Thursday, 13 March 2014

There's more to a label than size and make - or is there?

Last week, I met Edwina at the event - Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the System - here she showed me her article on sustainability and the fashion industry. What follows, is a short introduction and then her article. 

I am a student of textiles at Norwich University of Arts and a Member of Bury St Edmunds Meeting. My work combines tradition with new technology, natural dyes with digital print, hand stitch with resist and foil. Sustainability is an important aspect of my practice and my inspiration is often the forest that surrounds my home. The dyes are extracted from the plants and trees and my drawings are developed into designs for digital print technology. The Kimono is proving to be a good context for my work and while respecting its history I have developed a range of designs which are intended for use as screens or hangings but can always be worn and enjoyed. My research for this degree investigated the ethical practice and sustainability of the Fashion Industry and part of the research was to write an article for Quakers about the importance of understanding what lies behind the label.

Edwina Hughes


The Clerk’s notes on the Canterbury Commitment asks individual Friends ‘to keep informed about the work being done locally, centrally and throughout the Quaker world and to educate themselves’  (Religious Society of Friends 2011)  ) about our commitment to conserve the earth’s resources and be responsible for one another. We have used the Sustainability Toolkit to learn, to evaluate and to take action so that our buildings, energy consumption, water usage, travel, product consumption and waste are low carbon and sustainable. There is practical information for the investment and use of our money but there are many everyday purchases where we do not have the information to make the best choice for the Earth. Clothing constitutes a regular purchase for many people. In most cases the label provides the main information but shows the brand, the size and possibly country of origin but little else. By being informed the label CAN tell us more!

Garment labels became the focus of the world’s attention after the Rana Plaza fire as they provided indisputable truth about the brands who were using this factory

The tragedy has forced apparel retailers and brands to take a closer look at how, and where, their products are made. There were discussions about making the label more informative but little action. The Ethical trading Initiative (ETI) were involved and this organisation aims to ensure that all products for the UK market meet international standards for ethical practice. Members include M&S, Monsoon, River Island and John Lewis and the full list of members can be accessed on their web site The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) set up in 2006 works in the same way but targets the fashion industry and provides a ‘Global Platform for a Sustainable Fashion Toolkit’ (Ethical fashion Forum 2012)  offering its members an in-depth evaluation of best practice to achieve sustainable fashion. The attention of the media often results in consumer pressure for ethical change.

Sustainability is an aspect of the fashion industry targeted by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) and there are 10 principals that members have to adhere to achieve full membership. WFTO does provide the customer with a search engine to access the list of members who have a ‘commitment to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development’ (World Fair Trade Organisation 2013). The FAIRTRADE Mark is known for its guarantee of sustainability which means that clothing with this label (see fig 8) is made with 100% cotton grown and produced where ethical and sustainable development are the central focus of trade. Their research shows that in 2011 ‘7 in 10 UK households purchased a product carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark’ (Fair Trade Foundation 2012) and since the UK launch in 2005 the sale of garments rose to 20 million in 2011. This seems to indicate a growing awareness by the public of the importance of sustainability and there is a growing trend to make the Fair Trade label available on the High Street.

Fig 8 Fair Trade label

The People Tree label have developed their brand and have taken the ideals of the FAIRTRADE Mark a step further for the customer by developing the first supply chain for organic cotton from farm to final retail product. They have been working with Fair trade farmers to provide a ‘new kind of sustainable fashion’ (People Tree 2001) where the customer is guaranteed that all aspects of the garment have been produced sustainably not just the cotton. Recent initiatives have led to designers becoming involved resulting in People Tree labelled clothing being available in the High Street stores of Laura Ashley and the Oxford Street branch of Topshop. For the customer understanding the brand policy behind the product is crucial to recognising labels which offer sustainable clothing.

The results of the questionnaire (Appendix 2) into clothing showed that the most used purchase mode across all groups is the High Street stores. A majority of Quakers chose Marks & Spencer as their first choice. But High Street stores do not always offer background information about their garments as I found out when I visited some of the more popular shops. In Debenhams, Gap and River Island the staff did not know if their garments had been made ethically or anything about their policy on sustainability. In fact it was only the staff in Topshop who were able to show me their organic range, their Made in the UK range (see Fig 9) and were informative about their policy for ethical standards. This first hand approach takes time but there are other ways to discover retailers’ credibility.

Fig 9. Topshop Made in UK label

Organisations who evaluate the trading of retailers and make that information available to the customer can be found online. My research has enabled me to use these web sites and identify those large retailers who are working towards a supply chain where ethical practice is inherent and sustainability traceable from seed to product. Smaller traders who have these ideals inherent in their business often rely on an online trading. Many of them are listed on the web site of Style with Heart.  ‘While there are many companies on the high street working hard to catch up with the green and ethical agenda, the companies you will find listed here were created with strong values from their inception’ (Style with Heart 2014). One of the most impressive brands on the list, who opened their first shop in 2013, is Rapanui in Sandown, Isle of Wight. All their leisure clothing and products are 100% traceable in other words the customer can access detailed information from seed to manufacture to shop and the labels (see Fig 10) they use grade the garment from organic, ethical and sustainable through seven levels. But it does prove that online information is vital for informed shopping.

Fig 10 Rapanui label with grades

Labour behind the Label (LbL) is the most active organisation to address the level of ethical practice in the fashion industry. Their Annual Report Let’s Clean Up Fashion (Label behind the Label 2013) produced since 2006 looks at and identifies retailers who are working to improve ethical practice in their supply chains. They name brands such as Debenhams who declined to give any information, retailers George at Asda, Clarks, Debenhams, John Lewis, Laura Ashley and Sainsbury’s who ‘had not provided concrete information about any plans to address the living wage issue’ (Label behind the Label 2011) and Next, Monsoon and Marks & Spencer for their projects which do address working conditions in their supply chains. The report also recognise the improvements made by the retailer but overall they state that progress with all retailers has been slow. This Report is an interesting source of information for the customer who wants to know more about the ethical concerns of the High Street fashion retailers.

The lack of information available to the customer on most labels in the fashion industry must be addressed if we want to continue our quest to conserve the earth’s resources and be responsible for one another. At Made in a Free World they believe that ‘changing the world takes everyone … individuals, groups, and businesses working together to disrupt slavery and make freedom go viral; … to get slavery out of our system’ (Made in a Free World 2011). Ethical practice and sustainability is embedded in our Testimonies and continually referred to in Quaker Faith and Practice so buying from the fashion industry needs our attention. If the label does not help us to achieve this then the onus is on the individual to take action by educating ourselves, by making a choice where we shop and by understanding that there is more to a label than brand, size and make.


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