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Ethical issues are not black and white

Just as the media builds up celebrities with the sole purpose of being able to knock them down again, so they seem to be taking great glee in bashing the fast fashion market, which they themselves helped to create.

Depending on which end of the market you operate in, this could be a very good or a very bad thing.

This week the media has once again been accusing high street retailers of merely paying lip service to ethical issues. Many of their reports were based on news reported in Drapers last week that designer Katharine Hamnett had pulled out of her contract to supply Tesco with her fair trade and organic clothing line.

Hamnett said she was disappointed with the supermarket’s commitment to her Choose Love range, claiming promised shop-in-shops and a kidswear roll-out were not delivered. She accused the supermarket merely of wanting to “appear” ethical, rather than being wholly committed to the ethics issue.

Meanwhile, Safia Minney, founder of green clothing range People Tree, gave an interview in the Evening Standard this week in which she described the horrific accident in 2005 when a Bangladeshi garment factory that supplied European high street chains collapsed, killing 74 workers. The piece was headlined: “I’ve seen the corpses: no one should pay that price for a £6 skirt.” That can’t have failed to prick the conscience of any shopper that read it.

The same article went on to suggest that former Topshop brand boss Jane Shepherdson, who advises People Tree, did not leave the high street chain a year ago in a fit of pique over Philip Green’s hiring of Kate Moss (as had been widely reported), but because she had concerns over manufacturing practices. Minney did not confirm this point, although the reporter did seem to be trying to put the words in her mouth.

Of course the media is going to make hay with stories such as these – they make great headlines, especially when people’s words are taken out of context. And while it can be no bad thing that this debate is out in the open, it’s a concern that such complex issues are being treated in such a simplistic way.

While there’s nothing to justify workers being killed in unsafe factories (it’s utterly abhorrent), the wider issues of ethical manufacturing are not as straightforward as they seem. In many cases it would be counter-productive for our retailers to pull out of these factories. And, in any case, it’s not just the high street stores that should be called into question over this. Some premium brands use the same factories as high street retailers, but because their goods cost more in store, it’s assumed (often wrongly) that the workers that make them are paid more.

Fair trade and organic issues are also not cut and dried. Just because some clothes do not carry these labels, it doesn’t mean they have been produced in an unethical manner. Only 0.01% of the world’s cotton crop is officially organic, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that the remaining 99.99% is somehow ‘bad’.

It’s great that debates are being held on these issues, but it would be even better if the arguments were well informed and balanced.

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