Roundtable debate

House of Lords

We have often discussed the political nature of fashion on this blog (here and here, for example) but it is not often that the relationship between fashion and politics in an institutional sense is formalised. But on Monday last week it was, with a roundtable debate at the House of Lords hosted by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the APPG on ethics and sustainability in fashion, and Fashion Revolution Day. Dilys was invited to take part in the debate, which focussed on improving the working conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers, looking at what’s been achieved, what still needs to be done, what the barriers are, and how to overcome them. Jan Chmiel, IOSH; Esme Gibbins, ETI; Paul Lister, Associated British Foods; and Lucy Siegle, the Observer, were among the 20 participants.

From the discussion three issues arose time and time again: speed, responsibility and empowerment. Manifestations of which are both concrete and more abstract, cultural changes that add to the depth of the challenges ahead.

There is no doubt that the world we live in is getting faster and faster. We do everything, or want to do everything faster – I sometimes think we even talk faster than ever before, we want to do and have everything and we want to fit it in all into 24 hours. Despite having more and more choice, and more options, we do not have more hours in the day. Only this week scientists warned of the dangers of ignoring our body clocks, we might have speeded everything up but our bodies cannot exist at this super fast pace, they still require care and attention. Care and attention whether addressing our personal wellbeing, making a garment, or auditing a factory, takes time and energy.

Society’s obsession with speed has knock on affects on us – our health, our appetite for novelty, our attention span, the list goes on. But more than that, it affects others – overtime is meted out to ensure our thirst for the new is satiated; the human cost of this is huge and the rights of workers are neglected in the rush. Developing countries are expected to develop at a faster and faster speed with devastating repercussions; poor infrastructure, corruption and limited access to clear and reputable information.

During the debate the pressure that our obsession with speed has placed on people was frequently flagged as an area of concern.

No good (or bad) debate on ethics or sustainability in fashion takes place without a discussion on responsibility. Where does the ultimate responsibility lie?

Responsibility is a slippery term, we all have rights and we all have responsibilities but that is not to place the buck solely at the door of either consumers, brands or governments. We are all part of a system within which all is connected and a blame game will not necessarily result in the changes that need to take place. For real changes to take place we must not only look at the problems but also at the causes of which these problems are the concrete reality.

The government here and in Bangladesh has a role to play. Anne Main MP, the chair of the APPG on Bangladesh, highlighted the fragility of the government in Bangladesh and the responsibilities of the British government as a major aid donor to Bangladesh and major recipient of exports. The APPG on Bangladesh have written a report called ‘After Rana Plaza‘ which details the particular difficulties facing the garment industry there.

Mike Gidney, Chief Executive of the Fairtrade Foundation drew parallels between the fashion and food industries and offered potential solutions for placing responsibility evenly amongst stakeholders: Empowering producers through extensive work with worker’s groups; incentivizing brands to ensure that leadership is taken and shown in the field and using regulation/legislation to help guide and inform consumers in their decision making.

The empowerment of the predominantly female workforce was also a prominent theme. The garment industry in Bangladesh provides a means of financial independence to many workers, but without rights and certain vital protections they are left in a vulnerable position – a point flagged up by Carry Somers. The important role of trade unions and ensuring access to power and strength of voice were reiterated again and again.

Changes will be made, we hope. The practical steps like the Accord and the Rana Plaza Arrangement are important in securing and implementing change. But the debate must go deeper, looking at the causes and questioning the problems inherent in the system that we are all part of and operate within.