"Do we in the West really need a GBP4 pair of jeans or a GBP1.50 T-shirt?" This was the question put to delegates at the 12th annual ASBCI industry conference, where speakers pointed out that the rise of the conscience consumer has seen purchasing decisions shift from 'product quality' to the perceived 'honesty and integrity' of a retailer and its range.

Issues of child labour, workers' rights, the growth of the 'organic' cotton industry, the corporate social responsibility role of retailers, the rise of the fair trade industry and the consumer response to ethical trading dominated talks at the 12th annual conference organised by the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI).

But despite the range of topics under discussion, speakers were united on one key point: there is no such thing as a cheap garment and it is the vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain and the environment who are paying the price.

And if ethical trading is to continue to have a commercial role to play on the high street, then consumer enlightenment is the answer.

Michael Spenley, head of ethical sourcing at Littlewoods Shop Direct Group, showed how difficult it can be to change sourcing policies in countries with different political, cultural and socio-economic agendas.

Employees in Bangladesh, for example, are paid the lowest wages in the world at $30 per month, forcing workers to live way below the poverty line. However, employers and government officials are reluctant to enforce minimum wages as 'worker costs' are the main attraction to corporate investors.

He urged delegates to ask some fundamental consumer questions: "Do we in the West really need a GBP4 pair of jeans? Do we really need a GBP1.50 T-shirt?"

Persistent child labour
Daniela Reale, exploited children adviser at Save the Children, pointed out that despite global employment legislations and policies there are still 218m children in work and 126m in hazardous work, with the highest incidences being reported in Asia- Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa.

And companies in the West, in partnership with organisations like Save the Children, UNICEF and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), have a vital role to play in combating persistent child labour practices.

Harold Rose, chairman, Master Garments International, showed how this can be achieved in practice. For the past five years he has worked with three Chinese factories annually producing US$72m worth of men's and ladies' wear. 

In the past 24 months Master Garments has invested over US$2m in new plant and development. All direct cost savings as a result of new technology have been put back into the workforce, resulting in an hourly wage increase from GBP2.90 to GBP4.80 and a working week of just five and a half days.

He explained: "We apply all the same health and safety regulations that we would in the UK. Our youngest employee is 16 and for the first six months they are trained in a special training facility."

The current challenge facing Master Garments is the shortage of middle management which it is addressing with a management training programme that includes compulsory English lessons. All technical and operating instructions are in dual language.

"Production," he concluded, "is the creation of value and quality with a happy and well rewarded workforce."

Costly cosmetic exercise?
Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile Garments and Leatherworkers Federation (ITGLWF) on the other hand does not believe changes to overseas working and employment practices can be left in the hands of the brands, retailers and social auditors.

Rather he condemned the corporate social responsibility industry as a "costly cosmetic exercise."

He insisted "intermittent" visits from social auditors could never overcome unscrupulous working practices and that brands and retailers should support a process of global unionisation that would empower workforces and enable them to ensure their employers comply with national laws and international standards.

Peter Walsh, social accountability key account manager of Bureau Veritas Consumer Products, acknowledged that many factories were still trying to mislead auditors with falsified production and labour records or coaching of workers.

In a bid to find the truth, auditors are "playing detective" and actively looking for "an absence of truth" which they can cross check against company documentation and interviews.

One alliance
Dr Andrew Williams, director general, UK Cleaning Products Industry Association (UKCPI), asserted that economics and ethics operate together in one alliance within the sustainable cleaning industry.

The new charter for sustainable cleaning as formulated and implemented by the AISE, the European trade association for the soaps, detergents and maintenance products industry has been introduced to promote and demonstrate the industry's ongoing commitment to improve its sustainable profile and to reinforce its long-term responsibility to society and the environment.

The charter encourages companies throughout the cleaning industry to apply a life-cycle management process from raw material selection through to product disposal to ensure all processes utilised are sustainable and then measure their performance against a set of key performance indicators.

Companies complying with the charter are entitled to carry a new sustainable cleaning logo that reassures consumers that the product manufacturer is committed to sustainability.

Impassioned plea
Len Stephens, chief executive officer of Australian Wool Innovation, gave an impassioned presentation on behalf of the Australian Merino wool industry, which is the object of a negative political and media campaign instigated by the animal rights group PETA against the practice of mulesing. This involves cutting away excess skin folds from the breech of a young lamb to prevent blowfly infestations.

The AWI has launched a National accreditation of mulesing contractors and is speeding up its ten-year R&D programme into mulesing alternatives.

Price is missing the point
Internationally acclaimed designer Katharine Hamnett held the world's clothing, shoe and textile industries responsible for "enormous pollution and environmental destruction and…must be considered a significant contributor to climate change."

She accused the fashion industry of being: "…too lazy, too overpaid at the top, too ignorant and too disinterested in fair trade."

Price is missing the point: "…it's not by producing cheaper and cheaper goods - somebody can always make it cheaper than you.

"The West's only defence against this flood of incredibly cheap high quality goods is to offer well-sourced, ethical and environmental products at an affordable price."

Katharine Hamnett is putting her money and her reputation where her beliefs are, this month launching a new ethical range called 'Katharine E Hamnett' made entirely of organic fair trade cotton and pesticide-free wool with 15% of all profits going to assist farmers' switch to organic farming methods.

Galahad Clark, managing director of the ethical shoe design companies Terra Plana and United Nude totally upholds the principles of eco-design. His innovative shoe designs are both radical and sustainable. They are designed with minimum parts, without the use of toxic tanning methods and glues, and are 90 per cent "Worn Again" recyclable.

All this is very well said Jenny Dawkins, head of corporate responsibility research at Ipsos MORI, but will the consumer pay for ethically sourced products when they perceive them to be more expensive?

Nearly 75% of respondents thought ethical products would be more expensive and this was considered the single biggest barrier to purchase for many consumers. 

However, on a more optimistic note its research also showed that around one-third of the British public now purchase ethically to some degree and that the "integrity and honesty" of a retailer is more important than "perceived quality" in influencing a purchase decision.

Educating the consumer
One company that was generally applauded for its commitment to educating the consumer on ethical sourcing issues was Marks & Spencer.

Julia Dobson, ethical and quality systems manager with M&S, explained that its ethical trading practices made good business practice. Its original Code of Conduct on Global Sourcing Principles was drawn up in 1999, and since then M&S has made its principles a condition of trade.

The retailer has appointed a senior management champion, forged long-term relationships with external experts, developed tools and training for all its suppliers, established Marks & Start overseas initiative to get the homeless, unemployed and disabled into work and set up benchmarking and monitoring groups.

It has also launched a high-profile, store-wide Fairtrade consumer campaign 'Look Behind The Label' to engage M&S customers in the ethical sourcing issue.