We know that a growing number of consumers are seeking assurances about the clothes they purchase. Whether buying from a high street store, shopping mall outlet or market stall, these shoppers are demanding greater transparency from retailers and want a guarantee that their garments were 'ethically made'.
We also know, thanks to research like the See Through Fashion poll by the Global Poverty Project, that consumers will potentially pay more for garments that pass the ethical test. According to the survey, 74% of consumers would be happy to see the price of clothing items go up by 5% in return for a guarantee that workers were given fair wages and a safe place to work.
Although there is still room for debate about exactly what constitutes an 'ethical' piece of clothing, these factors - fair pay and a safe environment for those who produce the clothes - are the two indisputable requirements. Unfortunately, as recent events in Bangladesh have demonstrated, thousands of people are still working in garment industry jobs that satisfy neither of these conditions.
Fair Pay and Safe Factories
In April 2013, the tragedy of the Rana Plaza building collapse alerted the world's media to the desperately inadequate factory environment endured by clothing workers in Bangladesh. In the aftermath of the disaster, much attention has focused on improving safety standards and compensating the victims, while the issue of pay has rumbled on in the background.
However, progress is being made on this front. Following violent worker protests that forced about 250 factories to close, factory owners in Bangladesh have this month agreed to increase the minimum wage for garment workers to 5,300 taka (£42) a month - a rise of 77%.
For many campaigners, pay is one of the most crucial issues surrounding ethical clothes. Bangladesh is now the world's second biggest exporter of clothing (the industry is worth about £12.5 billion), but its workers remain the lowest paid in Asia after Myanmar. Of course, it is precisely this access to cheap labour that enabled the industry to reach its current size, but campaigners now want retailers that have historically profited from low wages to do something about it.
One of the slogans on the See Through Fashion website states that 'trade should lift people out of extreme poverty rather than keep them in it'. Increasingly, campaigners for ethical clothing are positioning their efforts as part of a wider global movement to eradicate severe poverty and the wretched living conditions it creates in many developing nations.
In the future, consumers will cease to make a distinction between 'ethical clothing companies' and other clothing companies. Supply chains that comply with the highest ethical standards will have become the norm.
However, it's important to remember that while consumers are clearly already expecting more from manufacturers and retailers, they also know that many of these issues cannot be solved overnight. They want clothes that have not involved the exploitation of poor workers for profit, but they're aware that securing lasting change in the garment industry is a complex process that will require sustained cooperation from many different parties.
Ultimately, what consumers expect is transparency. They want to deal with companies that are prepared to publish details of their supply chains, share information about their production methods, and engage in an open dialogue with consumers about their social and environmental activities.
Another finding from the See Through Fashion poll was that 78% of shoppers do not believe UK clothing firms are transparent enough about conditions in the workplaces they use. Increasingly, failure to disclose this information will be viewed by consumers not simply as an outdated policy or evidence of corporate laziness, but as a sign that a company has something to hide.
Actress Bonnie Wright, best known as Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films, is a UK ambassador for the Global Poverty Project. The 22-year-old neatly summed up the expectations of today's ethically-minded consumer during London Fashion Week: "I want to know where my clothes are made, who makes them and the conditions in which these women and men work, day in and day out."
For clothing firms to provide the level of transparency their consumers now expect, they have to know exactly what is going on in every tier of their supply chains. Production tracking tools like the Segura system are designed to provide this level of visibility.
Originally Published 19/11/2013