Some of you will remember that I was here two years ago.
Thank you for inviting me back and thank you for giving me this platform to share my thoughts on the recurring and pressing issues in this industry.
Because there remain powerful global players with vested interests in the status quo. They would like us to believe that all is well in the supply chain, especially with the garment workers.
That is sadly not the case.
If you weren’t here, my heated (and somewhat colorful) exchange on living wage with brand representatives is preserved for posterity in The True Cost, Andrew Morgan’s powerful documentary on the impact of this industry.
Ideally, two years on, we would be looking at a reformed industry, wondering why we ever needed to debate essential rights.
Tragically, we remain very far from that position.
I return today to report that there has not been substantive progress in this industry.
I return to this platform again today, because we cannot and we must not draw a veil over the deaths of 1334 garment workers in Bangladesh. Especially when major brands move on across the world to Cambodia, to Myanmar and to Ethiopia, exporting the same model without systemic change.
That was not the agreement. That was not the intention. And that must not be the sum-total of our ambition.
So we find ourselves – as advertised – attending the world’s largest conference on sustainability and fashion. Sounds impressive doesn’t it?
But remember size and might do not equal systemic change. It takes much more than that.
So it is simply not enough for us to tick the box to say we came here and we listened politely.
That will leave us in the same position we are now…
Nearly three years ago, some of the biggest brands in the world committed to improving working conditions by signing the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Three years on, and despite growing profits and market share, some of those brands have still not made their strategic supply factories safe.
The sad fact is, this industry remains more comfortable picking low hanging fruit – by focusing on token “green” initiatives – than on dealing with human exploitation in the supply chain.
If you, in your heart, like me, believe this is not an acceptable position, I ask you to be more courageous.
And that starts with the elephant in the room…
Nothing – nothing – will ever change while fast fashion and its current business model stays as it is. That is, producing huge volumes of clothes, in incredibly fast cycles, very cheaply. That is, by continuing to addict US to an even crazier cycle of consumption, which is totally unsustainable in itself.
You are going to hear the word ‘sustainable’ countless times during this summit. So many times in fact that it could be in danger of becoming meaningless.
But the word ‘sustainable’ does mean something. It is enshrined as part of the sustainable development goals. And we must not forget this.
Sustainable Goal number 8 is “to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all”.
Now, I hear ‘development’ bandied around this industry almost as much as I hear the word ‘sustainable’, but let me tell you that the fast fashion version of development – and this is me being charitable – slightly lacks credibility. It is growth masquerading as development. And we should not be fooled by this.
Of course it’s not just Sustainable Development Goals that the global community has decided are fundamental to people and planet.
I would imagine that most of us here believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is, after all, one of the greatest international agreements ever achieved.
As Hannah Arendt put it, it enshrines the ‘right to rights’.
Let me read you some parts of Article 23.
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work.
Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work…. Ensuring for himself (and importantly, in this industry, herself) – and their families – an existence worthy of human dignity.
Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.
And how do you feel when you hear on the news that a nation state has violated the Declaration? I suspect, like me you feel sick to the stomach.
Because we do NOT buy the idea that these enshrined rights can be manipulated… or that there are special cases when it’s OK to ignore them.
Fashion – our industry – is certainly not a special case.
So I would ask you to view this industry through this lens.
When you do, it’s clear that we can only accept systemic change.
Through this lens, we can see real opportunity. Yes, this industry with its swirling supply chain and millions of contributors across the world is bursting with possibility.
I hardly need to stress this – when so many people here are familiar with sizing systems – but it’s not a one-size-fits-all opportunity like we’re often led to believe, especially by the mega-brands who are taking over our high streets.
It would be easier, it’s true, to accept the status quo, or to believe the growth-first model as a solution. But it is time to acknowledge that the current model – with a few band aids – cannot adequately deliver the change needed…
We must cut through that noise.
Because the impact, the pace, the volume and the economics pre-ordained by this current business model – will not get us to the point we want to get to: one where producers are in partnership with brands, rather than in servitude to them.
And in the interests of cutting through that noise – I have partnered with the Lawyer’s Circle, a powerful organization of lawyers, on a new initiative to establish legal accountability in this sector.
We will soon publish a study. A study that will set out the legal case for a living wage as a fundamental human right. A study that will explore the legal options for setting a global standard for a living wage.
For those in this industry – so many of you here – who are willing to be courageous I hope this study will give you the architecture for the change we dream of.
And for all of us – in civil society – it’s time for us to be active citizens and – active consumers. We can’t continue to demand change until we challenge the pace of thoughtless consumption which the fast fashion brands have dictated to us.
Next time we have this conversation, I believe it can be different.