How to drive the development of ethical fashion was the key question for manufacturers, buyers, media and educationalists at the recent Sri Lanka Design Festival.

Key themes

  • Consumers are increasingly interested in ethical and sustainable product but are not yet willing to pay for it.



  • Marketing ethical product has relied on a look back at the past - vintage, for example. But eco labels are the future and marketing needs to adjust accordingly.


  • Good design and originality remain of most interest to consumer media. Sustainability needs to be a bonus to that.


  • Ethical standards need to be enforced across the industry, but also need to be developed with cultural sensitivity.


  • Educating design students about ethical and sustainable product needs a cross-disciplinary approach.


As part of the inaugural Sri Lanka Design Festival, the country's manufacturing companies were brought together with international representatives including buyers, ethical labels and design educationalists for an ethical fashion symposium. Its aim was to encourage joined-up thinking and an understanding of how other parts of the supply chain operate, with a view to advancing sustainability in both production and consumer markets.


Chair of the forum, Colin McDowell, said: "It's important not to look at one area only - to step back and see the bigger picture. It's very easy to moan and say that someone should do something. Well that someone should be you."

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Discussions at the Ethical Fashion Symposium centred around the following areas.
Creating or satisfying consumer demand
Does consumer demand exist for ethical product, or does demand need to be created?

  • Consumer demand for ethical product exists in Western markets but is far from reaching a tipping point, noted speakers. Retailers, however, are already making some preparations for greater demand.


  • Stephen Mongan, sourcing and technical director at UK retailer Topshop, said: "In the last 10 to 15 years consumers have become clearer in what they want from ethical and are more demanding from the brands they subscribe to. But they are not yet willing to pay."


  • Sustainability consultant Claire Hamer noted: "Consumer demand has increased but this has not been satisfied at all. There is a huge opportunity for Sri Lanka as a sourcing partner to work with retailers and brand to meet what I believe is a huge gap in the market."


  • Speakers made a distinction between ethical (social) and environmental aspects and felt that customers do not understand the social side as well. This offers both brands and their suppliers opportunity for further communication around the issue and the goal of engaging consumers in this area of sustainability.

Marketing ethical product
How can brands stimulate interest in ethical/sustainable product?

  • Ethical marketing is often focused on the past, noted Orsola de Castro, founder of From Somewhere and also London Fashion Week's Esthetica event. "Ethical marketing has been based on vintage but we're now trying to move that to a future perspective. Eco labels belong to the future."


  • Design remains crucial to creating consumer interest in ethical and sustainable product. "Product needs to be design-led. At the end of the day, consumers will buy what has value," said Neil Chadwick, founder of UK-based label Seasalt.


  • There is still a long way to go to successfully market sustainability in fashion. Consumer access to globally sold sustainable product, rather than only that available on a local level, would go a long way to stimulate interest and consumer demand, noted speakers.


  • The higher price of ethical labels, however, remains a deterrent for many potential consumers and creates less availability of ethical product. "The industry needs to find a way to make this more accessible to the consumer, and we need to encourage retailers to take more risks in the brands they buy," said de Castro. "I would love to see a time when ethical becomes the norm and the mainstream so that our discussions are about fashion and non-ethical fashion - not fashion and ethical fashion."

Media interest in sustainability stories
How does the press view the subject of sustainability as a story and where are the opportunities to communicate your ethical messages?

  • The economic crisis has put consumer media under a lot of pressure. As publishers reduce editorial pages or focus on more commercial stories, sustainability as a subject of media interest is in danger of fading away as editors look for new stories.


  • Ethical companies looking to generate interest among editors in the consumer press should understand that stories where the main angle is 'sustainability' are unlikely to attract media interest. Another hook is required: beautiful design, innovation, or originality should attract interest, with sustainability more of a bonus to the story rather than the story itself.


  • Ultimately, to further the sustainability agenda, companies with sustainability stories need to start at the top and gain the interest of senior management, in particular CEOs and CFOs. Targeting the business and financial press therefore offers opportunity. It's not just about converting the consumer but about converting the CEOs and buying directors.

Ethical and sustainable standards
How important is certification and the enforcement of standards?

  • Certification is important, according to Elizabeth Laskar, founder and director of the Ethical Fashion Forum. "We need it. We're human and we lie. Otherwise we all take more than we're due. Consumers have lost trust."


  • Coercion through ethical standards plays a part within the supply chain but needs to be balanced with greater education among the often young buyers' market. "Buyers need to be trained and empowered to understand the conditions of those in the supply chain and the impact their decisions have," noted Bruce Montgomery of the University of Northumbria and formerly menswear design director at Daks. All of those involved, including consumers, should learn how garments are made, as well as fairness and respect for people in the supply chain.


  • Designers are under no obligation to pick up on the ethical movement and sustainability issues, noted Montgomery. "You could easily do a 'disgraceful collection' tomorrow. There are also some concerns about an anti-reaction; one way to avoid this is to introduce ethical/sustainable in moderation.


  • Any definition of ethical standards, however, must be culturally and temporally sensitive and work within the context of the local supply market.

Sustainability in design education
How can sustainability and ethical thinking be implemented into the curriculum at design schools?

  • The environment, sustainability and ethical issues are not always an area that design students are interested in as they are often more focused on their own career trajectories, noted educationalists. "We found that MA students are frequently not interested although we think they should be," said Professor Clare Johnston, head of Textiles at London's Royal College of Art.


  • Eco is often easier (for students to understand) than ethical, according to Jane Rapley, head of college at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. "Eco is real and ethical - working and social conditions, etc. - has not necessarily been a part of their experiences to date."


  • With programmes full, there is little space within the curriculum for adding ethical and sustainable courses. Any projects must therefore be cross-disciplinary, requiring collaboration across departments and institutions as well as cultures. "It must involve all areas of the industry and as educators we have to educate on the ramifications of every choice made in the design process," said Sass Brown, resident director of the FIT in Florence.


  • Students will only engage with this when it's part of our own culture." It's the responsibility of education to engender it and look at how to be part of the zeitgeist," said Rapley. Dilys Williams, director of sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion, agreed: "We need to embed this in culture. It's about teaching empathy and collaboration and putting human welfare at the centre of the process."

What next?

In a lively debate, international delegates and Sri Lanka's manufacturers highlighted the challenges that remain across the supply chain for ethical fashion to grow and take a bigger slice of the global apparel market.

Kumar Mirchandani, chairman of the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association, says the country's garment manufacturers - unable to compete on price with other supply markets in the region - adopted an ethical sourcing position about six years ago.

"We saw the beginnings of customers' focus on compliance and at first we didn't like it," he continues. "But when only a handful of questions arose from customers on compliance issues, the industry realised regulations on labour hours and factory standards were key, especially for this part of the world. It was an inherent strength we hadn't talked about."

The industry set about developing an ethical USP for the national industry which has seen it launch a common Code of Conduct known as the Garments without Guilt initiative, backed by the trade association and implemented by local companies to improve workers' conditions and factory environments.

Since taking a conscious decision to move from price-driven to ethical manufacturing, Mirchandani says the industry has seen overall growth of 30%. "We did it because it was the right thing to do and our aim was to make 'Made in Sri Lanka' synonymous with ethical and sustainable apparel manufacturing. Our industry is forward-thinking not backward-looking. This has senior-level involvement."

"The choice [to buy and source ethically] is already there," noted Mirchandani. "The question is how do we get there and who loses out - who makes less money? We don't want to be ethically unemployed.

"Alongside ethical manufacturing, there needs to be ethical buying too," he added. Buyers need to understand that delaying decisions, changing delivery dates all create conditions where ethical aspects come under pressure."

"Flexibility and a culture change on both the manufacturing and buying sides is required, noted Topshop's Stephen Mongan. "Businesses are not putting workers at the centre and some are making too much margin."

"As an industry we are hesitant to ask buyers, for fear of the relationship going sour," said one Sri Lankan manufacturer. "But if the relationship does go sour, it proves that the ethical manufacturing is not that important (to the brand/retailer)."

The question arose of how players in the industry could create conditions to ease the pressure on margins and develop the sustainable offer further. John Thackara, founder and director of The Doors of Perception, suggested manufacturers do business with small eco brands and be transparent in what they do. This would demonstrate the manufacturers' willing to become ethical.

Long-term partnerships are the key to successful relationships, argued Mongan. Sri Lankan manufacturers agreed: "The long-term view comes with a set of shared values, then you've established a partnership, relationship and strategy. If the values of the retailer and supplier are not the same, be prepared to make a stand and walk away."
Additionally, Sri Lanka also has an opportunity to build up its design credentials, noted LCF's Williams. "There is a strong design force coming through here, if you can offer something different then you won't be worried about a brand going down the road for 50 cents cheaper."