True industry-wide reform in fashion starts at the top. In recent years, consumers have become more aware of the problems in the supply chain, bringing ethical and sustainable concerns to the forefront. But it’s up to brands and policy-makers to set better practices into motion.
Few understand this mission more than Lola Young, an independent Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords known as Baroness Young of Hornsey.
Taking an interest in ethical fashion and government policy, Young zeroed in on fashion manufacturing supply chains — and what she found was worrisome. “Of course, I’ve seen the old report here and there about problems in supply chains,” says Young. “But I didn’t know the whole story. I was quite shocked and amazed to find out all the different things that go on.”
Through her research, Young became acquainted with the dark reality of forced labor, an illegal and unethical practice in which workers are employed against their will. According to a 2018 report from KnowTheChain, 28 of 43 companies examined received scores below 50/100 in addressing the risk of forced labor in supply chains — with 10 companies scoring below 10/100.
“It was very important to have that discussion with friends and colleagues in the sector initially,” she explains. “Then I started to think about what can we do in regard to legislation?”
In 2009 — around the same time Young was gaining interest in legislation surrounding the issue of forced labor — she began to explore the idea of setting up a group in Parliament called Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion.
“I didn’t put the two things together [at first], but [then] I began to think, ‘Well, wait a minute — there’s a way of tying these two seemingly different areas together,” says Young. Her group began their work to combat exploitative labor in supply chains, but their “breakthrough” wouldn’t come until later — spurred on by an inconceivable tragedy.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed due to faulty equipment and the poor structural integrity of the building, killing over eleven hundred (mostly female) garment workers. The devastating event brought national attention to the injustice within the world of fashion manufacturing — and exposed a piece of disturbing information to Young.
“It was revealed then that several of our High Street brands were having their clothes made in that factory,” explains Young.
The revelation was both “shocking and shameful,” according to Young, bringing this once-far away crisis straight to her own backyard. “This idea that somehow we weren’t connected to events that were happening thousands of miles away was shattered,” she says. “At that moment a lot of people came together and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do something to stop this from happening again.’”
That drive to take action paved the way for Young’s group to introduce the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, an Act of Parliament dedicated to fighting the practice of forced labor. Under this act, businesses operating in the United Kingdom are required to publish a statement of transparency, describing the steps they’ve taken to rid their supply chains of modern slavery and human trafficking.
Young defines modern slavery as an “umbrella term,” ecompassing many extreme forms of enslavement wherein a person’s freedom is taking away due to coercion, violence or abuse of power. According to Anti-Slavery International, modern slavery is “less about people literally owning other people – although that still exists – but more about being exploited and completely controlled by someone else.
“A major part of that bill, [especially] for me and colleagues who have been fighting this issue for many years, [concerned] transparency in supply chains,” says Young. “That was a wake up call to businesses not just in the fashion industry, but across the sectors. To say, ‘You, the business, are responsible for what happens in your supply chain, and you’ve got to report to us on that.’ That was a huge moment in terms of legislation and bringing together this whole issue about forced labor.”
The bill was instrumental in making businesses take responsibility for their actions, but Young feels that they’re not the only ones that need to combat the ethical issues facing the modern fashion production industry.
“At the end of the day, everybody has a responsibility, but depending on your position — and the amount of power, influence and indeed wealth you have — it [influences] how much you can do,” she explains. “For those consumers who have more disposable income, they can afford to be much more picky about where they shop.”
Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay extra for sustainably-produced clothing, and ethically conscious brands like Public School and Eileen Fisher have met the demand, encouraging young designers to focus on sustainability. And civil society organizations, such as AntiSlavery, continue to pressure for change alongside consumers and ethically conscious brands.
However, Young feels that the bulk of responsibility should be placed on the shoulders of businesses and governments, encouraging change from a structural standpoint.
“Look at your business models and think about it in terms of people, planet and profit,” says Young. “You have to regard the impact of what you do and how you do it — the impact it has on people, the environment and your bottom line.”