On Thursday 1st May 2014, we guys at London Ethnic went to Hammersmith to participate in the Ethical Fashion Show (with Q&A Panel with Charlotte Instone). The event took place at the beautiful St. Paul’s Church and played host to a stunning set-up, with ethical fashion and food and drink stalls dotted around the central catwalk and stage.
The event itself was held for Rehema, a refuge centre which is a project that helps women from all backgrounds living in extremely difficult situations to provide for their children and become self-sufficient. The project teaches women to create jewellery and clothing for a fair wage and runs a cafe. The funds from the project go towards a number of nurseries for children, ensuring they have basic food and education. We were thrilled to be showing our support for this amazing charity, even if it was in a small way.
Starting the evening with a delightful complimentary drink, this was a great opportunity to socialise and network with other companies, designers, fashion industry artisans, and members of the public who shared a common devotion for ethical fashion.
Once everybody had finished exploring the stalls of ethical garments and exotic food, we all found our seats around the stage ready for the Q&A. Looking around, it was clear that the turn-out was amazing – not an empty seat could be seen! The event was supported by a multitude of the UK’s ethical fashion labels (including London Ethnic), and our collections were shown as a part of the evening’s catwalk. It was wonderful to see such variety and creativity, and proved that ethical fashion can still be wearable.
Like London Ethnic, many of the brands are part of the Ethical Fashion Forum. The founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum, Tamsin Lejeune, was at the event and part of the panel discussion which was hosted by Charlotte Instone. They were joined by a selection of guest speakers; Lucy Siegle (a Journalist at the Guardian), Sam Maher (of NGO ‘Labour Behind the Label’), Ben Ramsden (Founder of Pants to Poverty and the Pi Foundation), Kate Dangerfield (of ‘Stop the Traffik’), and Safia Minney (Founder of ‘Fair Trade Fashion’ and ‘People Tree). We then proceeded to watch a short film about the devastating Rana Plaza disaster, and how we had progressed one year since the tragedy.
Following the short film, the first question of the evening was the big question – What exactly is “ethical”?
Ben (Pants to Poverty/Pi Foundation) was the first to speak, proposing that “ethical” is personal, which was followed up wonderfully by Sam (Labour Behind the Label), who drove the message home saying; “Whether you’re buying expensive or not – high street stores all have the same standards. The same consumerist behaviour that’s driving down standards. You need to inform yourself as a consumer – what really matters to you?”
Our attention was then bought back to Rana Plaza – has there been any change since the disaster? Lucy (Guardian) stated that as a journalist, she’s seeing a change; “We’ve been raising the issue before in the past, and companies would hit back with ‘Why are you attacking in-store employment and opportunity?’ – But they just don’t bring up those arguments any more. It might not seem like a lot, but that, for me, is something that has changed.”
Sam, agreeing, said that since the disaster, we’re starting to recognise the unfortunate workers as humans – not machines. Humans. With families, children… A desire to do well. That consumers are finally starting to get it.
So who is responsible for the damage being caused?
Kate (Stop the Traffik) stood firmly with her belief that fashion companies have a great responsibility to start backing up their products. That they need to know who made their clothes. “It’s by no means an easy feat to trace back your products to where the all the components were made – it may take five/six years to complete the process” she explained, “But as a company you have that responsibility to not only ensure you’re in-the-know about your own products, but to also be able to answer the consumer questions.”
So does the media have a role? A question, perhaps, posed to Lucy (as a Journalist) to which she responded; “The media has no role. You can’t get cross at media for not reporting on it. They’re not a part of the process. I don’t know, but why doesn’t the media find it compelling enough? I believe that the media just has no specific role.” An interesting response, as it’s clear the Lucy has a fantastic insight from both angles of the issue. But this response seemed to strike a chord with Ben who turned to pick up a microphone; “Can I just disagree – I believe the media has a role to play. They need to be the ones to expose these issues, they need to expose the real, raw, hidden stories – and not for the soul reason that something huge like Rana Plaza has eventually happened. The problem here is with the system. Not with the factory owners, not with the store owners, not with the brands, not with the consumers. It’s with the system.”
This response received a small burst of applause – however it was apparent that both Lucy’s and Ben’s points had made us all, as an audience, think about who we really agreed with. Both points strong and fighting for the same cause – but do the media really have such a role to play?
Bringing what had turned into a healthy and inspiring debate back down to the original Q&A, Charlotte asked what can be done next. At this point, Tamsin (Ethical Fashion Forum) spoke out – “These workers are being lied to. They’re being made these promises of great working conditions, even houses with swimming pools… But in reality, they’re faced with 12 hours days, every day of the week in unbelievable conditions. They’re completely exploited. Garment industries need to make the first step of mapping their supply chain, because it seems they either don’t know or aren’t willing to publish their supply chain. They need to make this they’re starting point. It may take years for them, but it’s a positive starting point.” Ben nodded; explaining that 60% of brands right now don’t know where their garments are being made. (which is an incredible amount) “Yes, it’s a big challenge to map their supply chain,” he said, “But I believe that it’s one that can be embraced.”
This sparked the question of where these speakers found their inspiration – how did they get where they are today?
After his education, Ben spent 3 years in Guyana – having absolutely no contact with the outside world – no letters, no emails (Just imagine!) with a smile he said it had undeniably changed his life, and given him irreplaceable first-hand experience. He also touched on the fact that he’d realised that this is where the biggest business opportunity of our generation lies. “Take the battle to the market!” he exclaimed. “Break the bad businesses. The power to change the world lies in your pants.” (a rather smooth and well-received promotion)
Safia (Fair Trade Fashion and People Tree) had a similar experience to Ben. She followed with; “I also spent time in a country that had been put forward to me as a desolate area, filled with hopeless, rather ‘pathetic’ people – but to my surprise, it absolutely wasn’t. It was filled with vigorous, excited people with a drive to succeed and live happy lives. I just knew from that point onwards I didn’t want to spend more than a Pound on anything that wasn’t making this world a better place.”
It seemed that the experience that the panel had gained from getting out and seeing the situation first-hand had really contributed towards molding their desire to do good – and to see change in the industry they are so passionate about. But we don’t all have to hop on a plane, you can help out exactly where you are. Which brings us to the next question Charlotte posed; Is it the consumer or the company’s responsibility?
Sam (Labour Behind the Label) insisted that it is the company’s fault. “They using nothing but techniques to make consumers feel like the guilty ones. Because, let’s face it, I’m sure we’d all spend a lot more time carefully selecting our necessities if we didn’t have 101 other things to be thinking about, what we’re going to to for dinner are, when we have to pick up our children, what are plans for the next day are, rushing around – but let’s be honest. It’s just not convenient. It’s the company’s responsibility to follow up with their supply chain.” However she then offered another point-of-view, suggesting that, we as consumers, have to break with the mindset that we’re all just individual people. That we need to start thinking of ourselves as citizens of the world. We need to engage on social change. “It’s all on the companies to make that move of mapping out their supply chain.” – linking back to the earlier discussion of what the first move should be, and who it was down to.
Kate (Stop the Traffik) responded with; “Consumers certainly a role to play. It may not be solely their responsibility – but it’s important for us to ask the questions. These companies are responding – and we do see change happen! If enough people raise these questions, they’re left with no other option than to do something about it. Get the ball rolling and ask the questions about where their supply is coming from.”
The final question of the evening (as a solid hour of incredible, positive and topical conversation had already flown right out of the stained glass windows); “We’ve seen a rise in men’s sales in clothing, so now it’s just 10% below women’s sales. Ben, how to we get men interested in ethical fashion?”
Cue, all eyes shoot round at Ben – the only male on the panel – who Sam swiftly issued with a microphone. As though tiptoeing through a minefield, Ben disclaimed that although he may be “Into pants, and not as much fashion” and believe that “The first things you put on and the first things you take off are the most important things you can wear” he went on to explain (rather cautiously) “Well, with guys, there’s a certain pressure to make money… To be the breadwinner… But I think we can do it in the same way that use fantastic marketing and sustainable fashion to attract women!” Well saved? We certainly think so.
This discussion sure given has given us a lot to think about. The positive – and the not-so-positive. Luckily, we could mull over all of the excellent points from the speakers while we watched a fantastic show as models stormed the catwalk displaying beautiful handmade garments from ethical resources.