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We all deserve a better high street

Former retail buyer, Vicky Walker, gives an in-depth analysis of the high street, calling on us all to pave the way for a fashion revolution.

Here’s my terrible confession: I want to kick your Primark bag. I know, you’ve had an amazing trip, picked up some Instagram-able bargains, you’re going to look super-hot when you throw together a whole new look for £20, and here I am being a killjoy. It’s just, well… It didn’t cost £20, did it? Before that final transaction in a busy high street store, costs were incurred right across the world and the greatest costs landed with the people with the least power and fewest options. Our low price is someone else’s compromised life. We have privilege, we have choice and we’ve started to feel entitled, leaving the ethics to someone else despite evidence of exploitation.

Reporting on Primark’s profit increase in 2014, The Guardian noted that, ‘Shoppers have not punished Primark for its links to the Rana Plaza factory building, which collapsed in Bangladesh last year killing more than 1,000 people.’ Despite hundreds of deaths and on-going misery and poverty for those communities, we haven’t stayed away. Still willingly handing over our wages – to Mango, Matalan, Benetton, and all the other Rana retailers – and hoping someone, somewhere is making things better. That’s a lot of trust – even wilful blindness – in return for cheap clothes.

Understand something important about your favourite clothes shops – they are only in it for the money. I know they’re fun on Twitter and they have smiley celeb ambassadors and vloggers talking up their latest items, but they’re doing it because they make money from it. When that stops, they stop. Retailers panicked by bad publicity fear one thing: loss of profit. If other factors mattered more, they’d already be doing business differently. Standards of living, economic exploitation, and even physical danger, aren’t news to retailers who rely on distance – literal and otherwise – in order to deny responsibility when disaster strikes.

Retailers are aware of media attention and public pressure, and many – including Primark – have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative to learn and share best practice. How much this filters down to every day decision-making remains to be seen. Good intentions can’t be taken at face value. Websites showing smiling workers in shiny, modern factories aren’t proof businesses are ethical. If only it was so straightforward. We need to dig deeper.

Ally, a China-based sourcing manager with over a decade’s experience in finding suitable factories and products for international markets says customers could think more about how they buy and who from: ‘Consider the raw material – is it ethically friendly? Does the manufacturer have a bad name for their use of resources? Does that store encourage ethical sourcing?’ She has worked for several years with UK retail outlets and understands the decision-making processes and priorities of the people choosing the products we will buy. ‘If I could tell buyers and retailers one thing that would make their buying power more ethical, it would be to truly understand the manufacturing country’s culture and respect that. Don’t ask others to twist themselves to serve you.’

Amanda King has seen the industry up close in her work as a designer and stylist, and notices change starting to happen at the top. Initiatives like Esthetica at London Fashion Week bring together smaller brands committed to ethical fashion. Amanda is a passionate advocate for seeking out companies trying to work differently. Shocked when first confronted by factory conditions early in her career, she asked herself, ‘Should I be working in this industry? I wanted to get out but then felt really challenged to make a difference.’ She advocates for buying well-made pieces that will last, the investment outlasting the poorer quality of fast but cheap fashion.

Sustainable sourcing company Piece & Co works with artisan female-run co-ops around the world to help luxury brands create high-end clothes and accessories that offer the women making them sustainable incomes. They estimate ‘an average order from a brand can employ between 75 and 100 artisans for two to three months’ which ‘impacts the lives of 300 to 400 people, from children to community members.’ An alternative definition of an ‘investment buy’.

Examples of change are filtering into the mainstream too. Some high street retailers are adding ethical or sustainable options to their portfolios, which sit in stores alongside their regular ranges. H&M’s Conscious offering sets out seven commitments to ‘a better fashion future’ stating that ‘looking good should do good too’. Small steps – and a product range – that could grow if customers respond. ASOS Africa buyer Lola Okuyiga works with the Soko Collective in Kenya to develop ranges from sustainable sources, which are sold alongside regular ASOS ranges. Despite the challenges of sourcing differently, and increased commercial pressures, Lola is positive about ASOS Africa’s impact, describing long term skills building and community development: ‘You know it makes a difference and that’s what makes it worthwhile.’

When you’re next deciding where to shop, find out what your favourite retailers are doing. Ask if ethical ranges are part of their offering. If they are, encourage them to expand (they will, if sales justify the time, cost and effort). Ask them if your must-have item can be made more ethically next time they buy.

Retailers know more about what’s possible than you’ll ever see in their shop windows. They’re buying from developing countries because they pay less – poverty and inequality are part of the reason for those low prices. Keren Long, an ethical sourcing consultant who has worked with both high street and specialist retailers around the world for over ten years, says investment in the source countries is vital if the garment workers are not going to be exploited, ‘You can only have a hope of being ethical if the retailer is involved in the country, but that on its own isn’t the full story. How does the business operate there? Do they have people based in that country? What do they do – protect the brand or develop the factories?’ In countries where working conditions can lead to serious injury or death, and wage disputes ‘literally cause riots’, she says scrutinising and challenging retailers’ practices needs to keep happening for meaningful change to occur.

There can be positive effects for developing economies, for whom textile production is often a significant percentage of their GDP, but looking away from the risks and issues means we abdicate responsibility and that can cost lives. Film-maker Leah Borromeo is currently making a film exposing the origins of the cotton we wear. Dirty White Gold uncovers the reasons behind increasing debts, hopelessness and suicide among Indian cotton farmers, as well as what could change. A farmer quoted in the trailer is adamant: ‘We don’t want your charity. Give us value for our hard work.’ Leah suggests the evidence for injustice is in front of us; we just need to choose to see it. ‘Look out for where something is far too cheap. Think about how much something costs – that £5 T-shirt – and what means for those at the bottom of the supply chain.’

The choice to make a difference rests with us – whether that means where and how we shop, or the noise we choose to make for change. Birdsong want to be part of the change. Describing their offer as, ‘Just unique clothing made with love by exceptional women’s groups’, they claim that up to 80 per cent of the sale price of an item goes back to the maker. Founder Sarah Beckett says, ‘We know that the fashion industry is destructive to women on many levels, from sweatshop workers being 80 per cent women, to negative body image and narrow beauty standards on a consumer level, and we wanted to turn it on its head. With a ‘no Photoshop’ policy and an emphasis on the stories behind the clothes – including the older ladies producing hand-knitted fashion while they chat over tea at a day centre – Birdsong is setting out to be real about the possibilities fashion offers for improving lives.

We all deserve better than clothes that create misery, exploitation, even slavery – what will you do to make a difference? Here are some ideas.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Educate yourself

Understand the industry you’re a part of (you’re a willing consumer therefore you’re a part of it!). Industry body, the Ethical Trading Initiative, encourages retailers to see ethical practices as good business. They clearly state what the business case for ethical trade is laying out the commercial arguments. Know what retailers are thinking.

Take the action: Educate yourself about the fashion industry

Research

Not just ethical brands, but what high street stores are doing too. Which are paying lip service and which are putting real investment and infrastructure into better ways of working. The Guardian has an online ethical shopping guide, and Ethical Consumer has extensive resources online which rate shops according to different ethical criteria – well worth the subscription fee. American ethical fashion blogger Danielle Vermeer compiles a Pinterest board of ethical companies, including UK ones, for easy reference.

Take the action: Research high street shops

Speak up

Retailers will respond to noise. Noise comes from knowledge – when we know what they could be doing, we can ask why aren’t they? Ethical fashion expert Keren Long says, ‘Consumers drive purchasing power. It won’t happen unless everyone speaks up.’ Join with the Clean Clothes Campaign and other organisations raising awareness and bringing voices together.

Take the action: Speak up about the fashion industry

Ask questions

Get in touch with retailers you want to shop with. Ask them what they’re doing and don’t be fobbed off with reassurances that lack substance. If you understand what it’s like to buy from Bangladesh, India, Thailand or any country you might never visit, but directly affect through your spending, you’ll start to gauge which retailers respect their manufacturers.

Take the action: Who made my clothes?

Don’t shop

There are some shops I won’t shop in. My personal choice – and no, I doubt they’ve noticed. But I can’t condone their practices and I know from experience some retailers aren’t really committed to change. There’s no such thing as a ‘must have’ item if lives are at stake.

Take the action: Say goodbye to a bad buy

Buy differently

Not just through your choice of retailers but the speed at which you purchase. What do you need to buy and what can you live without? Experiment with swishing parties, clothes swaps and slow fashion. Zady, established in 2013 to sell clothes with a conscience, thinks we have been encouraged to think short-term instead of about what matters. Their mission statement says, ‘What we uncovered was the why behind our low-quality goods. A system training us to buy more and more products of increasingly lower quality by an industry that hides the outrageously high environmental and social cost of its production.’

Take the action: Organise a clothes swap

Look for certification

As certified Fairtrade product sales fall for the first time in twenty years, Fair trade and Rainforest Alliance labels are helpful signposts in finding producers committed to producing ethically. Don’t become complacent that they’ll carry on if they don’t make money. Made In Africa is a new initiative to establish a network of factories that meet the Liberty and Justice Factory 2.0 Standards. Find and support other bodies helping to raise standards.

Take the action: Buy a Fairtrade product you’ve never bought before

Reward companies trying to make a difference.

Visible Clothing, formed after Rana Plaza collapsed, believe removing the distance between the people making and buying their clothes is key to changing attitudes. Their ethos is, ‘It is easy to ignore people we don’t know. So let’s change that’; aiming to work sustainably with suppliers they know. Who can you champion for making a positive difference?

Take the action: Reward a clothes shop or brand making a difference

Vicky Walker is a freelance writer and speaker who has visited factories around the world working as a retail buyer. she tweets @vicky_walker. We welcome comments and feedback on this article either below or on Twitter @TearfundRhythms. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Image by Dan Etheridge.

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Comments

    Great piece. May we blow our own trumpet a bit and let people know that if you’re a man looking for a smart shirt for work (or indeed just if you like to wear proper shirts) Arthur & Henry do organic and Fairtrade cotton shirts made by people with decent working conditions.

    http://www.arthurandhenry.com

    Vicky…i’d love to know the shops you choose to never shop in. Sometimes I think people want someone to have done the research for them and give them a list of places they should and shouldn’t shop. Great article!

    Excellent, challenging piece. Need to take some time to think about it (and a particular challenge when as someone who is ‘larger’ than standard high street stores already has a quite limited choice!). Thanks Vicky.

    This was really helpful. I’ve tried to look for ethically traded clothing before but because it is ethical, it means it’s so much more expensive which of course I understand, however I can’t afford £60 for a top! But that H&M ethical section looks good so I’m going to try and buy what I can from there.

    Great article. What I don’t get is how retailers can have an “ethical” range of clothing (or coffee or chocolate or anything!). Is this not an implicit acknowledgement that their normal ranges are un-ethical?

    Brilliant article. My husband and I have already committed to buying Fairtrade clothing, where available, and second hand where it’s not. The commitment is also a pledge to buy fewer clothes, because of the cost, but Fairtrade clothes tend to be good quality and long lasting. Anyway, who needs loads of clothes? You’d only need to build bigger wardrobes, saying to yourself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry…”