Social enterprises exporting fair fashion to western consumers.
Workers co-operatives can do a lot to democratise fashion, but to gain scale, social enterprises must collaborate with established fashion houses.
Western high street fashion brands have gained a reputation for the exploitation of garment workers in developing countries. A recent report from Labour Behind the Label lists brands it believes aren’t doing enough to address the problem of poverty wages in the garment industry.
However, a number of social enterprises in developing countries are now filling a gap in the market by exporting ethically-produced fashion to western consumers. Take social enterprise Khama Design, which works with a variety of artisans and designers in Kasungu, Malawi, and exports its clothing to the UK. Its garment workers receive a fair wage, training and the opportunity to become financially independent. Materials are also sourced locally, which benefits the wider community.
“We strongly believe that trade is a better long-term option than aid in developing countries,” says Elaine Burke, founder of Khama Design. “We are working towards being a full co-operative, as we want our producers to profit from and drive the enterprise. It’s simply the best balance in terms of sustainable business.”
Fair and ethical fashion is also good for profit. A recent Ipsos Mori survey conducted for Canadian television channel CTV found that 70% of respondents would be willing to pay more to improve worker conditions in the supply chain while 38% of interviewees claimed they are boycotting one or more brands for reasons related to poor working conditions.
Burke believes the success of ethical fashion is down to transparency. Customers want to know where a product is made and businesses need to be clear and honest about that.
Owen Espley, senior campaigner for War on Want adds, “The key driver for change is to get trade unions in developing countries to organise workers’ rights. As a business model, workers co-operatives are particularly interesting as they give ownership and democratise the workplace – which is inspiring. They create a greater degree of dignity in the world.”
Ethical businesses are also breaking into high fashion. Bottletop is a social enterprise fashion brand, founded by Cameron Saul and his father Roger (founder of luxury fashion brand Mulberry), which supports garment workers in Malawi, Mozambique and Brazil and raises funds for education projects on HIV/Aids, drug abuse and teenage pregnancies. The model works by exporting its products to western consumers.
“Companies must realise by now that they cannot get away with using sweatshops and unethical working conditions and they are playing a risky, dangerous game if they are,” says Cameron Saul.
“Social enterprises can and must set a good example, but established companies must also step up as they invariably have greater power in the market.
“Consumers are better informed than ever and brands in general must ensure their products deliver both ethics and design. Companies who don’t behave ethically will be left behind longer term so they can’t afford not to.”
Collaboration with social enterprises is another way fashion houses can become more ethical. “The benefit of partnership is achieving great change at scale,” says Cecilia Crossley, founder of From Babies with Love, an ethical baby clothing brand which donates 100% of profits to orphanages in developing countries.
Social enterprises are undoubtedly providing an ethical alternative for producing western fashion, however there needs to be greater awareness and collaboration between social enterprises and multinational fashion houses in order to scale this impact. The more companies are transparent and ethical about production, the greater chance they have of succeeding in a more ethical future.
“Social values need to be integrated throughout every aspect of business,” concludes Crossley. “It is only through achieving this balance that fashion can become truly ethical.”
The above article by Charlotte Seager first published on theguardian.com in Nov. 2014.