How to improve the ethics of online fashion

With fast fashion etailers under scrutiny after allegations of modern slavery in Leicester have resurfaced, it is more important more than ever to ensure procedures are put in place to protect workers. Brown gave his views on the reality of improving ethics in the UK fashion industry at Drapers Digital Festival 2020 on 1 October.

Kirsty McGregor: In your opinion Steve, is the UK fashion industry fundamentally unethical?

Steve Brown: I think people try to be ethical and their hearts are in the right place but there is a long way to go for the right ethical level. It’s more of a buzzword rather than the DNA of many brands – a bit like sustainability.

There are some brands that have an incredible CSR [corporate social responsibility], but, there is a long way to go for many of the brands.

KM: What is the root of the problem and why has it not yet been resolved?

SB: The fashion industry is so regimented in its practices that change is difficult and I think margin is more important for most people. With Covid-19 a lot of people are chasing that margin, but if you want to become more ethical it’s not always about the money.

People are more interested in getting best price, margin and delivery than being able to say, ‘We have been able to open a nursery in this factory or a water supply in this village.'”

It happens, but it’s more about storytelling. If we, as customers, are happy to buy a cheap product at a fast lead time from Bangladesh, then we know it is ethically not going to be the best.

There is a lot of talk about data and sustainability but I think it’s more about investment and where you are going to put your money. Companies are trying to survive right now and I don’t see that they will be able to put a big amount of money into the investment to have this data.

KM: Should companies work with their suppliers to improve their conditions rather than cutting ties when they find problems?

SB: It’s important that you keep the supply base, as changing it every season just doesn’t work. The best vendors you can have are the ones you’ve had for along time as they know the [company’s ethics manual] inside out, the business inside out and your working relationship.

A vendor base should be a long-term partner, and when it comes to vendors less is more.

The hardest thing is that, on average, we go to a factory around four times a year, but what do you truly see? The pressure on the factory most of the time comes from us. We want short lead times and change our minds last minute.

That is where traceability becomes impossible, as subcontracting starts and, if you’re not doing proper capacity planning, you’re never going to get that relationship where it is comfortable on both sides.

I do believe working with a core vendor base for as long as you can is the best move.

KM: Sales at the big fast fashion online brands have boomed during Covid, does that suggest that customers don’t care that much about ethical concerns?

SB: If I’m honest I think marketing and advertising plays a lot in the game of fast fashion. When you’re lying in bed and on your phone and see something amazing for £15 that is going to be your first port of call as a consumer.

That is why there needs to be some high-level interference or government intervention to make the industry clean up. We talk about it and there is so much being done by CSR departments but, of course, if everyone wants [fashion] now at a great price it’s not going not happen.

I do believe that people are willing to get the best product for the best price, but there needs to be some sort of intervention. Money makes the world go round and if [unethical practices are] not in sight, it’s an easy decision to make.

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