Clothing Industry: Ethical and Sustainable Fashion

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for securing this debate and for an excellent speech. The noble Baroness is an expert on cultural matters who has enjoyed a successful career in both the arts and academia.

Promoting ethics in fashion is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. Due to our own success and leadership in this field, I thought it best to begin my contribution with a few words on the British fashion industry. London is one of the key fashion capitals in the world. According to the British Fashion Council, designers and retailers spent approximately £13 million on shows during London Fashion Week last year. The fashion industry makes a contribution of £21 billion to the British economy, which makes it the country’s 15th largest sector.

Garments are said to account for 5 per cent of consumer expenditure in Britain. It has been estimated that Britain spends £46 billion per year on imported clothing. The civil unrest in north Africa, Egypt in particular, has slowed the supply of textile products to the UK, thus affecting a number of leading British retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Debenhams. These recent events can perhaps serve as a catalyst for retailers to look for more suppliers based in Britain. This will have the added benefit of boosting the UK textile manufacturing base. Clothing companies have warned that the price of garments will increase due to the rising cost of cotton, which has risen by 150 per cent since the beginning of 2010.

With our prestige in this industry comes social responsibility. Ethical fashion practices will broaden opportunities and improve the standard of living for millions of citizens in the developing world. The low cost of producing garments overseas is to be welcomed, but should not be at the expense of decent working conditions. I wholeheartedly support the important work of the Ethical Fashion Forum in seeking to improve working conditions in the fashion industry. One of the key aims of the Forum is poverty reduction. This is a subject that is very close to my heart. The global fashion industry is said to generate profits of $1 trillion each year. However, the working conditions and salaries of those who contribute to the success of the industry are a huge cause for concern. Many who work in the fashion industry are on frightfully low wages.

One of the greatest successes of the Ethical Fashion Forum has been its work to promote market access in the developing world. We should do everything to support individuals in the developing world to export their unique prints, such as batik and kente, to a wider global audience. In India, the forum supports a fair trade initiative that employs 800 women, all of whom are shareholders in the company. This project also provides access to schooling for more than 1,000 local children and supports healthcare provision. The forum also supports initiatives in Kenya and Uganda. I have a personal affinity with these nations, as I was born in Kenya and spent my childhood in Uganda. The EFF supports the Crochet Sisters initiative, which helps impoverished women in Kenya by providing them with food, shelter, training and schooling. The forum supports 500 refugee women in Uganda to sell the jewellery that they make at minimal cost from recycled materials.

Many of the forum’s initiatives have an educational element. This is particularly encouraging as education has been repeatedly proven to be one of the main factors in improving the fortunes of poor people. I also welcome the efforts of the Ethical Trading Initiative to promote good labour standards for workers as declared by the International Labour Organisation. Members of the initiative adopt a code of conduct relating to decent wages and working conditions that they expect their suppliers to honour.

The number of reputable companies selling garments made by exploited workers is nothing short of a disgrace. One of the most memorable cases of exploitation to be disclosed in the fashion industry was the revelation that Levi Strauss was using Chinese prisoners to manufacture its goods in Saipan. Although this came to light almost 20 years ago, cases of exploitation are still prevalent today.

As someone who cares about humanitarian issues, I feel strongly about the exploitation of children in certain countries where children are employed to work in clothing and other industries in unhealthy conditions for a pittance. The challenges facing companies as a result of the current economic climate must not be used as an excuse to exploit vulnerable workers in the retail industry. We live in an increasingly globalised market where businesses are forced to compete for an increased number of exports.

Increased competition coupled with the demands of the fashion industry has led to a sharp rise in subcontracting. This practice allows manufacturers to make substantial savings. A key factor in successfully ending the exploitation of workers is those workers being made aware of their rights. Quite often, many workers in the developing world have experienced only poor conditions, to the extent that they do not even realise that they are victims of exploitation. The efforts of groups such as Women Working Worldwide, an organisation that seeks to ensure that workers in international supply chains are informed of their rights, are crucial to achieving this aim. I would be grateful if the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House about any plans that Her Majesty’s Government have to support such measures.

The politics of delivering ethical standards in the fashion industry are complex and rife with accusations of hypocrisy. Certain impoverished nations like Haiti have received vast amounts of cheap clothing from generous western countries-in Haiti’s case, following its devastating earthquake. However, this generosity has had the adverse effect of competing with the native clothing industry. Even with the best of intentions, it is important that developed nations are mindful of creating instances like that in Haiti.

We have a moral duty to work towards achieving ethical standards in the global fashion industry. The majority of workers in this sector are females. Therefore, success here will have a positive impact on many supranational programmes, including, most importantly, reaching our targets under the millennium development goals

I end by saying that I was recently a member of the parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka, where we were taken to a factory belonging to Brandix, which makes garments for Marks & Spencer. The factory was eco-friendly, the working conditions were excellent and the staff were very well paid. Such a factory is a role model for others to emulate.

 

Updated: 09/03/2011 — 3:45 PM