Why fast fashion needs slowing down to cut out modern slavery

Slow fashion pioneer and social entrepreneur Safia Minney is on a mission to eradicate slavery in fast fashion. In this extract from her new book, Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics, she highlights how businesses and consumers alike can help change the industry for the better

Slow fashion pioneer and social entrepreneur Safia Minney is on a mission to eradicate slavery in fast fashion. In this extract from her new book, Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics, she highlights how businesses and consumers alike can help change the industry for the better

Anyone looking into ethical fashion could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a fringe issue. Far from it. That cute organic printed dress, that gorgeous newly opened eco concept store, that fashion company full of passionate people trying to change the world: all are part of a tireless movement to bring sanity and health to the way that we live, consume and do business in the outdated economic system that drives fast fashion.

The Rana Plaza tragedy woke us all to the horrific irresponsibility and violations of the fashion industry. Despite the final compensation being paid by an unknown source, even today, nearly three years into the process of the Bangladesh Accord, H&M has not fulfilled its obligations to address safety hazards in its Bangladeshi factories. More than 50 per cent of them lack adequate fire exits, according to cleanclothes.org.

Over the past 25 years, we have built a global ethical and fair trade movement together that is inspiring entrepreneurs, governments and policymakers, and that is putting pressure on transnationals to change the way they do business. The sleeping giants in our investment and finance community are finally waking up to triple-bottom-line economics (which looks at the social and environmental account of a business, as well as its profitability) and to the fact that social impact and sustainability can be delivered through responsible investment.

Our conscious consumerism slows down fast fashion

None of this would have come about without the actions of citizens in the ethical fashion and fair trade movements who have built new standards for business practice. Their collaborative approach reflects democracy and social justice and can help us drive change. We have huge power to change things for the better, through the way we shop and how we spend our working lives. In 2015, an Ethical Trade Initiative study showed that 71 per cent of senior executives at retail and supply companies believed that there was a likelihood of modern slavery within their supply chains.

The Modern Slavery Act passed last year in the UK requires that medium-sized companies (with a turnover of £36 million or more) supplying goods and services in the UK publish an annual report explaining what they are doing to eliminate slavery from their business and supply chains. Many companies are stopping the ‘greenwash’, admitting they have a problem and getting on with fixing it. After COP21 in Paris and the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we see that transnational companies and business practice will have to shift rapidly. Demanding greater transparency will promote better business practice and force companies to clear slavery out of their supply chains. Our conscious consumerism slows down fast fashion.

From dream to reality

The search for fair fashion was what started my journey 25 years ago with People Tree, when I developed the first fair trade and organic-cotton supply chain for fashion. As an ethical consumer in my mid-twenties, I was shocked by reports of sportswear and denim streetwear brands exploiting their workers in Southeast Asia. I set out to wear only things that had been made while respecting workers’ rights and the environment, or to buy second hand.

We built trusting, long-term partnerships with our fair trade groups. We developed fair trade standards for cotton and the manufacture of clothing, and we launched the first Global Organic Textile Standard certified clothing made and finished in the developing world. The dream? From field to ginning and weaving, through to tailoring and sending the finished garment to the customer, we would produce fashion free of child labour and free of environmental and adult-worker exploitation.

Transparency, dialogue and collaboration thrive in a ‘new economics’ or ‘restorative economics’ model, as does social innovation. When you have an open, mutually respectful relationship with your suppliers (not a relationship typical of the fast-fashion industry, which squeezes price and delivery times), when these suppliers are not living hand to mouth, there is an opportunity to innovate for sustainability and social development. The innovation comes in the form of eco-friendly fabrics, designer and retail collaborations, waste-water management systems, clean-water ponds, indigenous organic seedbanks, day-care centres and schools, medical health camps and even legal support for and campaigns against domestic violence and child labour.

A holistic approach

This new business model requires a more holistic approach, joined-up thinking and a long-term partnership between suppliers and consumers to produce truly sustainable and socially responsible products. Twenty years ago, those of us who argued that the ‘invisible hand’ described by economist Adam Smith could not work because of imperfect information, will now watch as a new decade celebrates transparency and provides information to help us with our choices. We hope to see an enlightened capitalism.

Taken from the newly published book Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics. Safia’s next book, Slave to Fashion will be released next year after a successful Kickstarter campaign in May.

Safia Minney (pictured) is a social entrepreneur and author. She is the founder and CEO of ethical clothing company People Tree.