Politics in Ethical Fashion
by Alex Bell
History was made in the House of Lords this year when, for the first time, the ethical fashion industry became the subject of a parliamentary debate:
‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support and promote the ethical and sustainable clothing and fashion industry.’
Baroness Young leads support to the Ethical Fashion Industry
Baroness Young (who has supported the ethical fashion movement for the last two years) opened her remarks to the House with the observation that, whilst trying to muster parliamentary interest in this issue, she discovered that many Lords viewed the fashion industry as a somewhat frivolous matter (Lord Addington later admitted that he: ‘got a great deal of ribbing in my party when it was heard that I had to talk about fashion.’).
Citing a wealth of responsibility in fashion
The Baroness was therefore keen to stress that the fashion industry is not merely the preoccupation of the vain and the shallow, but a real political issue that encompasses a wide range of serious matters including human rights, forced labour practices, environmental issues, international development, organic farming, corporate responsibility and animal welfare - all of which very much come under the remit of the House of Lords, and should be of legitimate interest to any legislator. In addition, when it comes to the UK economy, the effect of the fashion industry in the UK is not to be sneered at - the British Fashion Council estimated that, in 2009, the industry directly contributed £20.9 billion to the economy, and was responsible for some 815,000 jobs.
The power of consumerism
The Baroness spoke of the problem of passive, ill-informed consumerism given that so many consumers are unaware of the environmental or social implications of the modern culture of cheap disposable fashion, or ‘fast fashion’ as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Lord Henley) termed it, nor are they aware of the potential power of their spending choices. It is for this exact reason that governmental action would be so welcome and could be so beneficial in effecting real progress and changed attitudes.
In an area where misinformation and general ignorance is endemic, governmental intervention could help fragmented support for ethical fashion to become more cohesive and organised. For example, the sustainable clothing action plan, a Defra initiative instigated by the previous government, was a key development in bringing together big-name high street brands to improve the sustainability of clothing across the supply chain.
Barroness Young addressed several questions to the government.
1. Can the government incentivise eco-friendly design by offering tax breaks for green businesses?
2. Since the government is one of the largest non-retail purchasers of clothing, might they consider leading by example? If ethical specifications became a core requirement, this would act as a powerful incentive to bidders hoping to win government contracts.
3. Will the government consider whether the remit of the supermarket adjudicator might be extended to cover fashion retailers to ensure fair treatment of suppliers?
4. Can DfID (the UK governmental department responsible for promoting development and the reduction of poverty) demonstrate its commitment to organic cotton production by funding its development, and can it also demonstrate its commitment to ending unfair subsidies on cotton from the EU (thereby putting pressure on the USA to do the same) so that producers from developing countries do not have to struggle to compete on a global market against cotton that has been heavily subsidised?
5. Concerning the problem of child labour in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan, can we call upon the European Parliament to ensure that the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Uzbekistan only comes into force on condition of these child labour practices being brought to an end?
6. Can the government help the consumer who wishes to make ethical buying choices to make informed decisions by working with the industry to improve traceability throughout the supply chain?
7. Could movement be made to phase out the use of fur within the Palace (the bear-fur hats still worn by the Queen’s guards) and the House (rabbit fur trim on the ceremonial robes)? In another mental disconnect between ethical issues and fashion, the Baronness pointed out that many members of the House would not dream of wearing a fur coat, and yet the fur trim slips by unnoticed.
The response within the House to these questions was extremely positive, enthusiastic and well-informed. Lord Haskel called upon the government to produce an overall green strategy for industry, whilst Lord Sugar pointed out the progress that has already been made, in that more companies today are better informed about the ethical issues surrounding production.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh noted that modern ethical fashion has moved on a long way from the trailing skirts and dangling beads of the 1960s hippy, and Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall championed the dying practice of repairing, recycling and reinventing old clothes through accessorising, and called on the government to use the education system to encourage the development of the ‘basic skills necessary to get the maximum use from everything we consume.’
In support of the RAGS programme
In response, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley) made mention of DfID’s RAGS programme - a £3 million fund which supports projects aimed at improving the conditions of vulnerable workers in the ready-made garment production industries overseas. He also made mention of the issues that arise after purchase: ‘once we have bought clothes, there are the significant factors of water, detergents, greenhouse gas emissions associated with washing and drying them, and the waste produced at the end of life.’ He concluded his remarks with the assurance that: ‘we are doing our bit and that we will continue to work in all these funds.’
Despite the unanimous call for ‘action rather than words,’ none of the speakers elected to address the issue directly concerning their own House - that of the fur trim on their robes. A personal pledge to switch to the cruelty-free alternative suggested by Baroness Young might have been an encouraging show of individual commitment from the honourable members, very much in keeping with the spirit of the debate and the matters being discussed. Even so, the fact that the ethical fashion issue was debated at all, and with such knowledgeable enthusiasm, is a promising start that ought to be applauded and welcomed. As Lord Haskell remarked:
‘Changing our perceptions and our culture is difficult. What we can all do, including the Government, is recognise the need for change and recognise the social, economic, scientific and commercial pressures that make that change necessary, and to acknowledge it and make it part of our overall vision for a sustainable and green future.’