Do you think fast fashion can ever be ethical?

A Bangladesh garment worker ©ILO

On 20 September we’re holding a discussion asking can fast fashion ever be ethical. It’s a hot issue, so for those who can’t make the debate, I asked Martin Buttle, our apparel and textiles lead, some questions around the topic. Here’s his answers. But do ask more or state your thoughts in our comments section and we’ll do our best to respond.

What’s fast fashion?

Fast fashion is a very specific segment of the modern fashion industry and should not be confused with regular ordering or main lines. Fast fashion is about supplying short runs or topping up product lines. It can be about ultra-cheap “throw away” clothing. It’s definitely about highly flexible companies turning around an order from design to product and onto shop floor very quickly, often within a fortnight. That can be for retailers who sell several lines every season or even one-offs to take into account a passing fad. On the latter, think Prince William’s wife Kate. She wore a bright yellow Roskanda dress to Wimbledon and almost immediately afterwards, many high-street retailers and supermarkets were selling blouses and dresses in the same colour.

What are its specific risks?

There are risks that companies need to be aware of and guard against. Short production runs can mean that suppliers face difficulties in fulfilling last minute orders and resort to unauthorised outsourcing to often very small sweatshops in the irregular economy, with workers employed on piece rates and occasional contracts. Cheap clothes often also mean cheap prices paid to suppliers with consequent knock on effects for wages, which if not careful can be seen as the easiest cost to cut. More widely, it can be about lack of visibility for workers who may be subject to abuse and exploitation. And  it can increase the possibility of child labour.

Is subcontracting the reason behind a lot of these worker's rights violations?

Subcontracting is a massive issue and a key cause of worker rights violations. As a recent New York Stern Business School report investigating the state of the Bangladesh garment industry found, indirect sourcing factories operate on very tight margins and with very little oversight. Consequently, this increases the vulnerability of workers to safety violations and labour rights abuses. Brands should be mapping their supply chains beyond their first sourcing tier to understand what is occurring and where, and to ensure standards are upheld throughout the chain. For example, that should mean tracing the supply chain right back to the mills that produce the cotton thread with which garments are sewn or even the mills that produce the rolls of cloth used in garment production.

How concerned do you think brands are – particularly retail members of ETI – about workers in their fast fashion supply chains?

Progressive brands, whether they are ETI members or not, should actively engage in discussions on human rights risks in their supply chains, and review their companies’ operations to better manage these risks. And that should include purchasing practices and oversight systems. Unfortunately, because many ETI company members are so well known, they can often be targeted as a proxy for the industry as a whole. We think that’s unfair. In ETI’s experience, our members genuinely seek to provide leadership in the business and human rights environment. But we also acknowledge that there are many issues that still need to be addressed, and it’s important that all brands continuously seek to improve their due diligence and deepen their understanding and work with local partners to help minimise the likelihood of abuse occurring.

Are you saying that we need to be more patient with brands over their business and production strategies? 

International expectations on brands’ sourcing policies are clear – particularly in countries with problematic human right records. Brands have to undertake human rights due diligence, which includes prevention, remediation, mitigation and accountability processes. It’s also very important to make clear that exploitation is never acceptable, although ETI recognises that there will be times when all brands, no matter what their size, will encounter labour standards issues in their supply chains. That could be in Bangladesh, Turkey, China, Myanmar or even the UK. When a crisis happens, what’s important is to take action to put things right and to protect all workers that are affected – they shouldn’t be penalised by losing their jobs – and we expect to see workers protected and compensated with access to remediation.

Should a standardised measurement of sustainability and ethics be politically enforced?

Without a doubt it makes no sense for individual brands to be pursuing their own standards and approaches to enforcement and it’s interesting to see a variety of national government initiatives beginning to take shape. But at the moment it’s very much a “watch this space” scenario. In the meantime, in different regions of the world, it makes sense for brands to focus on particular issues driven by local specifics.  I’m thinking here of the situation that Syrian refugees face in Turkey. ETI certainly believes that company initiatives on their own are not enough. What is needed are multi-stakeholder approaches which see companies working in alliance with international trade union federations to uphold national government legislation as well as with local NGOs and CSOs with their often unsurpassed access to and knowledge of communities. These need to be coupled with supranational initiatives like the ILO’s Better Work programme. This approach is in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

So, can fast fashion ever truly be ethical?

The reality is that fast fashion is here to stay. It’s also true to say that fast fashion has created many thousands if not millions of jobs in the garment industry that would otherwise not have been available, even though there are significant and real human rights and sustainability challenges. The bottom line is that jobs need to be decent and they need to pay a living wage. That’s why ETI insists that our member companies’ sign up to our Base Code – our internationally recognised code of conduct on labour rights and follow a policy of continuous improvement. 

For those of you not able to attend our debate, we’ll be reporting on it in detail in a live blog at this link. But do you have any questions you’d like us to put to the panel? It includes Chris Grayer, Head of Supply Chain Corporate Responsibility at NEXT Retail Plc, Jenny Holdcroft, the Policy Director of IndustriALL Global Union and Professor Nik Hammer, Lecturer in Work and Employment at the University of Leicester.

What questions do you have? Let us know in the comments section below and we’ll put them to the panel.

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ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.