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Report: Asia - East Africa

Fashion industry gets socially responsible as shoppers slam sweatshops

A panel of an intricately crafted kantha mat
A panel of an intricately crafted kantha mat Shreeta Gidwani

It's the season of Fashion Week. Londoners are gearing up for front row seats this weekend, following New York’s glittering shows, and from mid-September it will be Milan’s turn. A growing number of ethical products are hitting the catwalk. Bags, clothes and accessories made by artisans in east Africa and Asia are increasingly supplying many of the industry's top fashion houses.

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They’re made with intricately woven patterns and simple running stitches, that can be traced back to the Buddhist era. Experts say handcrafted products like India’s centuries-old kantha could satisfy growing consumer demand for ethical fashion. A fashion that focuses not just on style but on social and environmental responsibility.

The industry has been under growing pressure to reform, after consumer complaints about the appalling conditions of workers in sweatshops. In April last year, more than 1,000 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed.

Many say that this was partly due to the attitudes of top retailers. "It’s just a ticking-box exercise for them," claims Elizabeth Maleki Raee, head of Ethical Programmes at London-based Supply Link. "They’re putting money into covering up issues of ethical behaviour within factories, or producing secondary books for auditors to just come and see and tick the box," she told RFI.

Although it’s common for retailers to use third parties to manufacture their goods, activists maintain that it’s still the responsibility of multi-million pound brands to properly investigate their third party contractors.

The aftermath of Rana Plaza saw the creation of The Accord alliance, geared towards improving fire and building safety regulations in Bangladesh. And many retailers and designers are today placing ethical fashion at the heart of their business strategy.

Simone Cipriani, head of the UN-backed Ethical Fashion Initiative, thinks it should be a core value of the fashion industry, to care about the future of humankind and the environment. “Being responsible means respecting all the criteria of fair labour, to ensure that labour is a sort of dignity and life, not a form of exploitation,” Cipriani told RFI.

The Ethical Fashion Initiative claims to connect skilled artisans in the developing world to some of the top fashion designers in the world like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, without coercing them to endure excessive overtime hours.

"We use fashion as a vehicle out of poverty, without compromising on fashion's desire to look good," he said.

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