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Fashion Question Time puts industry concerns on election agenda

Joint liability, supply chain scrutiny and the proliferation of microplastics were the hot topics at this year’s Fashion Question Time, where the panel called on the public to bring the industry’s ethical and social justice concerns to the foreground as the country gears up for the general election

Mary Creagh MP, chaired the third annual edition of the event in Parliament on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, and stressed the importance of highlighting issues around sustainability and justice in the run-up to the election on 8 May.

“The questions you’re asking need to be at the front of mind in the run-up to the election,” she said. “Mrs May wants this to be the Brexit election. But we must make sure that there is a focus on social justice, not just here but around the world.”

The event was organised by not-for-profit organisation Fashion Revolution. Alongside Creagh, the panel comprised Jenny Holdcroft, assistant general secretary at IndustriALL Global Union, Frances Corner head of London College of Fashion, Guy Stuart, executive director at Microfinance Opportunities, Claire Bergkamp head of sustainability and ethical trade at Stella McCartney and Safia Minney, founder of People Tree and ethical business advocate.

A key focus for the discussion was the importance of creating supply chains that were both business-focused and ethically viable, stressing the importance of creating a system where businesses are held to account both by government and consumers.

“We need to create an environment where no-one can undercut each other, and we should seek a much more collaborative approach,” commented Jenny Holdcroft. “We need an industrywide approach so that everyone plays by the same rules.”

“We need to encourage a race to the top, with a mandate of due diligence and clearly and effectively-documented supply chains,” added Guy Stuart.

Also under discussion were issues of due diligence and joint liability for supply chains. Newly introduced measures to improve transparency came under scrutiny, including France’s new Duty of Vigilance laws - which will require French companies with more than 5,000 employees and multinationals with more than 10,000 employees to publish vigilance plans assessing not just their own company but the companies they sub-contract to - as well as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act.

“We need to be asking companies to look beyond their tier one suppliers,” said Claire Bergkamp. “The industry has created ’twisty turny’ supply chains and these acts encourage businesses to look further that where is it easy to see.

“The Modern Slavery Act has encouraged us to look deeper into the supply chain, especially in areas that we know are high risk, such as cotton production. We’ve had to deep dive to ensure that we are looking everywhere.”

Concerns over sustainability and environmental impact were also discussed, specifically in relation to viscose and plastic microfibers, with Bergkamp highlighting the industry “blind spot” when it comes to the sourcing of raw fibres. She called for a collaborative approach to solving issues of transparency throughout the supply chain.

Despite these issues, Frances Corner highlighted the “real opportunity” for change for young businesses that are taking a different approach to the formation of their supply chains. “We are seeing a lot of students want to set up their own companies, with a bespoke approach,” she said. “There is a significant number of small design and manufacturing businesses starting up that focus on bespoke solutions.”

Fashion Revolution’s co-founder Orsola de Castro, who was also in attendance, stressed the progress that had been made by increased awareness and research into the wider impacts of the fashion industry, but stressed the continuing need for action. “We have the data now, to lead to clearer visibility within the industry,” she said. “We don’t yet have the full picture, but we’ve made an important first step towards full disclosure.”

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