know little of the plight you are fighting for, but are willing to buy those lines of clothing labeled “eco-friendly”, or “fair-trade”, or anything of the sort really are the bread and butter, the lifeblood of a movement like this. Engaging those consumers should be paramount.

    Also, Beanie’s comments about sales figures as motivation are spot on. It’s just business sense. Those that make decisions about what and what not to offer respond only to the language they speak: $$$. Indulge them! Make a point to buy those products and encourage what they see as their own brilliant idea; and encourage friends and family to do the same!

    To distill it down to a single dark truth– human beings, as a whole, do not make huge changes in behavior and mindset because it’s the right thing to do. They fit in with trends, they change gradually, and look back after making the switch through baby-steps; only then do they see the error of previous choices.

    I’m that way. And you are too. Let’s keep in touch with that idea and use it to our advantage.

  8. Sir Yodle Says:

    Just to add to my previous–

    I just looked over what I wrote and I don’t want what I’ve said to overshadow the value in your work. Really the most important thing is positive steps of any kind; it seems you have that in plenty, and so I chose to focus on potential improvements to the approach.

    The last thing I want to do is sound full of reproach, or as if your efforts are anything less than valiant and powerful.

    Thanks for the hard work, and please think about what I’ve said.

  9. Krystle Manintveld Says:

    I do agree that buying ethical clothing should be about much more than being trendy. However, part of me also wonders if everyone will ever care about where there clothes are made. If ethical clothing is seen as fashionable (and of course the definition of this varies), well that might be one giant step towards our goals. After all, corporations have been avoiding dealing with labour issues for decades, but they spend millions on marketing research every season in an attempt to sell “trendy” products.

  10. Bibico Says:

    In the last few years ethical clothing has really taken off and that’s not just because more people have developed a conscience, it’s because ethical clothing is fashionable and some of the best styles come under this heading. If you want to see some fashionable but fair clothes you should check out http://www.bibico.co.uk.
    As ethical clothing styles become more fashionable it becomes easier to raise the importance of fairtrade and to grow in this way

  11. Lisa Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog! The best way to assure that we will no one day have no need to separate ethical clothing from the rest is to have more people like you, talking about the issue. I believe that companies will start to see the financial benefit to producing clothing with higher standards when more of us start buying it! They are motivated by the bottom line and we need to send the message that theirs will improve!

  12. Paul Says:

    Lots of good stuff. Keep it up.

  13. Po-Zu Ethical Shoes Says:

    Yes it is a shame that so many companies have introduced just a few ethical alternatives rather than making all of their clothes ethical. There are however many challenges involved.

  14. Souimanka Says:

    Some big fashion companies sell ethical fashion but are not 100% ethical. Should we blame them ? They have always been working to maximize profits and now they are trying to integrate ethical values in their businesses because that’s the trend. Don’t you think that in such large companies there is nobody like you sincere about ethical fashion and working to change things ? How can we expect it to be easy while the priority remains to get the business running against the competitors and getting more customers ? On the contrary, social organizations or small new businesses have less business constraints. Are they doing better ? I’m working with y friend, as two foreigners, to set up an ethical fashion business in Chiangmai (Northern Thailand) to promote local fabrics with western design clothing. You can take a look at http://www.souimanka.com. Are we perfectly ethical and doing better than big companies ? No, but we are trying, so I don’t blame the big companies. I guess that small businesses like ours can insure a transparency on their operations and remain willing to share it with their customers.

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