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Fashion businesses must be proactive in the ethical debate

I was invited a while ago to take part in a panel discussion at the Ethical Fashion Show, set up by students at the London College of Fashion.

As it then transpired, the event took place in the same week as the horrific news of the Bangladesh factory collapse hit the media and the panel discussion took on even more relevance.

On the panel with me were representatives from the key charities addressing this issue, from ethical brands themselves and from the All-party Parliamentary Group that looks at the issue from a legislative perspective.

It was a fascinating debate, and one that was without the sort of knee-jerk blame reaction that can so often stifle discussion around real solutions. The conclusion was that we all have a responsibility to ensure something like the Bangladesh disaster doesn’t happen again - retailers, charities, the Government and even consumers.

The charities had concerns over legislating in regions like Bangladesh individually without a global accord, fearing it may encourage production to move elsewhere and could in the long run destroy that local economy.

And there was some debate over the quite widely held view that value retailers pay less for manufacturing than higher-priced brands - which isn’t true, in fact, as their volume business runs on much tighter margins.

Quite surprisingly in an audience of students there was also criticism from some of the attendees themselves of younger consumers’ attitude to buying fashion, with accusations that the next generation have not been brought up to value ethical fashion in the same way as their parents might.

On the day of the debate, Primark had pledged already to pay into the compensation fund for the Bangladesh workers and the speed and breadth of its support was welcomed by the panel, with the debate then centering on how legislation might help prevent a repeat.

The view from the panel was that legislation had to be universal, and must be funded through retailers rather than manufacturers, so standards can be independently monitored and some consistency achieved.

The accord which has since been signed by many key retail names in the UK echoes many of these hopes but ultimately it only covers Bangladesh, and calls are emerging for some form of ombudsman to be set up to oversee an accord covering all global manufacturing.

For the fashion business in the UK this is an evolving issue. I do think ethical fashion will gather more momentum with consumers over the coming years as the financial gloom lifts, and brands and retailers cannot afford to be associated with unethical practices, but the solution has to be workable for all parties and will need a partnership approach to succeed.

No one working in the fashion business wants to see a repeat of Bangladesh, so let’s keep that dialogue open.

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