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Making a stand against sweatshops

Smaller independent designers are promoting stricter ethical standards in their businesses

Imagine working a 16-hour day for less than the minimum and living wage. Imagine also doing that in unsafe and often hazardous conditions. That is what some workers employed by sweatshops have to endure, according to organisation War on Want, while making clothing for the UK and other first-world countries.

Awareness of where our clothes are made isn’t high on the agendas of many shoppers, although most have heard of disasters that affect the clothing industry, such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, when 1,134 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured. Shoppers may have heard, too, of how some high street retailers have used sweatshops in the past to sell us clothing at an extremely affordable price.

Although we are more likely to see these issues raised when shopping in a high street store, the ethics surrounding clothing affects all parts of a supply chain for clothing companies, from fabrics to working conditions and these issues can affect smaller companies too, although not perhaps on such a grand scale.

In response to general working conditions for many workers and disasters such as the Rana Plaza collapse, some retailers and smaller clothing designers are fighting back. Campaigns such as Fashion Revolution Day and H&M’s Conscious collection are making shoppers all over the UK question where their clothes are made and in what conditions.

The sustainable route

Smaller clothing designers are making a stand, too, and promoting ethics within their business. Alice Rolfe, who runs ethical surface pattern company Rolfe & Wills, uses organic cotton and responsibly sourced products in her business. The Bristol-based designer creates her patterns and screenprints them by hand onto homewares and clothing.

I couldn’t run a company that takes advantage of other people just so I can do what I want to do with my life. - Alice Rolfe

It is important to Alice that she uses sustainable and ethical ways of working in her company, and she uses products such as recycled or FSC certified paper and organic ink and cotton in her work.

She says, “As I am the only person who makes decisions in my company all social responsibility falls on me. I couldn’t run a company that takes advantage of other people just so I can do what I want to do with my life.”

As a small business owner, it is especially relevant to Alice that she follows the sustainable route as it helps her justify what she does: “I think all companies should look at who is making their products and in what conditions, and what impact their processes are having on the environment.”

It’s not hard to find ethical companies out there that are wanting to help you do it the right way. - Alice Rolfe

However, when promoting ethics in her business, she hasn’t found it to be of major importance to her customers. They are occasionally pleased, she says, but if a customer is deciding between her own organic cushion and another that is made in a factory on the other side of the world, Alice says they would choose the one that looks best on their sofa.

Alice puts this down to people being concerned about organic, but thinking about it more when it comes to what they eat, rather than what they wear: food over fabric. She thinks that if more were done to promote organic and ethical supplies in the public domain, then more people would consider these issues when buying products. Alice also thinks that businesses should make it clear if they work with ethical companies and products.

“It will encourage small companies like mine to go sustainable,” she concludes.

Verifying the source of materials

For Heidy Rehman, who owns London-based womenswear brand Rose & Willard, ethics is core to her business. The company is committed to the highest standards of manufacturing, has an unwavering ethical practice and very high standards, ranging from how material is sourced to working conditions. These are conditions, Heidy says, that she would have to be willing to work in herself.

She says: “Nothing – not a single fabric, trim or label – comes from any source we can’t scrutinise in terms of acceptable labour conditions and production techniques. When dealing with suppliers directly, for example textile mills, we choose UK, European and New Zealand production houses and only those where we can be safe in the knowledge that their practices are of an acceptably high standard. And when we say ‘high’ we measure this in terms of the types of standards we ourselves would be willing to work within.”

In the past, Heidy says she has had to reject ideal materials she has found for her clothing because the source cannot be verified. As a business owner, she does not believe that exploitation, in any form, is the way to build a brand.

“From a supplier perspective,” she says, “holding to ethical standards creates a mutual respect which I think is good for business.”

Nothing – not a single fabric, trim or label – comes from any source we can’t scrutinise in terms of acceptable labour conditions and production techniques. - Heidy Rehman

This applies to all areas of Rose & Willard and the company does not allow any of its staff to work more than eight hours a day. Heidy also says she does not employ any unpaid interns.

The benefits of upholding such high standards stretch out to the way that Rose & Willard is treated by other ethical companies and Heidy says there is a camaraderie among businesses of this kind, across all industries.

“What I tend to find,” she says, “is that we are followed on Twitter etc by other ethical brands and this has a sustaining effect.”

But there are, like Alice, limitations to maintaining an ethical business. The major limitation is cost and Heidy often finds that she pays at least twice the cost that other businesses may pay for supplies. However, the benefits far outweigh the limitations and things that can go wrong if shortcuts are taken, such as Rana Plaza, which Heidy believes has brought the risks associated with cheap clothes to the fore.

She concludes: “One could argue that there will be a time when companies will not be able to afford to be anything but ethical.”

It is obvious that these independent designers are doing the right thing by maintaining high ethical standards in their work, paving the way for other retailers to follow suit in the future. Although consumers will always be searching for a cheap price, and some retailers will always put profits over working conditions, there are companies that uphold strong ideals when it comes to ethics and sourcing sustainable materials and, perhaps, in time, more clothing retailers will follow

Image: credited to Marissa Orton on Flickr.

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