IOSH discussion: Towards Ethical Fashion 2020

Written by Sebastian Whale on 6 July 2015 in Interview
Interview
Baroness Young of Hornsey, co-chair of the APPG on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, was among the speakers at a recent parliamentary event examining transparency in fashion supply chains

Disasters such as the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh have led to increased transparency around supply chains. But there is still further to go, according the parliamentarians, campaigners and members of the fashion industry who gathered in the House of Lords to discuss the next steps.

The event, ‘Ethical Fashion 2020, a new vision for Transparency?’, culminated in a parliamentary drinks reception.

Prior to this, an expert panel evaluated the role played by the industry, politicians, professionals and others in promoting sustainable safety and health in supply chains.

IOSH chief executive Jan Chmiel opened the event by highlighting the group’s focus on transparency in supply chains to ensure factory workers being “out of sight does not mean out of mind”.

Also at the outset, Fashion Revolution founder Carry Somers called for regulation on firms to go beyond relying solely on corporate social responsibility.

Panel debate chair and Observer journalist Lucy Siegle then called on the panellists to outline their vision for transparency by 2020.

 

First up was Garrett Brown, founder and co-ordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, who highlighted three elements in most industries that make them “the sweatshops they are today”. 

First was the business model where brands enter a “race to the bottom” in prices and volume delivery. Second was the lack of oversight of firms CSR policies. Third, a lack of participation “in the development, implementation or verification of health and safety programmes”. 

The reverse of these – public listing of brands supply chains, public disclosure of monitoring reports and effective health and safety committees with worker participation - were targets Brown would like to see achieved by 2020.

Simon Ward, chief operating officer of the British Fashion Council, outlined the BFC’s work with young designers and the efforts made to enhance their opportunities. He said he would like the British fashion industry’s work with designers to “demonstrate an environmentally sound and ethical, sustainable means of production” as one of his central targets to improve ethical fashion.

Baroness Young of Hornsey, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, spoke next. 

She pointed to the group’s work on the Modern Slavery Act, specifically businesses willingness to include transparency in supply chains within the bill, as evidence that more should be done to pressure firms into disclosing details of their supply chains. Baroness Young stated her aims to include convincing Government’s not to view health and safety “as a burden on business”, alongside calls for strengthened legislation on transparency through closing loopholes in the law that currently allow companies to hide behind overseas production. Greater “empowerment of consumers” was an additional aim, Baroness Young said.

Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh, outlined the need for the “basic right” of safety in the workplace to be enforced. 

He called for engineering based assessments of workplaces by qualified engineers, factory owners to invest in safety maintenance and systems, unions to place health and safety at a more “central and proactive part of their work” and credible workplace level safety monitoring systems to be implemented including the establishment of safety committees involving workers, unions and management, to be in place by 2020.

The final opening statement was given by Peter McAllister, executive director of the Ethical Trading Initiative. 

McAllister urged attendees to think beyond health and safety, and said “far too many risks” exist around child and forced labour, alongside discrimination against women. The full implementation of UN guiding principles for business and human rights in the fashion industry, proper remediation on health and safety, and a genuine voice for workers via trade unions were among his targets for greater transparency by 2020. 

He also spoke in favour of moving the debate from cities including London and New York towards Beijing, Johannesburg and Delhi so that a global conversation on improving working conditions could occur.


Question time

Following opening statements, chair Lucy Siegle took questions from audience members to the panellists.

First the panellists were asked whether the Accord and Alliance established in Bangladesh amounted to a short-term solution, as cheap prices and corner cutting remained rife in the country. 

Garrett Brown said unless the “iron triangle” of the sweatshop business model was tackled – this being the lowest possible price, the highest possible quality and at the fastest possible delivery - reform in developing countries was unlikely. To do so he called for greater worker empowerment, asking for workers to be given the “knowledge and ability” to monitor their own health and safety and to refuse unsafe work. The accord has made steps forward in empowering workers, Brown said. 

Rob Wayss said the accord was inspecting all factories signed up to the agreement, creating health and safety committees and had overseen capacity of local trade unions improve. 

Wayss finished by warning that a complete exit from Bangladesh in 2018, when the Accord agreement expires, would “leave a large investment in peril”. 

Peter McAllister said the Accord and the Alliance in Bangladesh were “the right thing to do at the right time”.

IOSH’s Richard Jones asked panellists whether it would be preferable to have either voluntary or legal requirements imposed on supply chains.

Baroness Young of Hornsey ceded that it may be “politically unpalatable” to impose a strong legislative framework on how firms operate, but said the idea business is against any kind of regulatory framework is a “myth”.

Citing her experiences with the Modern Slavery Act, Baroness Young said businesses were supportive of greater transparency in supply chains, and said it was “absolutely tragic” that it takes a “massive disaster” such as with Rana Plaza to bring up questions of regulation.

Non-governmental organisations need to “take on the mantel” and provide transparency for consumers, she said, so that conscientious purchases can be made. 

Simon Ward gave an example of the BFC tackling “designer psyche”, through presenting alternatives to the use of unpaid interns in the fashion industry, as an illustration of encouraging young designers to use ethical practices through direction. 
Peter McAllister called for a balance between “smart regulations that helps drive the behaviours and voluntary mechanisms” so firms realise transparency is beneficial for business in the long run. 

Garrett Brown, citing his experiences working in California, said there were two problems with transparency clauses in supply chains, one being the credibility of the information provided. He said firm’s CSR activities are not often monitored and properly scrutinised. 

Secondly, it is a pre-requisite for countries to have governments with the “political will and resources” to ensure regulation is properly enforced, which he argued, in most countries in the developing world, is not the case. 

It would be “economic suicide and a political impossibility” for strong imposition of regulations, he said, and the answer lies in greater worker empowerment.

Audience member Sarah Ditty, from the Ethical Fashion Forum, asked if transparency was even possible for large brands, given their convoluted supply chains. 

Peter McAllister said it was important to establish the definition of transparency, before demonstrating to firms that good transparency “drives better business practices”. 

Simon Ward referred to the “endless hamster wheel that is impossible to solve” when regarding breaking the madness of “more for less”. He argued that breaking the cycle of mass purchasing would ease the sequence of supply chain exploitation. 

 

No kite mark can do

A submitted question put to the panel by Lucy Siegle asked if an ethical kite mark scheme for fashion products could come into existence and whether that would encourage firms to pursue ethical production methods. The panel was unanimous in scepticism over the suggestion. 

Peter McAllister said the science was not robust enough yet, and the metrics would rely on audit and compliance data, which itself may not be legitimate. Rob Wayss said in practice it would be “extremely difficult to verify” and warned it could be misleading and in “some cases not very meaningful”. 

Baroness Young was similarly sceptical, saying that though on the surface it seems “really attractive”, it would over simplify an incredibly complex area. It could also risk legal action if the firms are later revealed to have poor levels of health and safety, for example, she added. 

Simon Ward said there should be a “pincer movement” between the accountability of the ethical practice and the story behind it to encourage designers to pursue ethical production, as often seen with ‘Made in UK’ labels. Garrett Brown said ‘Made in USA’ labels had created a “sweatshop” environment, particularly in Los Angeles, due to false appropriation of the label. More work with community and worker based organisations to monitor these exploitations is needed on a global scale, he said.

Liz Skelton from System Concepts asked the panel what role the media plays in raising awareness over supply chains and health and safety. 

Rob Wayss was the first panellist to answer, saying the media has a big role to play, not just in exposing firms who hold unethical practices and providing a spotlight on affected countries, but also acting as a “watchdog” for regulators such as the accord in Bangladesh. Legitimate reports create pressure on us to deliver, he said. 

Baroness Young referred to two parts of the media; one side which create documentaries that expose corruption and highlights firms carrying out unethical practices, and the second, with magazines encouraging customers to buy more. Lucy Siegle said the media was a “very wide landscape” and may not be “game changers” in respect of tackling awareness over supply chain health and safety.

 

One target

Lucy Siegle then asked the panel to conclude with one target that would make a “massive difference” to ethics in supply chains.

Garrett Brown argued the accord’s model of monitoring reports in supply chains would be critical to achieving transparency.

Simon Ward said consumers “need a story”, and urged firms to take advantage of this unique selling point.

Baroness Young was reluctant to put forward a single suggestion, saying education, information and knowledge were all essential, but concluded that activism from NGO’s and pressure groups was necessary to encourage government and business to pursue ethical supply chains.

Rob Wayss called for credible audits of factories performed by qualified independent professionals, while Peter McAllister mentioned the work the ETI is doing to develop a public form of commentary of companies’ transparency statistics.

 

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