Ethical Fashion Futures Workshop: Changing Habits in Retail

Back in the summer of 2012, fellow PhD retail researcher Ellie Tighe and I decided that there was something of a gap in the ethical fashion conversation. There was quite a lot going on in London; a number of ethical fashion events, but not academically or student centred. We came up with an idea to put on a small ethical fashion workshop, bringing together a number of academic fields (bearing in mind we are based in human geography) to try and debate the key issues and work towards some possible, practical(ish) solutions.

Ellie then went off to Dhaka, Bangladesh for a few weeks to continue her research and on her return we picked up the idea once again. Before we knew it, we’d been granted a small sum of funding from the faculty and there was no going back! As it was, it was one of the best things both of us have ever done. The workshop/conference day went ahead on Saturday 9th March, in the School of Geography, University of Southampton. It was great for networking and we had a really enjoyable day full of presentations and discussion. We had around 25 attendees including fashion, management and geography students, academics, and a couple of people with their own businesses. Charlie Ross, founder and director of the Offset Warehouse kicked things off by going to the start of the supply chain with a thoroughly engaging presentation on ethical and sustainable fabrics (with samples to touch and feel!).

First to admit that labelling a fabric as entirely ethical is a tricky business, Charlie talked us through some of the main problems in sourcing fabrics and what alternatives are available. Cotton for example, is heavily reliant on chemical pesticides and vast amounts of water. Organic and Fairtrade cotton is the obvious option, but other more unusual fibres are available to us including bamboo, banana and even milk fibre! One of Offset Warehouse’s ethical fabrics was recently taken on by Comme des Garçons for their high fashion collection. We later heard from Jeff Bray that sales of organic cotton have actually decreased, not a trend experienced by Charlie, whose business is growing year on year.

I spoke next, fusing my PhD research interests on second-hand stuff with fashion, I posed the question ‘Is vintage fashion elitist second-hand clothing?’ What is the distinction, and has the trend for vintage improved the street cred of second-hand clothing from charity shops and the like? The point in part was to shift our thoughts to the end of the product life cycle; to debate the view that if we are discussing ethics and sustainability, the best thing we can do is actually make the most of what we have. To consume less, and get the most use out of every single product. Simple really, but we like shopping. So if we can’t help ourselves from buying, and the retailers can’t help themselves from selling, who can step in?

For our third speaker, Tania Phipps-Rufus, that other influence comes from the Government. Tania, a law lecturer at Hertfordshire University raised concerns over the terminology used in the fashion industry as commonly used terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ have no clear definition in a legal framework and are therefore open to misuse. Tania offered a fairly unique opportunity to get a legal perspective on the issues as she presented us part of an on-going project on eco-fashion, culture and law.

After lunch, we turned to social development issues with presentations by Dr Kanchana Ruwanpura of the University of Southampton, Dionne Harrison, Business and Capability Director at Impactt, and Ellie Tighe, PhD candidate at Southampton who is researching the Bangladeshi garment industry. All three speakers have seen the garment factories for themselves and spoken to garment workers and factory managers. These are the people with ground-level insights into the industry and labour practices. Dr Ruwanpura presented results of an ethnographic study in Sri Lanka and Pakistan where she had interviewed factory managers and workers on code of conduct awareness and compliance issues. In Sri Lanka, workers don’t earn a living wage and, as found in this study, workers thought that codes were violated nearly 40% of the time. You can follow up Dr Ruwanpura’s publications here.

It was fantastic to have Dionne from Impactt speak next. Impactt is a leading consultancy specialising in ethical trade, human rights, labour standards, gender and international development. Working with major brands, retailers, governments, academics and NGOs they strive to maximise the positive impacts of global trade. It is interesting to note that they are a business, not a non-profit enterprise and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience having worked with a diverse range of clients with offices in the UK, China, Bangladesh, India, Spain and Australia and a wide network of Impactt associates across Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam. I was quite surprised to hear Dionne talk of a labour skills shortage particularly in China, if this is the case why don’t wages get pushed up as a result of demand? Whilst an increasing number of brands are hiring in-house ethical trade teams, many prefer to call on Impactt for complex issues and/or to get a third party perspective.

Ellie’s presentation shifted focus to Bangladesh where she had carried out six months’ ethnographic work and interviewing. Ellie found that the main problems cited by garment workers were production demands (ie. It is a high-pressured job) and communication (general disrespect between management and workers), wages were cited as a third concern, whilst hours worked fell into the least discussed category. Outsourcing of orders is a serious problem, as these are the factories which fall under the radar and out of the retailer’s ‘selective’ vision.

Dr. Jeoffrey Bray led a fabulous end to the day with, in his words, a ‘controversial’ summary of discussions. A retailer by background, he came to the subject of ethical consumption due to academic curiosity rather than a desire to elicit change. He posed the common question, is ethical fashion an oxymoron? This needs a post of its own. We spent the day talking about clothing; ethical fashion has come to be the recognised vocab for these issues, I don’t see a need to get fastidious! Jeff brought a new dimension to the table, stating that sweatshops are fundamental to development. A job is better than no job.

The consumer should lead, the brands will follow. Do M&S care about ethics? – Jeff questioned – no, but they think their customers do. It is a shame that we didn’t have a high street retailer there to give their side of the story. A speaker had been lined up from a major young high street clothing chain, but couldn’t make it at the last minute. If we are to get into the mind of the shopper, we are very underequipped to understand ethical consumer behaviour. Studies to date have focused on a sample of already ethically-conscious consumers. Jeff’s recently completed PhD study aimed to add to this literature by surveying the general public, sending out questionnaires to 3000 households. Look out for future publications currently in review.

And a final point, many of us buy free range eggs, even students, so why not free range (ethical) clothing? Do we need a Jamie Oliver type figure of the fashion world to bring the issue to the mainstream? I pointed to Livia Firth and Emma Watson, but was reminded that outside of my ethical bubble and my desire to sniff out anything ethical fashion related, the average consumer is not confronted with these issues on a regular basis.

Follow up the day’s presentation slides here.

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

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Fashion Talk at Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption

Last Friday, the 1st February 2013, I attended and presented at the British Sociological Association (BSA) conference Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption. It was a combined meeting of the British Sociological Association’s Families and Relationships and Leisure and Recreation study groups, neither of which I had been involved with before, but both of which I hope to be involved with in the future. I talked about my PhD work, focusing on my qualitative findings to date on the rationalisations of mothers buying second-hand baby things; how they balance the risks of buying used items with their pre-inscribed biographies, against the financial gain.

The presentations were diverse as everyone interpreted the theme in different ways, yet all were equally fascinating making for a highly stimulating day. I particularly enjoyed the papers which focused on social mobility and social capital, something which fascinates me in academia (and real life – indeed social capital IS real life) but is too complex to go into here. A couple of papers touched on fashion, one more explicitly than the other.

Sophie Woodward, University of Manchester, presented her paper ‘Cupboards, Lofts and Shelves: The Hidden Lives of Domestic Things’. Going into people’s homes and getting them to talk about their things, Sophie realised the distinction between things which are ‘unused’ and things which are ‘dormant’ or ‘at rest’. We might not use something for years, it isn’t useful in our daily lives, yet we hang onto it for its potential use. Sophie states that our belongings have three states: active, inactive and dormant. Dormant items have a value and place in the home, other than use. This is why we hang onto clothes we haven’t worn for years, because one day they might be wanted again. They have the potential to come back into fashion, to fit, to be loved once more.

Another particularly emotive paper was presented by Katherine Appleford, University of the Arts London, whose title was ‘Shop with Mother: Class Distinctions in Mother-Daughter Fashion Consumption and Fashion Tastes’. Now, I love my mum, and I love fashion, and the two together hold a number of memories. The trips to MK One as a child, the first high heels I bought and how mum thought they made me look too old but still let me wear them, the birthday outfits and Christmas outfits and matching outfits (we both had very similar sheep jumpers at one point).

Through ethnography and interviews, Katherine explored this relationship for her PhD project, using fashion as a route to consider deeper mother/daughter relationships, ties and tensions. Focusing on class differences, she found that working-class mothers work in a collaborative way and often share clothes, whilst middle-class mothers take on more of a gate-keepers role, being more deeply concerned with how their daughter’s are perceived in the world. She also touched upon issues to do with body confidence and hang-ups, putting the limelight on the fact that fashion is never just about clothes, but about identity, portrayal and self-assurance.

All in all a great day, followed by a trip to meet the Rtister team, but I’ll save that story for another day.

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PhD Progress: Upgrade Completed and Plans for 2013

So I am now exactly half way through my PhD, or at least half way through the three years of funding. On December 14th I successfully upgraded and progress is very much on track. For those unfamiliar with the process of completing a doctorate, the upgrade is an exercise which has to be passed to enable continuation on the PhD programme. The exact process varies between institutions and subjects but I handed in a 20,000 word document with three thesis chapters: introduction, literature review and methodology which was examined/discussed in a meeting type setting. I didn’t need to show results and analysis but had initial results I could talk about. The upgrade felt like a milestone moment and gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve achieved so far. It also gave me the opportunity to speak to another academic in the department and get lots of feedback for future ideas and development of the project.

This time last year I was struggling with my methodology and had been asked to go back and spend a few weeks reading up on the philosophy of knowledge and academic theory. This year has been a steep learning curve but I worked as hard as I could and am proud of what I’ve achieved. It was always going to be difficult moving from fashion to geography but I finally feel like I’m catching up. I’m now in the data collection phase which is super exciting; going out and talking to people (interviewing them). For every interview I’ve had at least one thing they say which jumps out at me and tells me it has been a worthwhile trip. Interviews will continue well into next year; I’ve done 11 so far but anticipate around 40, or until I reach ‘saturation’. On top of all the reading and writing (I think my Endnote reference library has reached 300 now) here are some of the things I did in 2012:

• Supervised the Amsterdam 2nd year undergrad. fieldtrip and couple of daytrips
• Presented a paper at the Green Economics Institute Conference in Oxford
• Teaching assistant for 2nd year undergrad. Critical Human Geographies module
• Set up the department twitter and contributed to the blog (
• Presented at the Grad. School Seminar Series and had a poster at the Grad. School Conference.

2013 is set to be just as busy. In the next three months alone I have data analysis training courses in Southampton and Cardiff, I’m going back on the Amsterdam fieldtrip, I’m presenting a poster at the RIBEN day in Oxford, I’m presenting a paper at the BSA ‘Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption’ conference, and I’m organising my own conference on ethical fashion! My goal for the year (and I don’t have any personal resolutions this year) is to get an academic paper published, or at the very least in review.

Content that I know what I’m doing and I don’t feel the need to prove myself anymore, I think 2013 will be a good year! There have been times when this PhD has had me in tears, but I’m past that point now of letting it get to me. Plus I have excellent supervisors and a great group of friends at uni so I’m still as excited about it all as much as I was when I started, maybe more so. I would recommend to anyone starting the New Year in a job they hate to do something about it. It is always possible to change direction with a positive attitude and bit of focus. Oh I have a mentee this year too! Yep, it’s going to be a busy one . . .

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Autumn 2012 Blog post Round-Up

Here are some of the blog posts I had published elsewhere on the blogosphere over the last 3 months:

In November, I made it onto the Marks & Spencer Social site with a step-by-step how to make a patchwork cushion.

I looked at the toe-curling truth of your Christmas socks for Ms Wandas’ Wardrobe. Did you know one third of the world’s supply of socks come from one Chinese Province?

I reviewed the Winchester Oxfam shop for Oxfam Fashion, and wrote about the story of your cashmere Christmas jumper.

And for the University of Southampton Geography Postgrads blog I wrote ‘What is human geography?’ and ‘Career Destinations: Options after PhD Study’

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A Second-Hand Christmas? The Etiquette of Giving Second-Hand Gifts

Where did you do most of your Christmas shopping? Online? In a department store? Out-of-town shopping centre? Whilst doing your weekly supermarket shop? . . . . You haven’t started? Well you’d better get to it!

The fact is there are many consumption avenues for buying your Christmas presents but how do you feel about buying second-hand presents? My PhD research is about second-hand things; second-hand baby and children’s clothes, toys and equipment to be precise. I am currently immersed in the data collection phase, carrying out interviews, and have spoken to a number of parents who happily buy second-hand toys for their kids for Christmas. The feeling is that you don’t need to spend a lot to keep children happy and furthermore, many children get plenty of expensive gifts from extended family and friends. I myself have bought second-hand things as gifts before. It got me thinking then, what is the etiquette of second-hand gift giving?

Virtually any resource can be turned into a gift, as we have seen with the rise of gift day experiences, gift subscriptions and give a child the gift of reading with a camel library (check it out). When I talk about second-hand gifts I don’t mean recycling gifts, that’s something your own conscience will have to wrestle with. I’m talking about finding something in a charity shop, a church bric-a-brac stall, or on eBay and gifting it to a recipient. The interesting thing is, doing this no doubt says much more about the giver than the receiver.

There is a body of academic work on gift giving in the social sciences, indeed gift giving is a fundamental social system. Every single gift is tied up with expectations; we are expected to give, to receive and to reciprocate. Gifts can reflect social roles, reinforce or weaken social bonds, and be heavily inscribed with a signifier. As suggested by Sherry et al. (1983:159) ‘We give, receive and reject gifts strategically, thereby symbolically predicating identity’.

We often hear that it is better to give than to receive and we can all relate to the warm fuzzy feeling you get inside from making others happy, but gift giving can equally generate feelings of anxiety for the giver. This sense of anxiety comes not just from the thought of traipsing around the shopping mall on a Saturday in December, but from the worry that the recipient won’t like our gift or that it won’t elicit the desired reaction (Wooten 2000). In a sense, giving something that you have sourced second-hand can heighten this risk and anxiety, and is probably something we would only do if we knew the recipient well (or planned to palm off the present as bought new).

So why might I give or not give someone a second-hand present? You could say that giving a second-hand gift requires more of a time commitment and more thought. Half the fun of second-hand shopping is that you never know exactly what you’ll find where, and you have to search to find the treasure. Some people will never appreciate being given something second-hand, however much thought that goes into it, and there’s the risk of being considered ‘cheap’ although, of course, vintage and antique things can easily be particularly expensive but that it not really what I’m describing here. I could give a second-hand gift as a political, moral statement, and thinking about it maybe, just maybe, that is what I have done before. “I will force you to accept this second-hand present because it is morally right and see how ethical I am to not buy you something from a mass-marketed corporate store”.

Interesting don’t you think? In a consumer era when it is increasingly common to worry what to get the person who has everything, a second-hand book, jewellery or ornament could really be the most thoughtful gift of all.

Sherry, J. F., Jr. (1983). “Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Research 10(2): 157-168.
Wooten, D. B. (2000). “Qualitative Steps toward an Expanded Model of Anxiety in Gift‐Giving.” Journal of Consumer Research 27(1): 84-95.

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The Importance of a Holiday: New Ideas, New Semester

In the last couple of years I’ve come to understand what my dad meant when he correlated holiday days to a specific loss of income. He’s self-employed and works 7 days a week (my work ethic looks positively lax next to him), so to him, time off costs. This feeling has been passed onto me since I’ve started doing freelance work and initiates a sense of panic if I foresee more than a couple of days when I won’t be able to blog. Last September was the last time I took a full week off and it was beautiful although I forgot how amazing it actually was until last week when I also took time off and went away. I’ll put my hands up, I still did a couple of blogs and tended to emails once or twice, but from my PhD at least, I took time off and had a whole 11 days out of the office.

I went home to Sussex for a couple of days, travelled up to Norfolk to see family for five days, came back down to London to rave at South West Four over the bank holiday weekend and took a day trip to Ipswich on Tuesday. Apart from the fact that I bought an Anthology of Human Geography in Norwich’s Oxfam bookshop, I didn’t think about PhD work at all. I did however think about fashion stuff a lot. My Norfolk reading, travelling up in the back of a 1987 camper van, was the September issue of Elle so I had much time to consider my perennial dilemma of fashion and ethics and I reformulated plans in my head for new projects – how I think we should be shopping. I found a great second-hand clothes shop specialising in kid’s clothes in Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast called Once Upon a Time. Interestingly they made a point about marketing with the slogan ‘choose to recycle’. A little chat with them all fed into my plans . . .

Anyway, I have a PhD to do first! The weeks prior to my holiday were if not stressful, then at least busy; writing my final proposal and trying to get my ethics cleared before people went on holiday in August so that I can start the field work. I’m now 14 months into the PhD and on track for data collection in second year, analysis and write up in third year. Literature review is written up, methodology chapter is coming along nicely; I’m where I want to be. Now I’m back it feels like the start of a new year and everyone is indeed gearing up for the new semester with the new intake of PhD candidates arriving in three weeks’ time. My data collection should start next month, if my ethics is cleared in time. September to January will involve ethnographic observation and interviewing – finally I can get out and start talking to people.

For the new academic year, I want to work consistently and efficiently (who doesn’t). Looking back to last winter there were many days when I just didn’t stop, and my eyes ached for days on end. Eye-whitening drops became my friend. I don’t want to work at weekends, you need that time to switch off. I’m blogging half as much now as I was six months ago, so I should be able to do it in the evenings and still not disrupt PhD time. This is the plan.

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