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Memo from Musgrave: Fashion activists keep talking about a revolution

Like a cork that keeps bobbing back to the surface, critical scrutiny of the fashion supply chain refuses to disappear.

On Friday April 24 - the so-called Fashion Revolution Day - I attended the UK launch of a documentary film called The True Cost, which aims to highlight the human and environmental impact of the fast-fashion supply chain.

Directed by US filmmaker Andrew Morgan, the 80-minute movie is similar to British TV investigations into the calamitous collapse of the factory at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, which killed more than 1,100 workers. It is just the latest link in a relentless PR campaign from a mixed bag of parties, including labour organisations, workers’ charities and green activists, which want wholesale improvements in the fast-fashion supply chain.

Morgan had no interest in fashion before his film, but two of the executive producers are well-known. Livia Firth is creative director of Eco-Age, a sustainability brand consultancy, while Lucy Siegle is an Observer journalist who has written for years on green issues. At the UK launch, Imran Amed, editor-in-chief of website The Business of Fashion, interviewed all three about the documentary and the issues it raised.

As we report on page 6, Firth accused western fast-fashion retailers of being complicit by turning a blind eye to the abuse of workers. She and Siegle launched heated attacks on the capitalist system in general. Amed pertinently countered that the capitalist system was not going away. He pointed out that the three entities to consider in this debate were the western retailers, the low-cost manufacturers and the western consumers who buy vast quantities of low-cost fashion with apparent scant interest in how it is made.

There was more heat than light in the short discussion. Firth dismayed even the supportive audience of journalists, bloggers and eco-activists by suggesting that consumers ought to emulate her and buy trousers from a reputable brand like Stella McCartney (the designer also appears in the film). Firth could not remember how much she had paid for her trousers, but on the McCartney website £340 seems to be the lowest price, with most styles being a few hundred pounds more than that.

The short trailer we saw, featuring graphic images of the rescue operation at Rana Plaza, does not make comfortable viewing. In contrast to some of the fanciful suggestions of Firth and Siegle, it was hard to disagree with Morgan’s observation that, despite the requirements of the fast-fashion industry, no one in the 21st century should have to work in inhuman conditions. This debate is not going away. See for a short trailer for The True Cost, which is due to be released on May 29.

Nearer home, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on April 27 turned its attention to the discount pricing policies and Warehouse workers’ conditions at Sports Direct. Despite extensive pre-publicity, the film promised more than it delivered. I doubt many people - certainly those who watch current affairs investigations on Channel 4 - were surprised that the chain’s “bargains” may not be all they appear. Although allegedly ignoring guidelines on discounting, clearly Mike Ashley’s main vehicle offers many consumers products they want at prices they like.

It remains to be seen if the competition authorities decide to investigate Sports Direct, but if Ashley could not be bothered meeting a committee of MPs, he is unlikely to be quaking at the prospect of a small fine from the OFT. Sports Direct’s UK sales are now about £2bn.

Readers' comments (1)

  • In the Meet the Manufacturer organised by Make it British conference last week in London an interesting fact arose that some of the worst clothes factory working conditions are in our own country. Therefore it would be easy for journalists, activists and politicians who profess they care to shine more light and achieve something by going to look into our own manufacturers and the supply chain that creates their ethics.
    Emma Willis

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