Is it all unethical?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “ethical” in relation to my clothing business. When I was writing this post the other day, I was thinking – how amazing is it that we kind of accept that the fashion industry operates unethically.

I thought, how hard must it be to turn up to work knowing that you’re contributing to sweatshop labour and environmental damage just so you can do your day job? That by accepting working in the industry, you are effectively accepting unethical work practices.

Having spoken to a few folks since, however, I’ve started to work out that there are a lot of folks working in the industry that are, in fact, wanting and trying to do the right thing – it’s not as clear cut as I once thought.

The cynic in me often says “yeh, yeh, yeh – that’s all just talk, it’s not real because you’re not accredited etc.” when I hear someone defend their position of not being accredited, or having a clear code of conduct.

And that’s when it dawned on me: accreditation and a code of conduct, is being really important to build customer confidence that what you say you are doing, you are actually doing. But the lack of these things doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re acting unethically or doing the “wrong thing” – even though, that’s the conclusion many people, myself included, come to.

I have been chatting with someone in the industry who operates part of his business in Australia. They’re not accredited under the Homeworkers Code of Practice (HCP) because he believes doing so cause the few homeworkers he employs (by all accounts on ethical terms) grief in their choice of hours and working environment.

So “ethical” to him means treating his outworkers with respect, and not taking on the HCP for their benefit. I am pretty certain he’s mistaken (and the conversation is ongoing), but that’s not the point – this is someone who I would consider ethical who is choosing not to be accredited.

He also purchases product from a factory in China. He’s visited the factory himself. He’s aware of the wage difference between here and China, but sees the workers getting an above average wage in their local area, and they seem to be happy. For him, that is the right thing to do – and it’s hard to dispute this at face value.

I know, theoretically, all the hoops you need to jump through to ensure that factories are treating employees with respect – not just visiting the factory, but unannounced audits by independent third parties etc. As an activist I feel I need to see that to trust a company that produces out of China.

But the lack of accreditation is not a clear cut indicator of a dirty supply chain or unethical practices, just as the presence of accreditation is no guarantee (as factory owners work out ways to pull the wool over auditors’ eyes).

For me and my new business, accreditation is paramount – my views on that have not changed. But I do admit it’s harder for me to go hard on the “fashion labels that aren’t accredited are evil” angle now. I hope it’s not a case of getting to know the devil…