The Ethical Consumer Magazine Conference

02 Oct 2015
Sustainable Clothing

No sooner had we entered the Amnesty International building in Shoreditch than we were greeted by the affable Simon Birch.  After 2 minutes it was clear that Simon had done his homework on the goings on at Cock & Bull Menswear. After a quick chat he chaperoned us down to the main venue room where the talks were being held via a welcome beverage break en route.

A quick perusal highlighted approximately a hundred and fifty attendies and instantly made me feel that I was part of a burgeoning community that was actively striving for an ethical world. It felt empowering. With everyone focused and pens to the ready we had a brief but valid, attention-grabbing talk by Rob Harris (a co-founder of the ethical consumer group) on ethical market and the age of austerity. Rob displayed a number of graphs from the research on ‘How The Ethical Consumer Operates’ within the ethical marketplace that proved a useful insight in how best to work within this particular market or practice  (this information can be found on their website)

Next on the timetable were talks from a panel of people within the  industry ranging from Barbara Crowther, Director of policy and public affairs at the Fairtrade Foundation to Amy Jackson, Senior Credibility Manager at the ISEAL Alliance and both spoke in turn about differing areas in the challenge that is ethical labeling in conjunction with their own work experiences which are a frequently debated topic within not just the ethical market but product based companies in general. This is mainly due to the increasing importance of total transparency within companies that heighten consumers’ understanding. With the correct labeling and a greater knowledge on how the products we produce are made and by whom we in turn take big strides towards reaching our goals to increasingly create a larger demand for ethical products. Explanation and transparency being the key components of helping us to achieve this challenge.

After some light and pleasant intermingling with other guests and a very appealing vegetarian and vegan buffet we reconvened for, what was for me, the most engaging talk of the day.  It was given by Kate Soper: Emerita Prof of philosophy and writer of 'alternative hedonism' and an advocate of the pleasures of reduced consumption’ and the best ways to achieve this ‘ultimate challenge’.  The talk provided us with a different perspective on the issues we face when trying to tackle some of the biggest problems around everyday ethics and our efforts to become ever more green and socially conscious.

After attending one of five choices of discussion groups (all of which can be found on their website) I found myself sat in front of the next panel of guest speakers who were involved in a number of large ethical companies such as Charlotte Borger, Director of Communications, Divine Chocolate and Huw Davies, Head of Personal Banking, Sales and Marketing at Triodos Bank in which they all discussed ethics at scale in relation to each of their companies. It put the issues we face into perceptive whilst offering up a somewhat daunting list of tasks that need to be addressed. That said it was indeed inspirational to be shown the vision of possibility and success from each of these businesses both large and small for they had each proven that there is indeed a market in which ethical businesses can thrive and that it flowed out, not just into those shoppers that purposely choose to buy ethically but also interested a mainstream audience whom it was interesting slowly but surely by the values it purports

The day was wrapped up with drinks delicious goodies generously supplied by Triodos Bank and Divine Chocolate. It gave us all one last opportunity to chat with the other attendees each involved in creating and managing their own unique pathway towards an all encompassing effort for furthering and broadening the practise of encompassing a high regard for ethics with business practice.

According to Mintel’s Ethical Consumer - UK 2015 report, 76% of UK adults say the ethical and sustainable credentials of products and the reputation of companies or brands behind them are important when making a buying decision. This is very good news but that also means that 24% of UK adults do not feel that the sustainable and ethical credientials of a company are important to them. Additionally, while the 76% might say that the credentials are important to them, the question is how many of them actually act on what they care about?  As a pioneering brand, Ethical Consumer Magazine has done a lot of work over the years into the ethical consumer and, no doubt, has seen some change.  Their research suggests that at one end of the spectrum 5-10% of consumers are 'always ethical', while at the other end  20-30% don't care, so that leaves 60-75% of us who consider buying ethicalling during our decision making process. We would expect this to be great news for us at Cock & Bull Menswear but the truth is that while the average consumer may be considering the ethics behind the purchasing in their food basket, skincare choices, detergents and fuel, it is only the most enlightened who have begun to make choices around the clothing that they buy. 

Operating in an arena that promotes obsolescence means that a 360º change of thinking has to be undertaken in how we think and relate to our clothing. We will need to become more aware of where our clothing is coming from, how and by whome it is made.  While our vanity around how we dress and whose clothing we choose to buy to bolster our egos may not be abated in the near future the question on why we need so many items and why we need to update those styles so frequently is one that we need to continue to question. The challenge for ethical clothing brands to get noticed among the behemouth of the fashion industyr and become viable alternatives to mainstream non ethical and sustainable brands is one that must be embraced and attacked creativily from all sides. 

We left the conference more enthused by the massive changes that have taken place in consumption but still aware that there is still a long way to go to engage with the 60-75 who might consider our organic cotton shirts that we make just a mile away from our studio, or the tweed waistcoats that use genuine hand-woven tweed from the highlands of Scotland and keeps a beautiful tradition alive, but who, in the end opt for an alternative that continues to pollute the planet or is made in exploitative or dangerous conditions.

In conclusion, Lizzie Harrison of SustainRCA, a research hub within the Royal College of Art, says: “Up to this point, it’s fair to say that most of the fashion industry has been directed by compliance rather than innovation. So they have done what they have had to do rather than taking sustainability as a springboard to do something very exciting.” She says sustainability tends to reside  in the corporate social responsibility arm of fashion companies, far from the design department. “That presents a real challenge in terms of bringing sustainable innovation into the heart of an organization.”

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