Ways to make ethical choices when shopping for clothes

Written by Louise Hulland

Author Louise Hulland in conversation with the Slave Free Alliance for Stylist about modern slavery and ethically clothes shopping in 2020. 

I absolutely hate clothes shopping. Hate it. In store, I often find myself reduced to furious tears and panic-buying something I don’t really like. And online, I fall in love with dresses and jumpsuits and tell myself they will fit just perfectly, before the inevitable disappointment and predictable popping to the Post Office with a returns label.

Throw in the added confusion of wanting to make ethical purchases, to protect the environment and shop slavery free, and buying clothes becomes a complete nightmare.

Over the last ten years, I have been working on a book about human trafficking and modern slavery here in the UK. Many of us are aware that millions of people around the world are in slavery (an estimated 40 million, according to the International Labour Organisation) but I wonder how many of us can make the link between the nameless, faceless people on the other side of the world and our purchases? And how many of us are aware that the slavery we may associate with nations a world away, could actually be on our doorstep?

According to the Global Slavery Index, in data released in 2018, there were 136,000 modern day slaves in the UK “on any given day in 2016”. This is the number which has been accepted as the clearest indicator we have on the amount of people in slavery in Britain, a number which is hugely challenging to accurately determine due to the fact victims are hidden away and rarely self present as victims.In 2020, a study from think tank The Centre for Social Justice and charity Justice and Care, estimated the number at closer to 100,000.

And how does modern slavery present itself on our streets and our communities? Well, it could be anywhere. Pop up brothels, recycling centres, the hospitality industry, nail bars, cannabis farms and car washes are all places experts say people can be exploited in the UK.

Plus of course, factories. We know the horror of sweat shops globally, but an expose of working conditions in garment factories in Leicester during the Covid pandemic drew attention to the crime on our doorstep.

In my book, Stolen Lives, I was trepidatious about tackling the issue of supply chains – it’s such a huge area, how can we consumers know the provenance of our clothing, food, or gadgets (particularly complex when so many items are made up of numerous, individual parts).

I interviewed Susan Banister from the Slave Free Alliance, a membership initiative part of Hope for Justice, helping organisations work towards a slavery free supply chain, and she agreed to chat to me again, for Stylist, in order for me to establish how we can make ethical fashion choices, while sticking to our budget. 

I asked her how widespread she thinks labour exploitation is in factories around the UK. “Hope for Justice and Slave-Free Alliance know that labour exploitation is happening in different types of factories in the UK because of the cases we have been involved with; some of which amounts to modern-day slavery, when people have been tricked or forced into working in these circumstances and have their pay and living conditions controlled by a trafficker.

“Only last year, in Operation Fort, the case described in your book, it illustrates labour exploitation happening across different sectors. In Operation Fort, the largest anti-trafficking case in the UK, eight members of an organised crime network were convicted of trafficking vulnerable people from Poland putting them to work in various types of factories.

“Some factories are complicit in labour exploitation but many are not. We are looking at ways to address this situation in the garment industry in particular.”

From a consumer’s point of view – when we buy clothes, how can we possibly know the standards of the factories that made it? Susan admits it’s not easy for us to navigate.

“This is the difficulty for the consumer because often you don’t know where it is made. Most brands will have an ethical trade or sustainability team trying to address these issues. A good place to start is looking on a company website, check out their Modern Slavery Statement and Sustainability Report. This will indicate how much due diligence a company does when sourcing their products and how much monitoring they do once they have on-boarded a supplier.”

But there are resources which can help shoppers on a budget make informed choices, as Susan points out.

“There are other websites that can be helpful such as Fashion Revolution and the Ethical Consumer. These sites look at a number of areas which can indicate a business is trying to work ethically. Fashion Revolution has a caveat that it is not a shopping guide and isn’t to be used to determine if a brand is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. That site looks at how much social and environmental information is shared with a view to drive greater transparency. Greater transparency is a good start.”

One thing which has always bothered me as a shopper on a budget is whether the price point of a garment indicates its likelihood to have been made by exploited workers. Again, Susan clarifies that’s not necessarily the case. “Often price is used as a determining factor as to whether a garment is ethically made or not. Unfortunately it is not as black and white as that.

“The transparency of supply can sometimes be better at the low-cost fashion end because the focus is on them.”

Stolen Lives: Human Trafficking and Slavery in Britain Today by Louise Hulland (Sandstone Press, £11.99)

Images: all Unsplash

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