Retailers face call to inform consumers about ethics

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The Independent Online

With London Fashion Week in full swing, the exploitation of workers in the clothing industry has been thrust into the spotlight and retailers are being urged to ensure suppliers in developing countries respect human rights.

The International Development minister Gareth Thomas yesterday called on the industry to "raise its game and ensure that suppliers pay a living wage to its workers" adding: "There is a lack of information for consumers who want to know where products are sourced from.

"This demand for information is not being met," he said. However, he added that although retailers and the UK Government have a part to play in applying pressure, it is governments in developing countries that need to drive through regulation, such as the minimum wage and safety standards.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an organisation that aims to improve the lives of workers in global supply chains, is tonight chairing a debate on the issue of "positive buying" to look at how buying practices can impact on workers' rights. Dan Rees, director of the ETI, said it is important for brands to talk openly about the challenges they face as labour laws are not routinely observed.

"The enormous challenge for brands is that they may take no more than 5 or 10 per cent of volume out of a factory so that, although the perception is that they have huge power and influence, they often don't. The brand is responsible but is not always to blame," he said. It is through working in conjunction with other companies through forums like the ETI that they can actually have an impact, he added.

"There's a lot of evidence to suggest that exploitation doesn't work in the long run," he said. "A well-paid, well-trained workforce will be more professional and productive."

One of the problems big brands face is a lack of awareness across its business on how decisions made at different stages in the chain can cause abuses to workers, he said. A designer in New York wanting a last-minute garment change could lead to two weeks of working through the night for workers at a factory in Bangladesh, he said.

Gap, which was once the subject of protests from ethical campaigners due to the conditions of workers at factories in countries including Indonesia and Lesotho, has worked hard to transform labour practices at its supplier factories along with its brand image. Dan Henkle, who is in charge of social responsibility at Gap, said that last year it monitored more than 2,000 factories for abuses but said "there was still a lot of work to do".

Ultimately, it is the consumers who can put pressure on companies to change the way they do business and they are increasingly showing themselves to be willing to pay a premium for products that they know have been made in an ethical way. Brands such as People Tree, the fair-trade fashion retailer which showcased its designs at London Fashion Week, illustrate consumer demand for fashion that is both ethical and chic.

"If the product is right and the message is effective then the customer will pay more for it," Mr Henkle said.