The ethics involved with the sourcing and maufacture of cheap clothing is, like that over global warming, a very simple one. We all know that those special offers of a dozen boxer shorts for £10 are based on expoitation of Third World labour, just as we know that the big countries' refusal to accept their responsibility for the plight of the smaller ones is all about expediency. We are well aware that those who should be making the decisions hide behind uncertainties which are often no such thing. We are lured into acquiesence by talk of lack of consensus among scientists on global warming. We are assured that major manufacturers are as ethical as they can be without penalising the buyer with huge price hikes to cover the new fairer wages that any attempt at equity would force on us.
So, it's easy, stupid. Copenhagen has guaranteed that you won't have to sell your second home, exist with only one car and only be allowed to use it very rarely. In the same way, the fashion mantra says, we are determined to give you the best value for money in your clothing. How? By cutting already considerable profits? By no longer building shops and malls as grand as palaces? No. By keeping foreign wages at a minimum and turning a blind eye to the exploitation, knowing that the consumer –who alone can change the situation - looks at only the price he or she has to pay, not that paid by women and children working as cheap labour for major labels in vurtually every Third World country.
I feel strongly about this double standard form of thinking, so I was delighted to be invited to Sri Lanka, home of some of the most modern and efficient clothing factories in the world, where workers are at last treated with the benevolence of the great Quaker factory owners in late Victorian times in the modern equivalent of pragmatic enlightenment set up at Bourneville and Port Sunlight. It seemed the perfectly appropriate venue, as this is a country which is trying to take its responsibilities to both the workers and the trade necessary for economic strength seriously.
We gathered a group of international and Singhalese experts to debate the issues of ethical sourcing of fabrics, acceptable standards in employment in Third-World fashion manufacturing - almost entirely for Western labels - and the need for education in these issues not only in Asia but, even more pressingly, in the West where the product is sold. Invited delegates came from manufacturing (including TopShop), retailing (including Asos) and a wide range of academics and educators. Our keynote speaker was John Thakara, a leading figure in the world of ethical food sourcing who broadened the whole subject form the start. A vital element was the close involvement of Sri Lankan manufacturers and political figures - entirely appropriately, as this small island is trailblazing in so many ways, with the help of enlightened Western manufacturers and retailers. The week was quietly successful and we are now planning next year's event, which will take the debate further.