Customers’ demands for better ethical practices in the UK fashion trade are growing and becoming more influential, reports a wide-ranging survey by a large opinion poll company.
Ipsos MORI has found that three-quarters of the British public believe brands should be responsible for supply chain activities and should ensure that manufacturing methods are environmentally acceptable.
However, only 11 per cent feel they are kept informed about the impact of clothes manufacturing on people and the environment.
The rising call for sustainability and transparency in the sector, which contributes £28bn ($36bn, €31bn) annually to the UK’s gross domestic product, is confirmed by the British Fashion Council, a non-profit body that supports the industry’s interests.
Other significant Ipsos MORI findings among purchasers were that 79 per cent thought producers should publish their environmental commitments, 55 per cent would shun retailers causing pollution, and 79 per cent expect brands to show whether supply chain employees receive a living wage. More than half avoided buying clothes if brands failed to give assurances on supply chain pay.
Buying power was highly rated by customers. Consumer pressure was considered by 62 per cent as the most effective weapon to bring about ethical responsibility, while 52 per cent recommended government regulation.
Only 23 per cent favoured industry self-regulation and, significantly, only 18 per cent said they would trust the brands’ own sustainability information.
Supply chain employee pay was a prominent issue. About seven purchasers in ten believed garment industry wages were low but found information difficult to obtain. Of the purchasers interviewed 60 per cent said they would pay between two and five per cent more to ensure that employees received reasonable wages.
Viscose in textiles was another big concern. Two-thirds of UK consumers said brands should give information about their suppliers of viscose, the increasingly preferred plant fibre alternative to cotton. There were serious concerns about the harm done to the environment and health by toxic chemicals used in viscose production.
Large retailers, including Asos, H&M, Marks & Spencer and Zara, have now committed themselves to responsible viscose manufacturing, and the budget group Primark is among brands being urged to follow suit. Only six per cent of UK shoppers are confident that Primark has a generally sustainable supply chain.
Reports in 2017 and 2018 by the Changing Markets Foundation, the Netherlands-based alliance of fashion industry stakeholders that encourages sustainability changes through market pressure, highlighted water and air pollution, marine life and agricultural damage, severe health problems and fatalities attributable to chemicals in viscose production, particularly in India, China and Indonesia.
Changing Markets wants huge change, particularly because viscose use will grow globally from $13.45bn in 2016 to $16.78bn by 2021 (£10.5bn, €11.7bn, to £13bn, €14.6bn), and clothing production will jump by 60 per cent within eleven years.
Dirty Fashion, a Changing Markets campaign, emphasises that, as only ten companies control 70 per cent of viscose production, large fashion brands can use their buying power to change irresponsible manufacturers’ processes, but many lack viscose-specific policies and transparency.
Ipsos MORI conducted its survey in seven countries for Changing Markets and the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Amsterdam-based international coalition pressing for good working conditions in garment manufacturing.
UrškaTrunk, Changing Markets’ campaign adviser, said of the research: “This is the most comprehensive consumer survey to date looking at perceptions of environmental and social standards in the clothing industry.
“It shows that people expect brands to take responsibility for what happens in their supply chains, both in terms of their workers and the environment.
“All the indications are consumer mindsets are changing. They want more accountability and more information, and they are increasingly putting their money where their mouth is.”
Virginia Lopez Calvo, the senior campaigner in Spain for WeMove.EU, a citizens’ group promoting a more just and ethical Europe, had sharp words for the UK’s popular budget clothing retailer: “It’s high time for companies like Primark to clean up their act and become more environmentally responsible.
“Thousands of Europeans and Primark customers are calling on the company to make a new year’s resolution to clean up its viscose supply chain.
“Solutions exist and many other companies have already committed, so there should be no more excuses.”
Dominique Muller, policy director of Labour Behind the Label, a UK part of the Clean Clothes Campaign, wanted legislation: “It’s time for the government to act if the industry is not going to.”
Welcome news, nevertheless, emerged from 2018. A report by the magazine Ethical Consumer, shows 20 per cent more purchasers chose ethically produced clothing last year, and 22.5 per cent more bought second hand garments, indicating greater environmental awareness.
John Howell, Chief of Thought Leadership and Editorial Director, is a co-founder of 3BL Media, the parent company of Triple Pundit, begun in 2009. Howell oversees original editorial content procurement and creation. He is also the author of the weekly Brands Taking Stands Newsletter. He has written and edited for Elle, Artforum, High Times, the New York Times Magazine, and the LA Times. Howell is based in Wonalancet, NH.