Blog: Leonie BarrieClothing with a conscience?

Leonie Barrie | 18 July 2006

Online fashion retailer ASOS (formerly called As Seen on Screen) was among the first to successfully tap into the celebrity clothing trend – its customers flock to buy clothing, jewellery and footwear styles worn by film stars and other celebrities – and now it founder is latching onto another winning niche: ethical clothing. Likewise, trendy Turkish jeans maker Mavi this week announced it is launching an organic denim collection produced with 100% Aegean cotton targeted at the Western Europe and North American markets.

Which must surely be a cue for other retailers to sit up and take note – if they’re not already doing so. Jumping onto the ‘ethical consumerism’ bandwagon might be big business, but it’s also fraught with pitfalls, as two new features on just-style explain. Ethical shopping has dominated recent conferences organised by and for the clothing industry, and with around one-third of the British public now purchasing ethically it’s important to get it right.
As Jenny Dawkins, head of corporate responsibility research at Ipsos Mori, pointed out at the ASBCI annual conference, the “integrity and honesty” of a retailer is more important than “perceived quality” in influencing a purchase decision, even though ethically sourced products are perceived to be more expensive.

Jenny believes lack of consumer information remains a significant barrier to ethical purchasing, and that people need more information about companies’ social, environmental and ethical behaviour via labels and word-of-mouth.

Child labour, in particular, is the top sustainability issue that people want reassurances about, with two-thirds wanting to see information on this issue displayed on product labels. Overwhelmingly, people hold companies responsible for the behaviour of their suppliers with nine out of ten saying companies have a responsibility to check their sources are behaving ethically.

Which slips nicely into one of the threads running through the International Apparel Federation’s annual conference – that Western retailers’ obsession with human rights in overseas factories could be damaging the very people it’s supposed to be helping.

Few organisations are really able to manage reasonable, or humane, behaviour worldwide without detailed codes of practice. But compliance codes, however easily they can become a nit-picker’s charter, are probably the least inefficient way of ensuring decent working conditions. And it’s clear that proliferating human rights codes foster inefficiencies, insanities, corruption and abuse: money ultimately diverted from retailers’ bottom lines.


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