By Diana Karakos, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
“Can Fashion Fight Poverty?” This was the big question addressed at Fashion Fights Poverty’s (FFP) 4th annual ethical and eco fashion forum on Wednesday, October 13, 2010 in Washington D.C. It was held the same week as FFP’s annual fashion show. In partnership with Foreign Policy Digest, FFP hosted the event to “address and initiate discussion among global leaders, international policy makers, consumers, and the world’s fashion designers.” Issues addressed at the forum included eco-sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), international anti-poverty income-generating programs, global micro-finance, and the international commercial fashion industry.
Fashion Fights Poverty was able to bring to the table panelists from diverse backgrounds. The participants consisted of Brendan Hurley, the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Goodwill of Greater Washington; Jeff Goldman, the Executive Director of the Fair Trade Resource Network; Jung Hwa Song, the Asia Pacific Regional Editor for Foreign Policy Digest; Nicki Kurokawa, the Director of Research Analysis for the Winston Group; and Jonathan Jacoby, the Policy and Campaigns Manager for the Private Sector Department at Oxfam America. Adam Benz, the Editor-in-Chief for Foreign Policy Digest, moderated this event. To learn more about these panelists’ backgrounds, you can find their bios here. Highlights from the Fashion Forum are provided below.
When asked what role the private sector fashion companies play in reducing poverty and whether it is an uphill battle to get the fashion companies to be socially responsible, Jonathan Jacoby responded that originally, the private sector was viewed as a threat to the poor. However, now the companies are being pushed to improve their practices. For example, in the 1990s, companies such as Nike, GAP, and Levi Strauss were caught in the crosshairs of activists when the working conditions at their factories were revealed. They claimed that they did not own the factories and consequently were not responsible for their grim state. However, now they are being forced to take responsibility for the laborers because of consumer pressure.
Jeff Goldman commented that bigger industries are beginning to react to consumers’ growing demand in consciousness, requiring them to conform to corporate social responsibility. Although not sure how the apparel industry is handling this, he has seen that cocoa companies view the Fair Trade Certification as a way to guarantee that their supply will be purchased. Check out ILRF’s Cocoa & Child Labor Campaign Here. There will have to be a big push within the fashion industry if it wants to see the same results. As far as Fair Trade Certified apparel goes, the concept is still being piloted. Fair Trade is still trying to determine the garment standards and to which part of the supply chain to apply those standards. He believes that the challenge is that all the actors have their own interests and that the movement needs to be strengthened from within first before it can go forward.
Nicki Kurokawa feels that the free market can play a big role in reducing poverty, as it is not in anyone’s interest for poverty to exist. She believes that education is one of the best ways to eliminate poverty. If more people are aware of the realities poor communities are faced with every day, they will begin to care about how their products are made and increase pressure on the corporations to improve the working conditions in their factories. According to Winston Group polls, the America public’s number one concern is the economy and how they can reduce the amount of money they are spending. However, by tying the economy and poverty together, and explaining that paying a little bit more for a T-shirt will actually reduce poverty and thereby improve the overall economy, people will become aware of how important their roll in reducing poverty actually is. It is in the consumers’ interests for workers in other countries to have the same rights as they do. Therefore, education is the key.
Mr. Hurley agreed that education was an important tool for reaching out and providing ways to reduce poverty. In order to engage the younger half of the population, it is important to use online resources to educate them. People are already passionate about fashion, but by re-branding it as something to be socially conscious about, it will become “cool” to buy from companies that have guaranteed basic labor rights to their workers. This will increase the pressure put on the apparel industry to improve working conditions at their factories. Jung Hwa Song impressed upon the audience that it is extremely important to be our own media advocates by taking advantage of the new online media available, such as blogging. Outlets such as this can be used to reach people all over the world and educate them about the realities of poverty and how everyday consumers can help eliminate poverty.
According to Mr. Jacoby, there are several channels through which ordinary people can go to drive the change to reduce poverty. As a consumer, people have the ability to influence the market through their purchases. If consumers are educated about where their products come from, and they begin to demand that their products come from ethical production sources, companies will have to market their product to this demographic. However, consumers have to ask tough questions in order to convince companies to change. Therefore, the higher the demand for ethically produced products, the more the apparel corporations will be forced to ensure that their clothing comes from factories where there are good working conditions. As a citizen, people have the ability to write letters to their elected officials about the labor industry issues in these developing countries. This may be a more systematic approach to helping workers gain their rights than going to each individual company and asking them to change their policies. If the U.S. government demands a change and places pressure on international governments to require the same change, then the companies will legally have to improve the working conditions in their factories and on their farms.
In terms of “leveling the playing field” Mr. Jacoby explained that it really depends on which side of the “field” you are on. For example, Fair Trade is applied to those who have been marginalized by the global economy and this system is supposed to ensure that the workers are given the minimum price for their product that will support them and their families. Therefore, Fair Trade is meant to help the marginalized worker. However, for American consumers, this might not be “fair” because they have to purchase the same product at a higher price, which hurts them. The challenge is how to create livelihoods for the people who live below the poverty line. Consumers in America are now starting to say “yes” to paying more for their products because they have been made aware of the dire conditions the laborers live and work in, in order to produce the products the American consumer is buying. By saying “yes” the consumer will help get these people to the point where they can be active participants in and compete in the global economy.
When asked to assess what global changes have been made regarding poverty reduction as it relates to fashion in the past ten years, Mr. Jacoby responded that it is really important to engage consumers in order to get them to ask questions about where their clothes are coming from. More and more people are beginning to do the research as these questions penetrate the mainstream and more companies are starting to respond to the demand that they be socially responsible. Ms. Kurokawa agreed that once people are aware of the working conditions of the apparel laborers, they tend to be more sensitive towards it, thereby making more conscious decisions about their purchases. People are willing to pay more to make the necessary changes in the lives of the world’s working poor. Mr. Goldman added that “causes” have become more “trendy” and so have ethnic traditional cultures. By demanding that labor conditions be improved, consumers can help preserve these traditions. People now want the proof, through either certifications or other methods of accountability, that companies are socially responsible.
Therefore, it is highly important that you, as the consumer, educate yourself about the dire conditions garment laborers are forced to work in daily. By becoming aware of the situation, you can make knowledgeable fashion purchases and pressure corporations to improve labor conditions in the factories and on their farms. You have to make a choice. It is up to you to decide what kind of world you live in. Help eradicate poverty through your apparel purchases and by lobbying your elected officials to demand they address global poverty issues! To view other ways to become a responsible clothing consumer, check out the list ILRF has developed here.