Panorama’s exposure of refugee and child labour in Turkish garment factories this week was deeply disturbing. The documentary shone a spotlight on the complexities of the garment supply chain, and the exploitation that is still widespread amongst garment workers.
However, the documentary also presented an angle we have not seen before in what has become an increasingly reported phenomenon. One small gesture by one of the major retailers featured – a commitment to support any child refugees identified by the programme to go back to school – demonstrated how transformative fashion business can be when its agenda goes beyond “doing no harm”.
Defining Ethical Fashion Business
Since the major garment sweatshop exposures of the 1990s, we have seen leading fashion brands commit to more ethical standards within their supply chains. However, given the length and breadth of supply chains, (often hundreds of suppliers in multiple countries) what has been less clear is where this responsibility ends. Invariably, big brands have seen problems outside of their official suppliers (such as in subcontracted factories, as we saw on Panorama) as beyond their remit. How can they be held responsible for practices in factories that they do not even know about – even if they are producing clothes with their garment labels on?
I believe that in the answer to this question lies the essence of the challenges being faced by the fashion industry as a whole. To answer it, we need to define what is meant by “ethical business”.
At the Ethical Fashion Forum, we define ethical business as an approach to doing business that maximises benefits to people, and minimises impact on the environment. This aligns with the vision of the rapidly growing B Corporation movement – that business is a force for good, and a tool to solve social and environmental problems.
“The B Corp movement is one of the most important of our lifetime, built on the simple fact that business impacts and serves more than just shareholders—it has an equal responsibility to the community and to the planet.”
For a B Corporation, addressing the problem of refugee hardship in a country where their products are made would be at the heart of their business agenda. Whether or not the factory producing their products was an official sub contractor would not be a consideration. The focus of truly responsible business would be on the job at hand – how we, through our business operations, can positively impact the communities with whom we engage.
The Real Opportunities for Fashion Business, Done Well – Are Panorama Missing the Point?
This documentary is important as a signpost to the continued lack of transparency in garment supply chains. However it leaves the viewer conflicted. Big brands have committed to ethical standards in the production of their clothes – usually minimum wage and no child labour, yet clearly the conditions in the factories exposed demonstrate neither of these. The most memorable scene is a young boy – a Syrian refugee, in tears – in his words – if he does not secure work, his family cannot live. Where do we go from here?
In the angle taken by the documentary, I see a transformative opportunity being missed. Syrian refugees – and their children – face unbearable hardship in Turkey. Every morning, family members gather on corners of the road in the garment district, hoping to be picked up by a bus taking them to work in one of Turkey’s factories. They know that if they do not get picked up, they probably won’t eat that night. If they do get picked up, they will work, illegally, and be paid less than they are worth. YET, they will survive another day.
Fashion business – perhaps including sewing for one of our iconic high street brands – is the only thing that is keeping them from the brink. Is it ethical that Syrian children should be prevented from working, when their survival depends upon it? Is it ethical that legal Turkish workers should lose jobs to desperate Syrian children? Of course, the answer to both of these questions is no.
Yet, in this tragic dilemma, there lies opportunity. Fashion business, conducted with a B Corporation remit, will transform lives. The small gesture by one retailer of committing to unreservedly support refugee children hints at what could change if every major fashion brand were to go beyond doing no harm – and use its operations, its profit generation, as a force for positive change in all of the countries in which it operates.
The New Leaders – Transforming the Way Fashion Business Is Done
The Ethical Fashion Forum was founded by fashion business owners and entrepreneurs for whom business impacts and serves more than just shareholders; it has an equal responsibility to the community and to the planet.
We now represent over 10,000 members in 141 countries – fashion businesses and professionals who are proving that through their business operations, they can positively impact major challenges from waste and the environment to poverty and sustainable livelihood creation.
The challenges facing the garment industry, particularly in Turkey through the tragedy of Syrian refugees, are bigger than any single retailer or brand. Solving them will require an enlightened approach by all fashion business leaders, and a step change in the way that fashion business “as usual” operates on a global scale.
That may seem like a big task. But the first step towards it is roundly achievable. Any of the major brands exposed in the Panorama documentary could follow the example of Patagonia, and start the process of becoming a B Corp. If they are serious in their commitment to better practice, that would be the way to meaningfully demonstrate it.
Join us in building a better vision for the fashion industry: www.mysource.io.