Discussion Paper Ethical Consumerism
1. It's received wisdom in the fashion industry that the market for 'ethical' fashion is booming. But what do we mean by 'ethical consumerism', and does this trend mean that the fashion industry as a whole is getting more ethical? In this discussion paper we'll examine these questions from two sides: demand and supply. First we'll look at the extent to which there really is a demand for ethical clothing from consumers. Next we'll look at what the market is doing to satisfy that demand. Finally, we'll examine whether the market's response to consumer demand is leading to benefits for workers in the supply chain.
2. The term 'ethical' in fashion encompasses a broad range of concerns. Workers' rights, the origin and transport of a product, types of trading relationships, chemicals used in production and processing, and other social and environmental effects of a product on humans, animals and the natural environment can all affect how ethical 1 a product is perceived to be. It's hard to divide consumers and products into 'ethical' and 'non-ethical', when the term applies to such diverse and sometimes mutually exclusive criteria. The ethical consumer must make judgements about which of these issues are most important, accepting, for example, that a fair trade product will have been transported thousands of miles to reach them. Much research on ethical consumerism uses 'ethical' as a catch-all term. This discussion paper uses this broad definition of ethical.
3. A variety of initiatives are emerging to meet the demand from consumers for ethical products and services. These range from certification bodies such as the Soil Association and Fairtrade Foundation to multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in the UK. Set up in response to consumer pressure, the ETI aims to develop ethical trading best practice for high street brands and retailers. Meanwhile, some companies are laying out ethical plans and social and environmental targets on their own. All of these attempts by companies to show themselves as ethical have their critics and their supporters. These different initiatives are explored elsewhere, so they won't be covered in depth here. Instead we will explore the growth in ethical consumerism to which these initiatives seek, in part, to respond.
1 Fashioning an Ethical Industry (FEI) focuses on working conditions within the mainstream fashion industry and for FEI a company needs to ensure workers throughout their supply chain can exercise their internationally-agreed labour rights before they can be called ethical. These internationally agreed labour rights include freely chosen employment, payment of a living wage, secure employment, safe and healthy conditions, working hours are not excessive, no sexual harassment, discrimination or verbal and/or physical abuse and most importantly are able to speak out and defend and improve their own labour rights through freedom of association to join a trade join and bargain collectively.
Discussion Paper: Ethical Consumerism
Demand side: the depth and breadth of ethical consumerism
4. Market research tends to point to two apparently contradictory trends in consumer behaviour. On one hand, the proportion of consumers who say that they are concerned about the ethics of the products they buy is growing. Jenny Dawkins (cited in Images 2006), head of corporate responsibility research at Ipsos MORI, reported research showing that around one third of the British public now purchase ethically to some degree, with child labour the top sustainability issue that people want reassurances about.
5. According to Dawkins, people hold companies responsible for the behaviour of their suppliers, with nine out of ten saying companies have a responsibility to check their suppliers are behaving ethically. Three quarters of respondents say that if they had more...
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