Ethical and Sustainable Fashion — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:58 pm on 19th March 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Stone of Blackheath Lord Stone of Blackheath Labour 7:58 pm, 19th March 2013

My Lords, perhaps because of our society's destructive obsession with speed and short-termism, fashion is often neither ethical nor sustainable. In many fields we fail to consider the long-term effects of what we do: in politics, it is the next term's votes; in the media, it is weekly ratings; in business, it is tomorrow's share prices; and in fashion, consumers want today's new look. At Marks & Spencer, I was taught by the late Lord Seiff about good human relations in industry. We were not only concerned with the long-term satisfaction of our customers and of our shareholders who were often with us for life, we were also frugal with our use of resources. We used minimal packaging; we did not have fancy window displays; we used low-energy lighting; and even our relationship with our suppliers was that of a long-term partnership. We mainly bought our goods in the UK, but even when we moved some production abroad, we ensured that there was fair pay and good conditions in the factories that made our clothing. Home production is an issue to which I will return.

The consumer, too, has a role in this. How does he or she decide what to buy? A brilliant mind in this field, as was mentioned, is the designer, artist and academic, Professor Helen Storey at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion. She is involved in a project that seeks to explore and understand more deeply the relationship between us and our desire to acquire. At the heart of the question posed by this debate lies our understanding of human actions in relation to material consumption habits. Here in the western world we are consuming and wasting at a rate that threatens our own health and that of the planet. The fashion industry exemplifies the complexity and extreme nature of human society's obsessive cycle of creation and destruction, but it is also a great place to find solutions. Fashion sits at a point that crosses economics, aesthetics, psychology, creativity and our individual notions of who we are. This research will produce some really interesting results.

At this point I must declare an interest. I have three wonderful children. I tried to stop each of them following me into the shmatter business. Daniel and Jessica work respectively in charities and healing, but I failed with my youngest child, Susie Stone, who has a couture fashion business. She says that sustainable fashion requires us to buy less but wear it more and to spend more on good, bespoke, UK-made clothing, which in the long term will cost you less, suit you more and make you feel better about yourself.

On a grander, wider scale, the noble Lord, Lord Alliance, is working on a project to bring textiles back to Britain. He and his team have involved Manchester University, local businesses and regional and central government. This should be supported by regional investment and government grants. Tens of thousands of jobs could be created, so the investment would be cost effective. Within it, ethics and sustainability should be built into contracts to make them synonymous with "Made in Britain".

A friend who has a new factory in the UK tells me that some awful UK factories bring in people at night to work the machines. They are paid by the illegal "cabbage" system. They have no right-to-work documentation to prove they are legitimate workers. We need this stopped so that ethical trading companies with audited compliance are not put at a disadvantage. As well as criticising other countries, we need to enforce ethical trading here in the UK.

Finally, I am afraid we have uneducated consumers in this field. They do not know what is involved in making clothes well from start to finish in terms of skills nor what the costs of a retailer are in terms of staffing, distribution and running stores. The public have never been exposed to this understanding. Many companies in the retail industry tick the boxes in terms of ethical and sustainable initiatives but do not have them high on their agenda because their one-year operating plans are dominated by recession survival and the complexities of multichannel retailing. As we found this week with controlling the press and media, we cannot wait for retailers and manufacturers to put in place voluntary, sustainable and ethical reporting practices. We need to create laws and ensure compliance with them.

After the unchecked industrialism of the 20th century and in order to advance sustainable and ethical fashion, there is a need for reinvestment in the textile industry in this country, for transparency and information from brands so that people can make informed longer-term purchasing choices and for legislation and compliance monitoring from Her Majesty's Government.