Even though consumers are increasingly aware of ethical fashions, they are still reluctant to spend more money on products that have been sustainably sourced, according to industry executives in Sri Lanka this week.

And this, in turn, is creating a gap between retailers who continue to strike deals based primarily on price and those suppliers who have invested in socially and environmentally sound production.

The first annual Sri Lanka Design Festival in Colombo tackled the thorny issue in an ethical fashion symposium that brought UK retailers and opinion leaders face-to-face with local manufacturers who  have built a reputation for making garments under ethical conditions.

Stephen Mongan, sourcing and technical manager at UK fashion retailer Topshop, notes that today's consumers "have a very clear idea of what they expect from their brands in terms of what they consider to be ethical trading."

But he warns: "That said, the level of investment from the consumer in ethically sourced product still hasn't reached the tipping point so that that type of product is the norm.

"The key issue is that while there is an awareness, the consumer isn't willing to pay for product that has been 'ethically sourced'."

The solution to this dilemma isn't as simple as educating the consumer to pay more, or getting retailers reduce their margins.

As sustainable sourcing specialist and buyer at online retailer Asos, Claire Hamer, points out: "If a buyer doesn't adhere to certain margin requirements, they won't last long in their role.

"It can't just be about the design team, buyer or manufacturer. They all have to work together to make this change."

From the manufacturer's perspective, though, while retailers might pay lip-service to eco-friendly and ethical sourcing, "there isn't the will to do anything beyond that in terms of paying what it costs," explains Mahesh Amalean, chairman of MAS Holdings, Sri Lanka's leading intimate apparel maker.

MAS last year invested in one of the world's first green garment plants, and Amalean explains: "To put in the standards that are required to meet the conditions laid out by the retailer, there is a cost; and to invest in what is required in the infrastructure for ethical sourcing, there is a cost."

But "because of the pressures of the stock market, quarterly results, expected margins, they don't come through in paying for those costs. And what happens is the pressure  is put on us [manufacturers] in order to maintain their margins".

Changing shareholder and consumer values is key, believes Jane Rapley, head of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, if retailers are to focus beyond the bottom line.

But "that requires a major change in our culture and the way that our economics works."

Another problem is "trying to make ecology and sustainability fit into a model that doesn't have a future," according to Professor Sass Brown from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"We have to think of new models and new ways of doing business," she believes. "All this trying to make sustainable production fit into our existing margins and sourcing is not the answer." 
 
Topshop's Mongan believes the main issue is one of transparency, "because if the left had doesn't know what the right is doing then it only leads to confusion."

"It's about knowing where your product comes from, who's making it, the capacity of the factory, the lead times that are realistic, flexibility from both sides, and its about courting change, both within the brands and within the manufacturing base."

He also notes: "It's a question of long-term partnerships.

"If you work with buyers who flit between factories for 50p you're not going to have any kind of sustainable business. The key to successful relationships is a long-term view."