Do consumers really care about ethics in fashion?

Food companies are always keen to trumpet their ethical credentials - why doesn't the apparel industry follow suit?

Credit: rijans/Flickr
Credit: rijans/Flickr

This Sunday it will have been three years since the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, the Bangladeshi complex of garment factories whose customers included Primark, Benetton and Matalan. The disaster killed 1,134 people, making it the deadliest accidental building collapse in history, and sparked a global debate about labour conditions in the fashion supply chain.

You might expect the bad publicity to have been a disaster for a company like Primark, but its run of speedy growth continued unabated. Its sales were up 17% in 2014 and 13% in 2015, adjusted for currency fluctuations. Its PRs might argue that’s partly because of all the work it has done to clean up its act in the months since. But it seems plain that for all the protests on Oxford Street, consumers didn’t really care. In the words of Iain Davies, a marketing lecturer at the University of Bath who specialises in ethical markets, ‘People feel sorry for what’s happened but there’s very little translation into consumption behaviour.’

To be fair to Primark, it was among the top performers in the ‘Fashion Transparency Index’, an analysis of companies’ commitment to cleaning up their supply chains, which was published this week to mark the anniversary of the disaster. Of the 40 major fashion companies it looked at, 40% don’t have a system in place to monitor and improve labour standards at a board level (Primark is one that does). Only 11 ‘show evidence of working with trade unions, civil society or NGOs’ to improve conditions.

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