Friday, 5 June 2015

Altogether Now: How Collective Action Might Save Fashion

An article I recently dug up on the Ethical Fashion Forum provides plenty of food for thought for all of us that want to see real change in the fashion world.

Last year's Impact Economy Symposium in Switzerland brought together thinkers and advocates from across the spectrum of the ethical fashion world with a single purpose--how do we change things? Or, to put it in more accurate terms, how do we create viable sustainable supply chains? It's a thorny road, littered with potholes. But there are practical steps that can be taken to make it through the woods and out into a brighter future.

Dr. Maximillian Martin has written for the Ethical Fashion Forum outlining the roadmap to ethical sustainability in the fashion industry. The whole thing is a fascinating read, but let me parse out a few of the key points.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, if we carry on as we are now, more incidents on the scale of Rana Plaza are inevitable. We've already seen factory fires that have killed dozens of people, and the knock-on effect of the Nepal earthquake on poorly-built factory buildings in Bangladesh is one that government observers are treating seriously.

Meanwhile, unrest from workers who are seeing the benefits that collective action can bring are grinding factories to a halt in most of the hot zones of fashion production. Unions are seeing a surge in membership, but workers are also using technology in the form of social networking to see if they would be better off moving to other factories. Fluid workforce numbers are forcing factory owners to think creatively about the relationship between management and employees. Sadly, in some cases this has meant using their government contacts to call the police in to quell protests.

And of course, the industry is notoriously polluting. The director of The True Cost documentary, Andrew Morgan, has accused the apparel sector of being the second most toxic to the planet after oil.

It's blatantly, laughably obvious that things have to change.

Martin calls this "shifting from a nineteenth-century model of abuse to a twenty-first century of viability". To do this, he envisages some fairly radical step changes. Chemical input savings of up to 20 per cent, energy savings of up to 40 percent, and water savings of up to 50 percent. Sounds great. But how do we achieve it?

Pretty simply, by encouraging investment in modern methods. There is a small but increasing number of model factories that are implementing the "merging of cutting edge knowledge from a variety of fields such as chemicals, next generation manufacturing, information technology and financial engineering into one scalable, cost effective approach." These test beds are showing real benefits in increased profits and output while cutting emissions and improving worker/management relations.

Initial costs are, of course, off-the-chain huge. But you have to invest in the future to have one in the first place. There is no one player in the fashion game that has the money to make this happen, so Martin sees a consortium of interested parties. A kind of League of Fashion Nations, pooling resources for the common good. Taking a cue from the factory floor, using collective action to make a real difference. Which sounds nice but a bit hand-wavy hippy love-fest... except that the Symposium got a lot of big names talking seriously about doing exactly what what was proposed.

Money has to be at the hub of this. Persuading the big players of the benefits of investment in modern methods of production and management of every resource from workers to power, is the key to giving the fashion world the boot up its expensively-clad butt that it so badly needs to move into the 21st century.

Read Dr. Martin's full article over at the Ethical Fashion Forum.

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