Creating responsible value? Panel session on policies and possibilities of change

1:30- 3:00 p.m.

Since the disaster of Rana Plaza, consensus has grown that the fashion system needs to change. But how exactly, to what extent and under whose leadership? Characterized by ever faster temporal rhythms and growing spatial interconnectedness, the circuits of fashion production and consumption pose a challenge to attempts at change


Vera Baumann | Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

Laura Ceresna-Chaturvedi | Clean Clothes Campaign

Sarah Ditty | Fashion Revolution

Julien Labad | EDUN

Doug Miller | emeritus University of Northumbria, UK

Rana Plaza may well be the 9/11 of fashion. For debates surrounding the need for policy interventions in the global fashion industry there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Since the catastrophe a variety of initiatives were born to improve matters. They involve clothing retailers, governments, labour unions and international organizations. Policy efforts follow two main objectives: Formulating and enforcing standards throughout global fashion value chains, and fostering transparency to consumers who, it is assumed, have a preference for wearing fair and sustainable clothing. Yet, more profound critics of the fashion system argue for a fundamental break with the ways in which we produce and consume fashion. In a spirit of appreciating the full spectrum of activities to foster fairness and responsibility in fashion, we ask panellists to critically reflect not only on the state of policy, but also on the ways in which the problem has been framed so far. We would like to raise three major questions for discussion.

What, where and when is the problem?

The dramatic images of a collapsed factory building rouse the temptation to locate the problem in an all too easy way: Lacking standards in textile-producing countries like Bangladesh, it seems, are the problem. Consumers, governments and companies in more affluent, ‘consumer’ countries are called to assume responsibility for the consequences of their activities, that is, to make ethical choices and help to establish international frameworks. But goods and consumers are increasingly mobile. Sweat shops employing immigrants are increasingly evident in Europe too. After their initial usage, clothes begin their journey as waste, second-hand goods or re/upcycled products while the ecological impacts of textile production carry far into the future. Times and places are linked across distance (yet kept neatly apart) by a set of business models which maximize circulation in the name of revenue generation. So, how do we identify and define the scope for possible policies?

How much change is possible within the existent fashion system?

The case can be made that the problems of the fashion industries (and other consumer goods industries) are built into the system. The current market structure in textile production – making use of subcontractors operating under fierce price competition – responds to the practical necessities of competing in ever shorter seasons and fashion cycles. This modus leaves workers vulnerable and at the same time (conveniently) precludes fashion companies from having full knowledge of their supply chains. Consumers, on the other hand, are socialized into a culture of high-frequency trend consumption as the dominant form of social participation. Cheap fast fashion is therefore almost a social service in consuming societies. The dazzling multitude of ‘eco-fair’ brandings blend easily with other fuzzy meanings upon which brand positions are built, lending them a green or social touch. Meanwhile, large holdings like the Kering Group treat ‘ethical’ brands as distinction-based assets and blend them with ‘conventional’ brands in their portfolios. Finally, even charity organizations rely on the steady stream of discarded fast fashion items for their revenue generation. Counter-movements like ‘slow fashion’ therefore indeed appear revolutionary in their ambition to establish a fundamentally different notion of value. Is revolution or evolution the way to go?

State, industry or consumer – who will pick future standards and enforce them?

Despite paying lip service to ethics and responsibility, consumers evidently do not make choices against their own financial interest. In the consumption context, each form of being alternative, green or ethical is performed as an experience of value in order to legitimize a higher price. Consumers are overwhelmed by a huge variety of ethical claims, ranging from fair to sustainable, from recycled to vegan. The congruence between these metrics is near impossible to fathom, even for experts. Which values will take precedence in efforts to change the fashion system? Who will make these choices? And who will follow them through?

Creating responsible value? Panel session on policies and possibilities of change