Creating a truly sustainable global garment industry requires input from all players, including brands and retailers, business associations, trade unions, governments, NGOs and the end consumer, was the message at this year’s Fair Wear Foundation Annual Summit.

“The key stakeholder here is the consumer and consumer awareness,” Anniek Mauser, sustainability director of Unilever Benelux, told delegates. “We should buy less. But I’m very afraid if we look at the global figures that people generally are buying more clothes and that, on average, the lifetime of a garment becomes shorter and shorter. Those are two contradictory movements, and there I see the biggest challenge.”

Fazlee Shamim Ehsan of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), shares a similar view on consumer responsibility. “The end consumer mindset is very important for the garment industry. The consumer has to care about the product; how it is sourced and why it’s sourced. This is the most important thing.”

For others, however, government involvement is key to creating change. Safia Minney, founder of fair trade apparel company People Tree, points to the UK government’s implementation of the Modern Slavery Act, which requires brands earning GBP36m (US$46.2m) or more to report on modern slavery in their supply chains.

“It’s a great start to be a Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) member, and the consciousness is very important for consumers, but it really is time now for law enforcement. That’s really the missing link.”

Tony Tonnaer of denim brand Kings of Indigo suggests a way of raising awareness amongst consumers might be for other governments to replicate a tax benefit system in Amsterdam that rewards consumers for buying sustainable products.

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“The consumer is the one who decides, and to get the consumer on board, one thing is to make amazing products. Be very critical of who makes it. How is it made? What is the composition? How is it woven? How is it washed? Be very specific. It makes your job much more fun. It creates a good story and the market is ready for good stories.

“I’ve been making sustainable garments since 2003 and I see a huge difference in mentality in the market and we need to enhance that by giving consumers a clearer benchmark, an easier choice – what is a good garment, and what is a bad garment? Be very specific. And buy less, buy better, use it longer, be fair, recycle, upcycle. Trade barriers and trade wars definitely do not help. We need to focus more on working together.”

Taking responsibility

But as well as the consumer, industry needs to play its role, the speakers agreed. Ehsan praised the work of the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance in making the country’s garment industry safer.

“On behalf of all the producers, we would like to thank the Accord. They have done a tremendous job in Bangladesh. We are most grateful to this initiative, and also the Alliance.” Ehsan says it will now be the job of local manufacturers and the government to “end their job respectfully and in the right way.”

A safe working environment, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. Ensuring workers are paid a living wage has also been pushed to the top of the agenda for brands and retailers, and Ehan believes this is a responsibility that should be shared along the supply chain.

“It’s not a single person responsibility because it’s a chain product. The manufacturer should have the mindset that if he has extra from the buyers to share it with the workers. The same, if the buyer can get more from the consumer, he can share it with the producers. And the consumer will have the mindset they are contributing to a better living standard. We can pay maybe less than 1% more. It’s enough to pay living wages. Everyone should have some stake.”

Unilever’s Mauser, however, believes the buck stops with governments to secure a decent wage. While Tonnaer of Kings of Indigo, which operates online and sells through the likes of ASOS and Zalando, believes it is crucial to get all brands on board.

“I would love to pay a living wage. I don’t have any influence. Big companies are slow movers. They’re not easy to change. Nobody can increase prices very quickly. But I believe the price of garments has to rise a little bit and then we will be more careful about what we buy.”

Joined-up marketing

For consumers, one way of ensuring they are buying a sustainable product is through label recognition, with the Fair Wear Foundation, Fair Trade, and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to name a few. But is this just adding to the confusion?

Mauser believes there is a lot to learn from certification schemes like Fair Trade, but says that joining up marketing forces would help create more perspective for consumers.

“In the end, you want to have as little labelling as possible. The forest of different labelling is like the history of how the product developed,” she explains. “On the backhand they are probably 80% the same. There is a huge opportunity to really join forces and to prevent 10-15 different labels and make sure it is all focused on one system. And therefore collaboration is very important.”

Tonnaer offers a similar view. For him, raising consumer awareness starts with producing good quality clothes at a reasonable price, and with a good story.

“The internet is a great tool. These days people are so curious about everything and more and more information can be shared through these platforms to create awareness. And you need to be completely transparent, even if you’re not perfect. There is a lot of confusion about what is good; too many labels and certifications. We all have work to do.”