It’s the final day of London Fashion Week and that got us thinking about whether the UK fashion industry needs to do more to raise the bar around promoting ethical and sustainable trading. Here are Debbie Coulter’s thoughts.
ETI works collaboratively with retailers and their suppliers, trade unions and the voluntary sector to ensure that industry takes responsibility for improving the working conditions of the people who make their products.
Although the UK has laws and regulations governing minimum labour standards and fair employment practices, these protections are often ignored by the more unscrupulous employers.
As a result, workers can suffer.
Knowing who makes clothes
Many workers producing garments in the UK are migrant workers. Many are also women from ethnic minority backgrounds. Both groups of workers are very vulnerable to exploitation.
At ETI, we have evidence of garment workers paid half the minimum wage working in appalling and unsafe factories. And that's in the UK.
To address this, it’s very important that retailers have sight of who makes their clothes and where they are manufactured.
The sector also needs to encourage a drive towards freedom of association and collective bargaining. The fact is, that a unionised workforce is generally a safer, stable and more secure workforce!
And it’s important to address pricing practices.
Too often, buyers and suppliers appear to think that the cost of labour can be squeezed to ensure greater profits.
But that’s flawed thinking. Progressive companies should ensure that the cost of labour is ring-fenced.
A responsibility to source ethically
Whether those taking part in London Fashion Week are global brands or small production houses, they all have a responsibility to source ethically.
Yet, while London Fashion Week is the shop window for all that is best in UK fashion, it’s the sector as a whole, working collaboratively, that drives change.
While there’s a growing awareness that fashion cannot ignore the workers that make their clothes, what’s vital is that the industry doesn't just pay lip service to workers' rights. It must recognise that it also has a responsibility for guaranteeing decent working standards throughout their supply chains.
London Fashion Week could be an important and regular reminder to the industry to use their influence to help fix endemic problems.
Ensuring a virtuous circle
To ensure a virtuous circle, everyone must prosper – not only the designers and fashion houses but also garment workers, wherever they are based. That can be in the UK or overseas.
And just as we shouldn’t forget the responsibilities of retailers and brands, importantly, in fashion, awareness starts within colleges.
Colleges are beginning to take ethical and sustainability issues very seriously and it’s crucial that fashion students, the designers and fashion workers of the future, embrace this.
The creativity, innovation and fearlessness that is part of their DNA should be channelled into creating an industry that is based on fairness for workers, free from exploitation and one in which we can all be proud.
That means embracing the transparency and accountability that is necessary to transform the sector.