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.