Is Commercial Sensitivity Jeopardising Supply Chain Transparency? #BAD13

I wrote this post as part of the Human Friendly Fashion Consortium’s conversation for Blog Action Day 2013. Blog Action Day is a global event which since 2007 has brought together thousands of bloggers to talk about a particular issue. This year is human rights, a contentious issue in the fashion industry as I’m sure you will agree.

As part of Blog Action Day Fashion Mob founder, Esther Freeman, explains why it’s dangerous to point the finger of blame at consumers for human rights abuses by the fashion industry.

“Since the collapse of the Rama Plaza building in Bangladesh, the media has been full of discussions and head scratching about fashion. One comment that keeps coming up is the responsibility of consumers around fast fashion.

Quite frankly this is nonsense. Furthermore it is dangerous to suggest so.

All too often high street chains whine about how hard it is for them to improve human rights, and how they’d change but consumers don’t want it. It’s become their get out clause. And by saying consumers have some kind of responsibility, we reinforce that myth.”

I think consumers do have some responsibility, but it is difficult for consumers to do anything when they are given such little information to work with. Last month I tried to contact a high street retailer to ask where they sourced their leather from. I actually wanted to know as a consumer, not as an ethical fashion blogger. I really liked their leather skirts and I wanted to find out whether I could justify buying one. I guess I was making a point as well, that consumers should be offered more information. I don’t have a problem with wearing leather, as a by-product and only if it’s processed with the least possible human and environmental impact (leather processing can be very dirty and dangerous to human health).

I started by tweeting their helpline twitter account. They replied very quickly and said ‘that’s a good question. I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you.’ A few days later nothing so I tried again but was ignored. I then emailed their customer service (which states they will reply within 24 hours), still nothing. I tweeted again but more publically (I was a little aggrieved by this point), and then they replied. Again they said they would find out but I’ve heard nothing since. Perhaps even they couldn’t find out, such is the long and complex supply chains these retailers have.

This shouldn’t be so hard. A customer should be able to ask a question about a product and get an answer.

When I told a friend who happens to work in the head office of another major high street retailer she said that they might have thought I was a competitor or trying to find out commercially sensitive information. She said even giving me a country of origin could allow me to draw up a shortlist of suppliers and I might go and steal away their lovely leather. This hadn’t even occurred to me. I also noticed recently reading Lucy Siegle’s interviews with retailers in the Observer that they were all asked if they provide a public list of supplier factories and many said no because the information is ‘commercially sensitive’. I understand the retailer’s point of view but I also see this as a massive problem. How can consumers make an informed decision with such a woeful amount of information?

And this puts even more responsibility on the retailers. If they won’t allow us to make an informed decision, they morally have to ensure we aren’t inadvertently purchasing something we aren’t happy with. How can we show that we care about human rights if they don’t give us the facts?

Show that you care by badgering your favourite shops as much as possible. Ask their sales assistants where they source their garments from, ask how the material is processed, email them, tweet them, do whatever it takes to show that you are not a passive consumer.

You can also sign the 1% campaign. The campaign calls on the fashion industry to invest 1% of their profits in solving issues in their supply chain, especially around human rights. We need more time and investment in activities like better auditing, health and safety training and improved working with NGOs and trade unions at local level.

>> Sign the 1% Campaign petition and demand that multinationals take responsibility for what happens in their name.

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