Put people over profit to stop fashion slavery, says campaigner

The struggle against modern-day slavery in the fashion industry is being hampered by public relations spin and companies that still put profit, not people, at the heart of their business models, said a leading ethical fashion campaigner.

Vivienne Westwood storefront
Vivienne Westwood is one high-end designer label that works with artisans in Africa, Haiti and Afghanistan under the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Image: Ylbert Durishti, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The struggle against modern-day slavery in the fashion industry is being hampered by public relations spin and companies that still put profit, not people, at the heart of their business models, said a leading ethical fashion campaigner.

But Simone Cipriani, head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, sees huge potential for change as long as everyone - from brands to consumers - takes responsibility to address the exploitation of workers in global supply chains.

“People have to be part of the business model and then profit is the happy outcome of doing good business,” Cipriani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As well as changing mindsets, the proper enforcement of anti-slavery laws is crucial to protecting vulnerable workers, he said.

The fashion industry has come under pressure to change since more than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh four years ago.

Big brands have been criticised for failing to improve working conditions in their supply chains - from cotton fields to spinning mills and garment factories.

Fashion firms have been accused of allowing or turning a blind eye to abuses from dangerous conditions and long working hours to child labour and bans on forming trade unions.

Cipriani, who will be on a supply chain transparency panel at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit next month, founded the Ethical Fashion Initiative in 2009. He previously worked around the world in both development and fashion, and ran a large UN project in the Ethiopian leather industry.

He said that since then both consumers and businesses have increasingly asked questions about the working conditions of the people who make their clothes, demanding ethical manufacturing.

The initiative, supported by the United Nations and World Trade Organization, connects artisans in Africa, Haiti and Afghanistan with high-end fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney.

Cipriani said the sustainability movement has grown out of consumer engagement and younger generations will no longer accept untrustworthy corporate marketing on social issues.

He said consumers want honest information on who makes their clothes and the conditions in which they are made.

“The only way is to engage emotionally. If you don’t engage emotionally you don’t engage at all. The days of political and social engagement for the sake of it are finished,” he said.

Cipriani said that while some fashion companies have made huge strides in addressing issues of labor abuses and sustainability, others need to fundamentally restructure.

Strict enforcement of labour laws and corporate commitment to social issues is key for workers at every level of the supply chain to be fairly paid and lead dignified lives, he said.

“Effective legislation everywhere is the only way to have the big push we need to see this agenda of sustainability and human dignity really enforced in this industry,” he added.

Britain’s Modern Slavery Act and France’s new corporate vigilance law have been praised by anti-slavery campaigners for raising awareness and starting to bring offenders to justice.

But existing labour and human rights legislation in many countries is completely ignored, Cipriani said.

“Let’s tell the truth. This is a global problem of corruption and a lack of the rule of law,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org.

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