Wednesday 8 February 2012

Asking The Right Questions

When you try to map ideas of sustainability and ethical behaviour onto large-scale businesses like fashion you frequently run into tricky conundrums. For example, a visit to a sportswear manufacturer in China may impress you with the cleanliness of the plant, or the keen way that the management proudly point out their high-tech production line and bleeding-edge processes.

But their attitude towards the workers that keep those plants running can be less impressive. The idea that they need to be looked after, treated as anything more than another cog in the machine, can often get overlooked. It's not even a case of a company being "evil"--worker's rights have simply never been factored into the complex equations that underpin their working practices.

This is a tough job for global brands to get right, which is why the pioneers of green and ethical fashion tend to be smaller companies that have the ability to work much more closely with their manufacturing base. Frequently they'll partner with factories that already have a decent record in looking after their staff, sourcing materials in a sustainable way and doing their bit for the environment.

This is only going to become more relevant as customers start to demand more ethical behaviour from big companies, and as those companies see the benefit in lower production costs, increased productivity--and yes, in the associated warm glow of positive PR.

The trick is to be seen to be doing the right thing and to back it up with proper accreditation. WRAP certification in the fashion industry is a great step forward, but it's only part of the story.

Once you move away from the simple life of an atelier and onto the global stage, the dance becomes more complex, and there are many more steps to learn. Your idea of decent pay and conditions may differ radically from that of your supplier. You might consider going to work at the age of twelve to be child labour. In some cultures, that's simply how it's done, how it's always been. Dancing your way round all these concerns is tricky to say the least, and it's a rare global brand that hasn't tripped over their own feet at some point.

It can be done, of course. It's heartening that some of the bigger companies are starting to ask the right questions. Finding the answers that work for everyone from boss to worker, from culture to culture and country to country is, of course, another story.

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