The market for ethically sourced garments is here to stay. The last decade has seen a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes towards ethical trading and recent research suggests that, despite the economic downturn, UK shoppers are still demanding responsibly sourced fashion. Of course, now more than ever, retailers must juggle sourcing ethically alongside securing value for money. To do this, brands and retailers across the fashion industry are increasingly turning to the latest technology in order to gain greater visibility and control throughout their supply chain.


A Growing Issue


Socially responsible trading became a growing issue during the 1990s when companies with global supply chains- particularly those in the clothing and food industries- were coming under rising pressure form consumer groups, governments and trade unions to ensure decent working conditions for those producing their goods. Since then numerous media campaigns highlighting the poor working conditions in factories and farms in developing countries have been behind the drive for fair trade and ethically sourced products. More recently, growing environmental concern has also increased consumer awareness for sustainable sourcing, with many now opting for clothing made from organic cotton, hemp or other low-impact raw materials and garments designed to be washed at lower temperatures.


As a result, ethical sourcing is now part of the corporate responsibility agenda of most major organisations. Many corporate investment companies today screen their ventures according to a range of social and environmental criteria, including an organisation's efforts to secure adequate labour conditions in their supply chain, and retailers are increasingly implementing corporate codes of practice to ensure that the working conditions of those producing their goods meet or exceed international labour standards. What's more, ever increasing customer demand for responsibly sourced items means this aspect of supply chain management is gradually descending from niche to mainstream.


Demand Despite the Credit Crunch?


Although this shift in consumer attitudes coincided with a period of easy credit and a booming economy- and was no doubt aided by this climate- the myriad of other contributing factors means that consumer demand for responsibly sourced goods is a reality that is unlikely to dissolve in the current economic downturn. "The democratisation of information, for example, brought with it the realisation that the choices we make as consumers have an impact," says Sally Reynolds, Marketing Manager for Syscom, www.syscom.plc.uk, "and this has not changed." Indeed recent research suggests that, despite the credit crunch, 60% of UK consumers think it is right or fair for retailers to remove non-sustainable products from their shelves and 45% are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.[1] Similarly, New Look's Chairman, Phil Wrigley, said in a recent Drapers article that he believes ethical trading is on customers' agenda and will become even more of an issue in future. It seems that values are still up there with value in the mix of factors driving that all important purchase-decision.


The Importance of Ethical Sourcing


With this demand, savvy retailers and businesses are increasingly realising that a reputation for fairness is invaluable. "It isn't just a question of wanting to behave responsibly," says Sally. "Retailers who are sourcing ethically are making informed judgments about what their customers want." For example, Primark's rating in consumer polls fell dramatically in the wake of BBC Panorama's damning expos in June 2008, which revealed that some of Primark's suppliers were using child labour. Indeed a survey conducted for Drapers following the programme revealed that 44% of Primark shoppers were likely to switch to another chain.[2] In contrast, Marks & Spencer was rated highly due to their 'Plan A' initiative, which included carrying out lifecycle assessments on their clothing and setting up a clothes recycling scheme with Oxfam. "The fact that Primark changed suppliers and created a website promoting its ethical trading record in response to the child labour allegations emphasises just how important it is for companies to be able to show their customers that they are sourcing responsibly," says Sally.