Ethical Fashion Debate

Ethical Fashion Debate panellists

Ethical Fashion Debate panellists

Ethical Fashion is an umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing.

This debate aimed to discuss the problems with the way the fashion industry currently operates, such as exploitative labour, environmental damage, the use of hazardous chemicals, waste, and animal cruelty, as well as possible alternatives to dominant High Street Fashion business practices. 

Chaired by Caryn Franklin, the debate brought together Safia Minney, Mo Tomaney, Katharine Hamnett and Lucy Siegle.

Below is a full transcription of the debate, including questions and answers.

Jo Banham (JB) I'll start by briefly introducing Caryn - probably a face that many of you recognise from the BBC Clothes Show and other broadcasting commitments. She is also a writer, a presenter, a director and an author. She has written numerous books, many articles for Sunday supplements, magazines, newspapers and so on. Her website also includes much very good and sound advice on how to look good in clothes. So Caryn, thank you very much for joining us here today and I'll hand over to you to introduce the rest of the panel.

Caryn Franklin (CF) Thank you. We're going to get started straight away, because I know you've been waiting on us. I have got four glowing panel members and I'm going to let them give a little intro of themselves to tell you how they got into what they into.

I'm very delighted to welcome designer Katharine Hamnett,  broadcaster and journalist Lucy Siegle, research fellow at Central Saint Martins Mo Tomaney and founder of People Tree Safia Minney.

If I can come to you Safia, your biog was massive - so much achieved, but just a little précis?

Safia Minney (SM) Sure. People Tree started as a Fairtrade fashion brand in Japan, where there isn't much awareness of Fairtrade and environmental issues. Basically, what we were looking at was how we could use hand skills like weaving (hand weaving, hand embroidery) - how we could work with farmers so they could switch to organic - how we could start, from that point, to maximise the kind of income and the livelihoods and community development. That's how the brand People Tree started, as a Fairtrade fashion label.

Mo Tomaney (MT) I started as a designer and I worked in industry for quite a long time, working in supply chains. So that's where my… I suppose the experiences that have led me to where I am now… that's where my information comes from, really, from actually being in the field. And in the last ten years I've been working as a consultant with development projects. I work on market access a lot in the developing world. In addition, I'm Research Fellow for Ethics in the Fashion Industry with Central Saint Martins and I also run a Masters for Ethical Fashion at UCA Epsom.

Katharine Hamnett (KH) Well I suppose I was chugging along happily, living an artist's or fashion student's dream of what it's like to be a designer in the late eighties - actually '89. I was sort of bored with success and hating failure, so I just thought I'd check one last thing to see if I was in line with the right livelihood. So I commissioned some research on the clothing and textiles impact on the environment and its social impact and, to my horror - I mean I thought I was going to find nothing wrong - found absolutely everything wrong on pretty well every level, including ten thousand people dying a year of accidental pesticide poisoning in cotton agriculture. I just thought, 'this is a completely untenable situation'.

So I kind of slaved away trying to change the industry from within with all our licensees who really simply didn't give a damn. In fact one told me, 'If you carry on with this ethical and environmental shit, you can take your collection and fuck off' - which wasn't very polite, so I did anyway. To the point when we actually decided to stop working and we were going to tear up all the contracts that we could and concentrate on consumer awareness because I knew that consumers cared, even if industry didn't. So, here I am.

CF And we're very glad you didn't 'fuck off'.

Lucy Siegle (LS) I suppose I'm the archetypal 'No Logo' generation. I have been a print journalist for the last ten years and I also do some TV and radio. I started out in journalism writing about design and fashion, as lots of young female journalists do, and I was just not convinced that I was writing about the right aspects of fashion, so I started to look at other things. In 2000, I wrote a book on organic living and started to write about green living and obviously the two sort of came together. I remain convinced that you can marry social and ethical justice with environmental justice and those two are the things that kind of propel me along. However I've never stopped loving fashion and, you know, sometimes that's a pleasant place to be and sometimes it's a nightmare, but we'll see.

CF Great. So I'm going to kick off with a question to all panellists and that is, 'Where is the High Street in terms of ethical and sustainable clothing production at this moment?' Who wants to start? Lucy, you do.

LS I don't actually. I was hoping Mo would because she could give us some grounded statistics.

MT No, I don't have a statistic I'm afraid. I mean, I think the High Street just seems to be in overdrive with too much consumption, 'too-fast' production. The implications of the faster production on the supply chains have made them… the social implications are much worse than they were twenty years ago or whenever it was that you were having that conversation, Katharine.

I mean, it's just so much faster now, so that even though we've got brands and retailers saying that they do make - that they are making - demands, or they're starting to work with their supply chains, against that you've go the very speeded up shorter life-cycles, very fast fashion, fast consumption. It's actually really difficult for the suppliers to do anything because they still need to make a profit. In order to make a profit - or the profit that they want to make - they've got to be given a bit of lee-way and work with the retailers - and the retailers aren't doing that. They're just trying to cut work with smaller, smaller margins all the time because they're making cheaper clothing. So I think it's a really difficult situation at the moment.

CF Is there any optimism there?

KH I think there's huge optimism insofar as industry has to sell and consumers don't have to buy. And what's coming up from all the market research is that 50% of Marks & Spencer's consumers are concerned... have got environmental concerns. Something like 85% are concerned about child labour, 75% are concerned about 'sweated labour', 30% have actually… they're 'called 'conscientious abstainers' - people who have actually not a bought a product because they're concerned about where it's made. And this is showing up on retailers' research. What I learnt with a Tesco expedition is that retailers take an enormous amount of notice of anything that's over 30%. So 30% coming up as people simply not buying something is enough to drive them into panic mode.

I know that H&M are selling their organic cotton collection much better than they thought, although I've been into the shops looking for it and I can't find it. I ask the shop assistants and they go to me, 'huh?' but if you rustle through you can find it and this is apparently selling really well. I also know that Wal-Mart - huge - I think they're the largest purchaser in the world of anything - have just had a huge edict gone out to all their factories that they want ethical and environmental or else they're changing suppliers. This has actually been driven by consumers. It's not coming from designers or retailers that say, 'we're going to be good now' - consumers are actually forcing retailers to go along this path or go out of business.

I think one of the interesting things that's happening now is you see this incredible tail-off on sales in every single sector, including the luxury sector, but one thing that's holding up for instance, is that organic food is holding up and everybody said that would drop off. So, I think there's a lot happening. It is very difficult for the most… things like the ETI we were talking about before, about which everybody says, 'Oh, they're members of the ETI and… fine but it's just a talking shop'. They're not - compliance isn't forced, but I think consumers are forcing retailers to do it now, whether they like it or not. So they've been flailing and screaming into ethical and environmental clothing.

CF A case of 'having to', Lucy?

LS I think what we've got to really watch out for is the famous 'ethical fig leaf' and I think the problem that we've got at the moment… last week, for example, there were two headlines and it was reported in pretty much every paper that M&S was dropping prices on food and clothing and clothing was the specific one that they mentioned. You can see that Primark sales are holding up as well, despite the fact that - was it two or three months ago - there was a massive exposé of Primark which seemed to immediately have dented the sales, but it's gone right back up again and that is because of the recession.

We have to watch… what we have to try and find out now is whether the consumer will follow through on what they're saying. And I think they are giving very strong messages about the type of product they want and especially when it comes to labour rights, which has been a very long-fought battle. But, what the consumer says and does - there's still a massive disparity and that is a real, real issue with ethical fashion. And that's why I kind of… we shouldn't just talk. I know this is about the ethical high street specifically, but the workshops that we've seen here today, which are about actually not buying and not consuming, and swapping clothes or 'swishing', or whatever you want to call it, and reinventing your original wardrobe. I think that's an incredible rebuff to the High Street. And I think it's the sort of thing that we need to stand up and say: there is another way of doing this, another way of consuming.

CF Safia, I just want to bring you in on this one and the High Street and the way it operates. Was that what really kind of propelled you to working differently?

SM Well, I think with the economic downturn and what we've seen, obviously which is that there is a reduction in consuming of fashion. Of course it's really alarming to see it move away from the better players on the market, from Marks and Spencer to the kind of Primarks. But what is clear is that that's going to have enormous impact on the developing world, if you look at a country like Bangladesh or India. Bangladesh in itself has two million garment workers that are working in factories.

Now, we certainly don't want to see 'fast fashion' propelled at the speed where people are in their factories at three in the morning not being paid overtime, absolutely their minimum rights not being met. However, there has to be a new way of doing fashion. I think this is where the Fairtrade model has very much come in, which is about 'slow fashion'. It's about a garment not taking an average of thirteen minutes to make. It's a garment taking three days to make. Why? Because you've got a world population that is growing - 6.6 billion, coming close to 9 billion in about twenty years. What is going to put food on the table for the whole of mankind?

The governments have been talking about the millennium development goals. There aren't many business models that really look at what is sustainable and that's not just environmental sustainability - that's about what creates livelihoods. So if you do have a model - and I've just come from Bangladesh where I took the British government last weekend - where you do have a model of cottage industry (to which everyone goes, 'oh, really hobbyist, little knitters, what you do after you finish work'). Actually, you look at a cottage industry of weavers and embroiderers and block-printers and it's close to two million people. It's about the same number of people that go to those garment factories and work every day. They actually are able to live in the village where they grew up, send their kids to school, they have access to water, they have access to a kitchen-garden, they can rear livestock. They have other incomes apart from what they do from nine to five. And it's a very much more humane form of living.

So I think that what one needs to do is not only - I mean obviously… I'm an ecologist, I'm delighted that we're all consuming more intelligently, we're reducing, we're not buying because our closets are stuffed - but actually moving on now to buying stuff that's more value-addition in terms of organic cotton. It employs way more people than conventional cotton, people rather than chemical fertilisers and pesticides that do our environment and the farmers a huge amount of harm. But also the value-addition that comes into making cloth by hand - It's not a dream and I think we all should be looking at that.

CF Safia, do you think we are consuming intelligently in that way already?

SF The signal from People Tree, where we have doubled our wholesale business in the last year, is that that is very much a trend - there are more stockists around both Britain than Europe. So I think that is coming through very, very strongly. But I think you're absolutely right, Lucy. The media has a huge job to play in continuing to educate people who don't yet know about the human rights violations of what we do to farmers and also the kind of situation that many garment workers find themselves in.

CF OK, we are going to come to consumers - obviously you are our consumers of fashion. We want your opinions. But back to the panel, a quick fire on what are the priorities? What need to be the priorities of the ethical high street? What do we have to get in place quickly? Does anybody want to start on that one?

SM Well I think the compliance with the minimums in terms of I.L.O. - which ought to have been in place, for God's sake, 15 years ago - are the beginning of the last environmental fashion boom in the early nineties, which just disappeared really and then has been resuscitated in these last five or six years. Clearly that needs to be a baseline and, as I say, we've all got to engage with things like the millennium development goals - nobody is doing much about it - government needs to be there. Consumers need to know more about what it is - basic human rights - it's about eating. It's about three people being able to sleep in a size bigger than your bathroom and having access to fresh water and all things you'd expect. So it is really giving that whole instrument teeth and there are lots of really exciting practical examples of social businesses that are piloting those kinds of schemes. I think it's really exciting. That's really the minimum level, I think.

LS I think it's similar, what you said there was really interesting Safia, if you're talking about what human rights actually means and what the violation is because a lot of people don't know. They have a vague idea, they have heard stories of people being locked in factories, forced overtime, but they don't know exactly what it means. If you look at standards - it's a terribly reductionist attitude that we have come to - but if you look at standards on organic food, or whatever, if you want to know what a free range chicken is, you can find out. We almost need that clarity. I know its incredible crass, because we are talking about human beings and workers. But in a way, we need to know that information and we need to know what labelling is available - I know we will probably talk about labelling later - but we also need to know what it means.  We cannot let high street stores and big names cloud the agenda with their so-called eco or ethical or green ranges that really don't mean the same thing at all. We need clarity, basically.

KH I would like to say that people do tend to draw this sharp line between ethical and environmental and this comes up a lot with the Fairtrade. And they say, 'Oh, we only deal with ethical issues' or they regard environmental as separate. So people are saying that more pesticide use is environmental - and therefore it's not ethical. I can't see how you can say something that now kills twenty thousand people a year, contaminates the drinking water with pesticides, creates testification - surely this is an ethical issue as well.  So of course there are labour issues.

Farmers, for instance, in West Africa and a lot of places in the developing world are forced to buy pesticides - and forced to sign a contract to buy the pesticides - before they can get a contract to sell their cotton. So they are forced to buy these chemicals which are killing them and killing the environment.

I think the way that people have to start, really, is the letter writing. It's letter writing to your favourite store or your favourite brand, whatever it is, saying, 'We want it ethical and environmental. We want it better defined'. Lucy could do us a huge favour by doing an article that says, 'these are the certifications that you can actually trust, things like the Soil association…'.

LS We've done a big thing about labelling and we have also quite often… the ETI have done a thing recently where they want people to write letters and all the rest of it. My worry is the consumer is becoming quite jaded and wondering about the impact of these programmes. I wonder if we need more policy tools to actually put living wage and labour rights properly on the agenda.

KH Something tougher than the ETI? Something that the ETI. got was something we were all tearing our hair out over because it says 'working towards'. But 'working towards' a working wage, which could be by 2150, there is no time limit on it. If people use it, it's meaningless.

CF I want to bring in Mo. You have seen some great sea changes, as has Safia, in the time you have been working with the High Street. You've worked with Benetton and Body Shop. Do you feel that - and certainly, Safia, Topshop taking your range must have been a massive stepping stone - do you feel you are seeing… is it fast enough? Is there enough implementation to allow you to operate the way that you need to?

SM I think it's speeded up recently, but I think it does come back to this issue of clarity, because there is a real cloudiness in the debate in terms of how it's communicated to the consumer. There is a big difference between - I mean we all make comparisons with food and clothing - but the way that we consume food, the way we shop for food is very different from the way we consume clothes. We all love fashion and fashion is an emotional decision and the reason you buy something is emotional and I think we all want to believe what we are told. We want to believe that the suppliers and the brands we are buying from - if they tell us, 'we are doing something, working towards a good supply chain' - of course the consumer wants to believe that. Where as with food it's much more simple; its much less complex supply chain with food.

If you buy Fairtrade coffee for instance, nobody really questions whether the backpack was Fairtrade. You know that the product that you're buying is the coffee inside the backpack and you're not going to question where that pack came from. Whereas with clothing... I mean, you have got so many layers in the supply chain and that's lots of different backpacks. So you can talk about elements of the processing or the finishing. The consumer doesn't really understand that. It makes for a very cloudy debate and that makes it very easy for brands to manipulate.

CF We'll come to labelling in just a bit. So Safia, when you entered an agreement with Topshop did that suddenly mean your business just blossomed? Are you as big as you want to be? Can you get a lot bigger?

SM Yes, it was exciting and we were quite surprised that the cultural creatives within Arcadia Group were actually… very, very positive about getting People Tree in and changing the terms under which they did trade for Fairtrade brands. Now, the important thing for a brand like People Tree is that we would like to see that change of the trade terms for all the suppliers - not just for People Tree. People Tree obviously… it needs an empowering environment because we pay our producers 50% in advance. We work with some of the most isolated, disadvantaged farming groups and women's cooperatives in the world - these are not factories. But we would like to see, obviously, the terms of trade improve for all of Topshop's suppliers.

I think - coming back to your question - clearly what we need is something like the model that supported Fairtrade coffee coming to the market over the last 25 years. Fairtrade coffee pioneer brands have had a huge amount of grant support from the EU, from the British Government, from local authorities. There has been a huge amount of money to build a supply chain for Fairtrade coffee. What is Fairtrade coffee? Fairtrade coffee is a fantastic tool - very, very important for the coffee markets and where they were in the eighties.

If you look at fashion, it's a very, very complicated supply chain. People Tree, for example, is not only Fairtrade cotton fibre, it's also organic certified fibre. All the stages of manufacture are Fairtrade too. It's a very, very complicated model. Apart from bringing green coffee beans, roasting and packaging them in Germany, the advantage that Fairtrade fashion has is that the finished garment is made in the developing world. It has an opportunity to create huge numbers of livelihoods through making that finished product. So, there is a fantastic opportunity there. There has been spent pretty much close to zero on grants supporting Fairtrade fashion, its supply chains and technical assistants. It's the fastest product cycle you will find in the world of fashion.

CF Katharine, you found your own way of getting ethical product to a mass market. Tell us about that.

KH Are you talking about the Tesco experience?

CF I am!

KH I looked at the whole issue of Fairtrade and environmental and realised that it can't be a niche. It mustn't be a niche product - it's got to be in the mainstream to work, to create enough demand. There are a hundred million farmers working in the developing world growing cotton. They call it a hundred million but actually their families work too. So if you include their families too, that's four hundred million people. They are not going to suddenly improve their livelihoods. I think it needs to be in the mainstream. There are four hundred million farmers working in the developing world and the only way they can trade their way out of poverty is if they grow cotton organically.

So the areas that we were targeting were mainstream direct retail. We saw research that showed that people would buy ethical and environmental - in favour and in support of environmental - if it was the same price. And so, almost as an academic exercise, we thought, 'Tesco, that would be brilliant because it's dirt cheap'.

It's quite interesting because the way they deliver goods to the market is that they don't have all the multiple margins that you get from a normal wholesale to retail business, where you have the manufacturer who buys the fabrics in and organises a designer for the collection, marks up 100% on what it costs him and that becomes his wholesale price. He would then sell at that price into normal retail outlets and they mark up another 2.7 - I think it is in the UK - or 2.3 in the rest of Europe. So you end up with something costing in the shops five times as much as the raw materials and the beauty of a lot of these direct retailers is they have cut all of the other people out of the supply chain. So they will mark up, typically, anywhere between 50 and 75% - full stop - on landed costs.

So, to cut to the kill, what that meant that we could do, doing an ethical and environmental collection with them is… for instance, we had a pair of jeans that were made in the same organic denim as Levi's were using for their organic cotton jeans and the Levi's ones were retailing at 80 quid and ours - of course, considerably better cut - were retailing at £16. We were doing men's polo shirts in organic cotton, fairly traded, all the boxes ticked, right along the line. These were retailing at eight pounds, and I mean they were as good a fabric as Ralph Lauren, you know they've the nice collars... so it can be done.

But I think the big issue is that it has to be fashion first. But for me the important thing to do would…  you know, people say 'What on earth?'. I was expecting so much flack - I was really disappointed. I thought, 'everybody is going to attack me by going to Tesco's'. Tesco's are perceived as a devil. They actually do quite a lot of good things that aren't reported. You know they got to these trains that take goods from London to Scotland and I know I sound like a Tesco ad…

LS …you of all people.

KH I know, 'of all people', exactly, but I like fairness and I know they do things badly but there are some things they do that don't…

CF So what went wrong?

KH I just wasn't very happy with the way that it was shown in store. I felt that we are a designer brand and we have to look after our image to some extent. I mean, it was pretty terrifying. And so we parted company. But we are still friends. Actually, I've got funding out of them for a project that we are doing in West Africa, in Mali, to help the farmers convert to grow the cotton organically, which is good. You know we weren't right for each other at the time… but it was very interesting to see that you could get products out into these direct retail stores. You know - quality - ticking all the boxes environmentally and socially and so… considerably cheaper than it would be in a mainline normal process. It makes you feel like… I mean, certainly, think in a recession, now this is the future of fashion now.

CF It's certainly been an important exercise and also in helping to address our perceptions - the fact that a huge mass market retailer could be involved, in some way, in addressing big change rather than small incremental change.

Lucy, what do you see the priorities are for reaching and influencing the consumer? Obviously media is a huge focus.

LS Yeah… I think the proposition for the consumer has been an enormously confusing one and I think in some ways - obviously I can take at face value the fact that your relationship with Tesco's didn't work out because apparently, you know, it had to do with other factors - but I was never that convinced that they were ever the right vehicle for your product and for other ethical products. I think it's a very hard sell for the consumer with a company - a mainstream company - that is perceived to have so many difficulties with supply chain and ethics.

KH Well, I don't know. I know last summer they had over five million products that were… Fairtrade and organic in-store and they only put them there because people want it. I think it's great that these people have to respond because the market is asking for it. So you know…

LS …Yeah, I think that is one way of looking at it, but I think I have a difficulty with Fairtrade and organic. We have to look a bit deeper than just those labels. I mean, if you look at Fairtrade products with fashion, a lot of consumers don't realise that's just a fibre, that's not the chain of command of custody. We don't know if that is ethical… it could have been made anywhere, to be honest, with a lot of those products that are sold with the Fairtrade label.

KH Personally, don't start me on Fairtrade as the actual label because I have so many issues with it I would probably be arrested. The Fair Labour Association have huge issues with the fact that not all of the workers are receiving benefits - it's got no environmental benefits whatsoever. When I was using the term I was using its original kind of Shakespearean meaning…

LS … unadulterated!

KH It was actually… this meant that people were being treated well - properly - the entire supply chain was immaculate but the Fair Trade Foundation as they stand…

LS … So we have digressed haven't we?

CF …Are we back on board with the media?

LS Ok, if you want to know about the media, what we are trying to do is distil very, very complex ideas and there's all manor of debates to be had. One debate that we should have, but are not going to have time for, is about cotton generally, I think, and other fibres and the part they need to play in this whole… and where we get our base product from and our fibre. So there are about 45 different issues which are very prevalent in ethical fashion, which need to be communicated in some way. And I think that the media, obviously, if you're looking at fashion media, they come from a totally different… they've never had to really think about this before. 

We've had this lovely, sort of sequin-infused, lovely 'la la fashion thing' where we can do what we like, really. We can have models in all sorts of outfits without having to worry about where they were derived from, and then suddenly… I feel quite sorry for some fashion editors now. Because they basically come in one week and have to worry where the bloody thing is sourced and who sewed it and how much they were paid. I mean that's quite a headache for people whose whole priorities were different and some of the stuff you've seen has been, frankly, very poor.

I have seen a few hilarious tries at doing ethical fashion, one of which was about wearing the right coat with the right weight, now that we are going to experience climate change, which I thought was extraordinary. Sometimes they get it very, very wrong. Sometimes they are almost getting it right… we need more stylists, we need more people who know what brands are available and how to put different looks together. But mostly we need to bring back originality and the problem with media and the problem with fashion magazines - let's face it - they are enslaved to certain brands who pay the advertising because that is how media works.

Now, what is very interesting at the moment is that as the recession kicks in, advertising rates plummet, and we are going to see different media. We're going to see the internet becoming incredibly important and we're seeing more creative ways of putting out fashion. BBC Threads was a very good example of that and I liked a lot of the stuff they did, particularly for younger consumers. They really, really enjoyed a lot of that content. That's a very different approach to buying a glossy magazine and having certain labels who we know take up all of the editorial because they basically fund the magazine.

CF Good point. Yet again, more optimism, which is great. I really want to get the last two answers quickly done so we can open it up to the floor, because I know you have lots of questions. We have touched on labelling. Mo, it's such a complicated system, you know, if only the consumer could pick up a garment that said, 'this is safe and this is unsafe'  - whatever the approach would be. But it's just not that simple, is it?

MT It's not that simple because, well, as everybody's discussed, we do have this incredibly complex supply chain and I think what's needed is a label that facilitates that consumer demand we all know is there. The consumer is driving the buggy really. The brands are responsive to the consumer, but as long as there is a lack of understanding of supply chain… its not very interesting for the consumer to try to understand a supply chain. We are all industry insiders here, so we all know what it looks like - obviously the vertical supply chain that Katharine's described… I mean one thing that has happened in the last few years that is part of a response to globalisation and economic response, is that manufacturers - mills and manufacturers in Europe - have had to become vertical in order to compete with cheap imports from China and South Asia. So vertical supply chains are definitely becoming more common and that's certainly much easier in terms of creating a label.

I think there is a lot of different work going on in terms of who develops the label and I think there are a lot of egos -  organisational egos - involved in that, so you have obstacles to getting those decisions made. I don't really know what the answer is, because I think the label needs to convey the layers of the supply chain and it's very, very difficult economically, to compete at those kind of prices like you're talking about in Tesco's - £15 for a pair of jeans - and actually make a difference at each level of the supply chain.

There are lots of different ways of production chains and there are production chains that are making big differences at one level of the production chain but less at the other and that is definitely not clear to the consumer. As Lucy mentioned, you have organic cotton that is being put into supply chains that are not particularly clean, but because there is a label for organic cotton that means that the consumer recognises that label and it's an honest label, but it just refers to the lowest end of the value chain - it just refers to where the cotton has been picked. So that's confusing. Really, we do need a global label and I don't think we are anywhere near that at the moment.

SM I think Lucy was referring more to the Fairtrade fibre label as opposed to the organic fibre label - we try and do both. I think it's extremely difficult because there is a lot of confusion: I'm the typical green consumer, which is synonymous with the ethical consumer and we use the term 'ethical' in such a broad way and that has spurred on a huge amount of confusion.  Are we talking about ethical? This is about transparency, it's about accountability, it's about cleaning up the supply chain. Or are we talking about Fairtrade? I'm not suggesting that Fairtrade does not sit under that umbrella of 'ethical' and 'green', but we all have different values and I think it's important that consumers can choose: not animal tested or whatever they might want to choose. That is the consumer.

I would not prefer one label - the do-it-all 'bells and whistles' type of a label. But I think it's very, very difficult when one looks at what the remit of Fairtrade is. Fairtrade is about supporting the most disadvantaged people in the developing world and clearly if Marks and Spencer are paying for one set of Fairtrade certifications through an integrated factory and People Tree is paying that eight-fold because we are working with smaller projects that are 50 people, 200 people, 400 people and 200 people again, because there are women's groups, artisanal groups, screen printers, refugee groups etc.  Do they deserve to be penalised because they are smaller businesses? It's like the Fairtrade coffee debate, which is, 'do you do it with small scale coffee farmers, who are the families that own that production, or with coffee plantations?' So it's not a dissimilar debate. I think it's very, very interesting.

Coming back to the point, I think clearly, if you're trying to support a development model that makes it fairer for all, both in terms of social equity and environmental equity, I completely agree with Katharine that the two go hand in hand. The whole debate about development is not only about social issues and human rights because the very guys who are growing cotton with pesticide use find that they are backed up against the wall. There were 100,000 suicides in India last year because they can't afford to pay their bills and can't diversify and get out of that awful situation they are in. So clearly organic production goes hand in hand with social development issues as well, but you don't want to create a barrier where somebody growing cotton can't yet afford to go organic and not allow them to move into that terrain.

Q&A

CF OK, so very complicated issues there for that one. We've got 15 minutes now. Anybody who would like to ask a question, please put your hand up. Number one right down here. What always happens is people take a while to think about it and then suddenly, two minutes before the end, there are lots.

Q Thank you, that was really interesting. My name is Sarah and I have worked in media for 15 years. I've worked as a Digital Media Director for EMAP ELAN, I've toyed around with Grazia and all the rest of it. I've always been ethically-minded and a couple of months ago I launched a new daily eco glossy online, that is not funded by the big fashion brands. It's called 'Greenmystyle.com'.

One of the issues and one of the subjects that we tackled straight away was, 'how easy is it to by eco on the high street?' And so I actually did this piece myself and kicked off with - 'can I find 'Eco Style' on Oxford Street at 1.30 on a Saturday afternoon?' Everybody thought I was nuts - actually half way through, I thought I was nuts too. It was really hit and miss. French Connection was ok, it had one pair of jeans in store. Marks and Spencer - I thought this was going to be brilliant - PlanA - it's going to be fantastic. Went in, they literally had one pair of trousers, one skirt - one in a size ten and one in a fourteen. It was really difficult, we're actually going to send out reporters to every UK city now on a Saturday afternoon to see if they can find 'Eco Style' on the high street. My question to you is, 'What's the best way for media to work with the industry to make sure we are creating the right powerful products online for readers? Is there a forum that we can join? Can we come sit and talk with you?

KH I think it's whistle-blowing. I think whistle-blowing is still very much the order of the day because I think that's hugely constructive. What it does is that... you shouldn't forget the industry but with my experience of seventeen years of battling, they don't want to change at all. But the only thing that is forcing it is consumers. It's actually giving consumers the information and telling them to write to their favourite brands, that's driving it faster than anything. Industry would just put up more smoke screens of, you know, quangos and new look-alike ETIs that sound great and achieve nothing.

But if you drive the consumers mad with rage and they go tearing in, they are the ones that are forcing the scenario at the moment as industry won't do anything. They don't want any critics to go wake up and die in a corner because 'we're doing so very nicely, thank you'. Now they are being forced to share these ridiculous dividends people at the top are taking, with people lower down the supply chain, which is great.

LS That presupposes, though, that there is an appetite for activism and that millions of people don't shop in Primark everyday and not care about it, which unfortunately is quite often the reality at the moment. I think part of the media agenda, if you are part of the conscience media, is to look at the nature of consumerism and why we have gone so far down this road. Mob Shopping and not caring about stuff and the disposability of fashion is a very, very important part of the agenda and obviously you don't want to be preachy about that and you want people to read what you're doing. Not to take it as a given that the high street is ethical, which I think we all sort of are today - I know that's probably the title of the debate that I didn't read carefully enough - but I think that we have to say, 'is it?' If you think you have problems finding stuff on Oxford Street, try that in a new shopping centre, Westfield or whatever it's called.

CF I would like to say on that point, because I do want to get across to everybody and to introduce you to Emily Best, behind you, who is running Bochecha. She is offering ethical clothes at high street prices online which may be one of the places that we do find... we're able to access it easily. So hopefully you two will get together and have a chat. Anybody else with a question? Let's get through as many people as we can.

Q I haven't put my sentence together properly so it might be a bit unstructured. I was thinking about the way ethical fashion journalism is communicated and it seems that most of it is on the web. So when you go into Borders, all of the fashion magazines that you see, none of them particularly take an ethical stance. We know the publishing industry and magazine sales are going down and obviously there's the debates about paper usage and everything. But in terms of going in and actually looking at fashion magazines on the shelves that isn't something 'ethical'. I was just wondering, mainly to Lucy, whether there is space in the market for a more ethically minded magazine that is actually published or do you think it is better that ethical fashion journalism remains on the web or any other media that you would suggest?

LS I think that it is inevitable that there will be a lot of web stuff because of the way that currently the publishing industry works with advertising - it's so dependent on that. I would love for there to be a real kick-ass, amazing ethical fashion magazine. There are a few people who are doing very well and the new ones that are coming out, which are brave, very brave… but - and this is just a really techie point -I've done some research about published material versus web material and if you look at the data centre, energy usage and all the rest of it, it doesn't always come down in favour that the web is greener. I mean there is a whole argument to be had there as well.

In terms of how you get your message across, you have to look at what demographic we really need to target. And I would still say - Mo might know about this - but I would say it's a slightly older woman who's got the real purchasing power, always buying the most clothes at the moment and I still think - I was thirty four yesterday so I'm talking about myself - and I would still prefer to pick up a fashion magazine, because I have been educated in a fashion magazine and that is how I'm would like to see my fashion. You know that is something we might be able to be persuaded out of but I think if there is anything that I want you to take from this, it's that if you have any ideas in how to change consumerism and the nature of consumerism, like clothes swaps, I think now is the time for a revolution. Anything like that is going to do massive box office at the moment, whereas I think the more generic traditional ways of selling fashion are going to struggle.

Q I was just wondering with the recent Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand issue with the BBC… they're a massive mammoth corporation… sorry, constitution, and they had to receive 27,000 complaints before anything was done. Do you think there is a quantifiable amount of… you know, letters to be sent or complaints to be sent to popular stores before something will be done?

CF Good question. I look at the beauty industry and I think 'against animal testing' has become such a huge measure of the way people interact with cosmetics. There was a point where consumers just chose their products - that has already been said here. The power of the purse is massive and if retailers aren't selling… I mean the BBC is a fascinating case in that these people were… some of them are still part of the corporation and it addresses their approach to programming. This wasn't even a live programme is what shocked me, this was a recorded programme that went through various processes of people going 'yeah, that's fine, I think that's fine'. But I think that the immediate thing with retailing is: if retailers aren't selling it, they won't keep on putting it out. And if they are selling more of something else... so it does rather lay the responsibility at us, the consumer.

KH On letters of complaint, the statistic that we based a lot on was that in the old days, the BBC used to change their programme if they got four letters of complaint [Laughter] and I knew people that… and I talked to a friend of mine actually, who works on a mag - she's editor or something close to that - and they got complaints about showing a python handbag and a fur decoration cardigan. She had this complaint and she said to me, 'right, we're not doing those anymore'. I said, 'What?' She said, 'no fur, no more reptile skin' and I said, 'how many letters of complaint did you have?' 'Four!'

LS But it's similar actually, I think, in print media with the 'size zero' debate.  Following that, on my newspaper, if we had two or three letters about the models, I mean that was enough for the editor to go, 'well hang on a minute, why did you use that girl?' That kind of thing does, if it's a massive media issue, and then you get the complaints, it seems to work. So we have to work at making this even more prevalent in people's minds and then maybe we can help the Daily Mail to generate the complaints - which is a difficult thing.

CF So this entire room is a massive campaign that is going to do great change if you all come out and write a letter - to the same place of course.

MT But I think with clothing - I mean - what you get is boycotts. People boycott when there is bad press for brands, that's the classic reaction and that seems to be quite short lived.  I think memories are quite short. And again when you boycott that company and then they bring out a great collection and everyone wants to buy it. So we tend to forget it.

CF Can I ask a question on whether you boycott or engage? If you had a brand that you bought and there was an exposé on it, would you boycott that brand or engage? So hands up if you would boycott.

CF Realistically what we're saying…

LS Should we engage?

MT The problem for the consumer is: how do they engage?  They do not have the road map to engage and that's what they need and that is why this work on labelling is so important because the consumer does not have a mapping system. So the way that they can engage is very limited.

CF Can I get another question?

Q Hi, my name is Joanne Scott. I've got a label 'Tara Starlet' at Topshop as well. I manufacture completely in England, buy all my fabrics in England as well. I wonder if you classify that as being ethical, because I think that in some ways, we should push towards buying clothing that is being made in England still, because it is such a dying industry and there's people suffering here as well. 

And I do think that one of the major problems with all of this is the way people don't give people what they want for a garment. That's what all of the problems with Primark were, that when they try and get their manufacturing done overseas, they are trying to get something made for five pence, when actually the manufacturers would like fifty pence for the garment but they are grinding them down constantly to bring the price down and I think we should look at manufacturing still in this country and not overseas -for those reasons - to pull it down. The way Burberry has gone to China is terrible, really. They should have stayed here and been British-made because they were doing that.

CF I certainly know one of the problems from talking to small brands is that having rejuvenated craft and working with people who are offering quite a niche skill, but those people are coming to the end of their working life and there isn't a culture of apprenticeship - those skills aren't being passed on. Certainly in England and in shoemaking, that tends to be a big problem… that is a bigger debate, isn't it? Come to the London College of Fashion in mid February we're having a debate about exactly that.

I'm going to try and get some more questions in. Anybody else?

Q The question I wanted to ask is that obviously a lot of the people that are here are students that are interested in ethical fashion. I've been in this industry for over thirty seven years and I'd just like to know what it is that the students are going to do with this next? Because obviously we are here with… what we do have to have for ethical fashion and obviously in regards to what Safia was saying about having things made in developing countries, as well. I do a lot of work in South Africa, Rwanda, Zanzibar and Tanzania, working with women in the rural areas, putting the design input into things that then have access to market. And one of the things I find really difficult is actually getting hold of people who would be interested to get involved in that. It is a growing market, I mean People Tree actually shows that.

CF Do you mean getting hold of people to work in your business?

Q (response)   To Work. Because obviously what London College of Fashion is doing, with sustainable development and ethical fashion, I think that it should be a lot easier. But I think that there is so much that can actually be done. I mean Katharine has already laid the foundations for all of that and if it wasn't for people like her I probably wouldn't do what I do now.

KH Can I just say something? Everybody always says, 'why don't designers design ethical fashion?' In fact, designing ethical fashion is no different to designing non ethical fashion. The most important part is a few fabrics that you have to avoid. The problem is the manufacturers. If you have got jobs for designers in Africa, all the little different design companies are going to warp because the recession is hitting us, blah blah blah… literally putting an ad up in London College of Fashion or Central Saint Martins - any of these places - you're going to get loads of people applying. If that's what you want and what you're looking for is people actually coming Africa and tweak local handy crafts -The Royal College, all the colleges. Just put it out - Newcastle; Kingston; Epsom, there are millions of them and there are not a lot of jobs to go around. At the moment most of these big retailers have their own design teams. So if you want designers, advertise that and they will probably come flocking to you.

Good luck. I've been told that I must end on time. I'm really sorry that we cannot take anymore. I would like you all to join with me in thanking our panellists, Lucy Siegle, Katharine Hamnett, Mo Tomaney and Safia Minney. Thank you very much.

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Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft

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Event - Global Design Forum: Five Ideas to Shake the World

Tue 16 September 2014 16:00

SPECIAL EVENT: This fast-paced session puts the creators of the five best ideas we could find in front of a powerful panel who will judge – along with your own input – which will make the most significant contribution to our future lives.

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