Report: How ethical is ethical?

By Staff | News
Posted Jun 21, 2011

Talking about business ethics – in any industry – is always only a short journey away from the insight that words such as sustainable, ethical, green, eco, fair wages, responsible are thrown about as if they were mere sales attributes, without any deeper meaning and purpose then to attract buyers and press. The fashion and textile industry is by no means an exception to this.

Quite to the contrary. The recent, slight interest of consumers to reassure themselves as to the labour, payment and production conditions of their clothes – and the fabric they are made from – caused a previously unseen surge in: labels, green labelling (as in: usage of ‘eco’ sounding descriptive attributes), responsibility and accountability claims, certification ‘efforts’ (with and without success) and, last but certainly not least, carefully formulated press releases spreading eco claims hidden by a misty veil of under specified, sometimes unmeasurable, at other times aimless, corporate (in)activities.

In short, every conversation about business practices is only a step away from questions about

  • which brand does exactly
  • what
  • how (i.e. in what particular way), and
  • why (i.e. the reasons behind it)

In other words: the discussion heads towards the question of questions: How ethical really is a brand, a designer, a company? And which factors and aspects need to be taken into consideration to judge them?

The reality in the business is that ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’, ‘green’ can, will and does mean different things to different people. There exists no consensus about when efforts can truly be called ethical or sustainable, or whether it is correct to apply these attributes when in fact the only aim is to address one single aspect exclusively (e.g. fabrics waste) ignoring the broad remainder of the issues spectrum (which in addition would be aspects such as: CO2 footprint, water usage even in Europe/US, local staff etc.).

Let’s take a few examples to try and get the point across a little bit more hands-on. Can any – or all – of the following truly be called ethical and/or sustainable?

  • A social enterprise that allows a silk rearing, dyeing and weaving community in rural Thailand to preserve and cherish their skills, and give them access to typical Western consumer markets?
  • A European fashion brand that uses organic cotton for very high-end priced garments sold in Harrods?
  • A US fashion brands that works with as many non-traditional natural fibre as possible and investigates old and/or traditional textile techniques from around the world, in order to produce ready-to-wear collections?
  • A fashion brands that works with marginalised communities, heavily invests in a transparent and fair trade certified supply chain, but that treats the local (European) staff with little respect?
  • An organisation that works for and with small and medium ethical fashion designers, yet only has unpaid interns working for them, not wanting nor being able to pay them a pence for their efforts?
  • A brand whose sole principle sales point is that is is ‘made in’ UK or Italy or Spain or Germany or Switzerland?

Can they truly be called ethical, or sustainable, or even responsible? Alas!, I have no ultimately convincing answer.

[Note just for the records: I have specific names in mind for each of the above examples, but for evident reason do not mention them. However, rest assured that these examples are not invented, but taken straight from everyday business.]

What it all boils down to is that we want the whole industry to change, advance, go forward.

And for that two things are crucial: 1) a push for transparency, and 2) the establishment of minimum standards, with the latter ideally rising significantly as time goes by. ( read more….)


This article is the first of a 2-post series looking at issues related to the lack of consensus about what ‘ethical fashion’ really means, and the requirement of accountability and transparency – in addition to the importance of a single unique label to become widely accepted and is re-posted with permission of  白姫 – しらひめ – White Princess.

白姫 – しらひめ – White Princess is the 2011 recipient of the Observer’s Ethical Award for best Blog. 白姫 – しらひめ – White Princess aims to provide thoroughly researched background insights and shed a critical light onto what is going on in the broad area of sustainability/ethics in the fashion and clothing industry. Follow 白姫 – しらひめ – White Princess via Twitter (@PamelaRavasio), or Facebook.

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