M&S were supposed to be one of the good guys. Yet the other day they were exposed in a slavery scandal that will have left many wondering who they can and can’t trust. To help you find your way through the ethical minefield is Catherine Chapman from the Bon Ton Times who explores four ethical fashion brands who are making a difference.
In a globalised market place driven by profit and shareholder models it often feels like there is little opportunity for those at the end of the food chain to get a bite of the apple. But fortunately there are business owners out there bringing ethical practice to the heart of their organisations by making solid commitments to give something back. They take responsibility for the circumstances of their local suppliers and the environment we share.
And these aren’t CSR programmes. As beneficial and commendable as such programmes can be, the level of commitment and resources made available by an organisation is at the mercy of any change, be it a leadership move or profit scare.
These businesses are different; they have pledged actions or part of their profit to the greater good and embedded this into the very fabric of operations. To make a positive impact is part of the brand.
Set up by two friends in 2008, Sweet Notions was born from a shared desire to create a business that, in their own words, ‘focused on more than just the bottom line’. The founders travel around jewellery fairs and boutiques to find unwanted accessories to upcycle, breathing new life into broken or unworn items before selling on. Part of the profit is used here in London, where Sweet Notions has started a jewellery making workshop at a women’s homeless hostel.
Watch the Sweet Notions video
NV London Calcutta
This luxurious handbag and accessories label is another example of a bone fide business with a social conscience, applying fair trade standards to its handbag production chain. Founder Naomi Cornelius-Reid knows firsthand how daunting it can feel making a commitment to set up an ethically responsible, sustainable company. For her, the difficult issue of worker rights is at the heart of ‘ethical’ production – yet this is arguably one of the hardest areas to monitor. She has shown, however, that these hurdles can be tackled successfully. Her approach is simple; stick to one manufacturer, which in the case of NV London Calcutta is based in India, take time to get to know the entire team that works on your products there and do your research into their suppliers so that you can be comfortable in making ethical claims. “I make a point of returning to see these people at least once a year and spending the bulk of my time with them, even when the business meetings are done” says Naomi.
In the UK, Brazil and Africa the Bottletop Foundation uses money generated through contemporary art, music and individual supporters for education projects that empower young people. Through its fashion arm, which creates beautiful bags made from recycled materials, the organisation supports over 40 staff in Brazil and sets out to provide holistic, community-oriented support that goes beyond a fair wage. Initiatives for workers include reducing the risk of repetitive strain injury through weekly physiotherapy classes, medical cover, pensions and benefits.
Oliver Wayman, co-founder says “It really originates from wanting to make a sustainable social impact to the community where the project is based. We didn’t have grand plans; we just wanted to make beautiful products in the community. Fortunately for us the products have had a great reaction and we have managed to expand the team and employ more workers…It is incredibly fulfilling to see the impact it is having and every visit to the project is a humbling experience.”
Ms Wanda’s Wardrobe
This very website also offers another model to inspire with 100% of proceeds from shop.mswandas.co.uk invested in providing the consumers with motivational ideas and campaigns that aim to clean up fashion.
What is most heartening is that these are just the tip of the iceberg. These companies show that the social enterprise approach to business can work, leading to highly covetable award-wins, praise, awareness and, critically, sales. The more profit they can make, the bigger the impact. They just need you, the consumer, to continue shopping with an eye to ethical awareness.
Catherine Chapman is the founder of www.bontontimes.com, an online platform to showcase the latest news, reviews and success stories in ethically-minded business, championing the brands and names to watch. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Sweet Notions