Wednesday 5 November 2014

The Right Story For The Wrong Reason

I never thought I'd see the day when the Mail On Sunday, of all papers, makes an ethical fashion story their Page One lead. Under the headline "62p A Day", they feature a factory in Mauritius where t-shirts for the western market are cranked out while workers are paid a derisory pittance and sleep sixteen to a dormitory in squalid conditions. For those of us who cover the ethical fashion beat, it's a distressingly familiar story. It's almost refreshing to see it splashed on the front page of a national newspaper.
Of course, that's not the whole story. The MoS discovered that the factory in question was being used to make t-shirts, sold by posh brand Whistles, for a high-profile campaign sponsored by Elle to support women's rights charity The Fawcett Society. T-shirts that had been worn both by celebrities and prominent left-wing politicians, including Ed Milliband and Harriet Harman, who proudly wore hers for Prime Minister's Question Time.
Now, The Fawcett Society has long called out The Daily Mail for its robustly old-fashioned views on feminism and equality. And of course, the paper will grab any chance it can get to make the Labour front bench look foolish with both mitts and its tail. Let's be clear. The Mail's story has little to do with worker's rights. It's about giving old enemies a bit of a kicking.
Before we go any further, here's a declaration of interests. Back in 2012, Pier32 printed two runs of the initial design of the "this is what a feminist looks like" shirt for the Fawcett Society, which were sold from their website. We used blanks from B&C Collection, who are members of the Fairwear Foundation--which means those two runs were on shirts that hadn't been produced in a sweatshop and were printed here in the UK. The Fawcett Society chose to go elsewhere after those orders. We were never told why.
The web gets more tangled when you start looking into the history of how these new garments were produced. In a statement, Fawcett claim that they expressed concerns over the t-shirts when they saw the "Made In Mauritius" tag after being told they would be ethically produced in the UK. These concerns were alleviated by Whistles, who claimed they had independent ethical compliance audits from the factory in question.
Which would be fine and dandy, except Whistles CEO Jane Sheperdson is no stranger to this sort of controversy. She was an executive at TopShop for four years, second only to Arcadia head Philip Green. Arcadia, the conglomorate that owns brands including TopShop, were among the first to outsource clothing manufacturing abroad to cut costs. And CMT, the factory at the heart of the row, was landed in hot water back in 2007 for the same shananigans that have caused such a headache for Whistles and Fawcett this week.
None of which proves anything, of course. It's important to note that the allegations in question remain purely that. Whistles insist that the factory in question is properly certified. If that's the case, then it should be run under strict ethical guidelines. There are two versions of the story, and neither quite add up. There are currently more questions than answers, and we have a few of our own.
In a press statement, Fawcett Society president Dr Eva Neitzert states:
'...we remain confident that we took every practicable and reasonable step to ensure that the range would be ethically produced and await a fuller understanding of the circumstances under which the garments were produced.'
What steps were taken, exactly?
Once it transpired that the t-shirts had not been manufactured as requested in the UK, why did Fawcett not bin the run and insist that they were supplied with goods as requested?
Why, as negative publicity for the range continues, are Whistles still selling the t-shirts?

No-one is coming out of this cleanly. The Fawcett Society look like gullible idiots, and their iconic brand has become tainted. Whistle's ethical reputation (such as it was) has taken a battering. Even the Mail, who trumpeted their concerns about the women at CMT, did so while their famous "Sidebar Of Shame" printed salacious gossip and leering pics of starlets directly alongside. No-one buys their concern. The agenda is clear as day.
Ethical sourcing and supply-chain transparency remains a minefield in which many big names have been caught. For charities, good practice is doubly important. It's essential that their promotional items are produced to strict ethical guidelines. The good work of The Fawcett Society, which we support unreservedly here at The Pier, has been shockingly compromised this week. Whether through complacency or incompetence, it's worrying that the phrase "this is what a feminist looks like" is now associated with the image of a dupe... or worse, a fool.

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