News analysis: Can ethical labelling be regulated?

Indira Das-Gupta

Ethical clothing is all the rage these days, but it's not so easy to enforce standards.

Forget puffball skirts - for the fashionista with a conscience, the only thing to be seen in this summer is a Fairtrade cotton t-shirt.

But although the Fairtrade label might guarantee that cotton farmers get a better price, there's no such guarantee for whoever actually put the t-shirt together.

In order to rectify this anomaly, the Fairtrade Foundation is planning to extend its standard to manufactured goods, such as clothes (Third Sector, 3 May).

It would be the first independent standard in the UK to ensure the price of a garment includes a fair price for manufacturers. However, plenty of clothing companies already claim to be ethical, despite the fact that there is no regulatory body to define what ethical should actually mean.

One such company is Edun, which was set up by Ali Hewson, better known as Mrs Bono, and claims to produce "socially conscious clothing". It is stocked in Selfridges and you can pick up one of this season's must-have trench coats for a mere £450.

Ceri Dingle, director of education charity Worldwrite, is sceptical about the real benefit to workers from clothing lines such as Edun.

She says: "I would prefer it if Ali Hewson said: 'Yes, I am going to make a lot of money out of this, but a slightly higher percentage of the price will go to the people who make the clothes'.

"This is not going to change lives - it's just a few pence more with a feelgood factor for the west. I find it quite revolting."

Living wage

Mick Duncan, secretary of anti-sweatshop campaigning group No Sweat, believes ethical credentials should not be judged solely on price.

"A truly ethical clothing company would pay its workers a living wage," he says. "There would be no forced overtime.

"Companies that claim to be ethical should be totally transparent about their working practices. People are not stupid - if you put the information in front of them, they will make their own decisions."

Although campaign groups agree on the need for greater regulation, some are sceptical about how effective the Fairtrade Foundation's new standard will be.

Martin Hearson, campaign co-ordinator for Labour Behind the Label, says: "It's not just certain factories that are the problem - it's the whole industry. Ethical clothing is just this year's fad, and stores such as Marks & Spencer are jumping on the bandwagon by stocking a few Fairtrade t-shirts to get campaigners off their backs. They are not addressing the meat of the problem."

Ruth Rosselson, a writer for Ethical Consumer magazine, agrees. "It is much harder with manufactured goods to ensure something is ethical because the supply chain might be very complicated and harder to regulate," she argues.

"It is possible to do this, but it takes time, money and effort. High street stores have got the money to invest, but there needs to be the will too."

Other charities have introduced consumer standards with varying degrees of success.

The Soil Association's widely trusted label can be found on 80 per cent of organic goods. But it has the advantage of being backed up by an EU regulation that enshrines the term 'organic' in law.

Robert Duxbury, certification director at the Soil Association, says: "We ensure that we retain consumer confidence by introducing additional standards when we feel existing regulations do not go far enough."

The Soil Association also awards the symbol to organically produced cotton, although this is not enshrined in law and, confusingly, is different from the Fairtrade symbol for cotton.

Social justice

"Cotton with the Fairtrade label could have been produced by farmers who use pesticides," says Duxberry. "Our standard also requires some level of social justice. It is easy to see how consumers could get confused, which is why we have been in talks with Fairtrade about the possibility of introducing a single standard that encompasses both issues."

The Vegetarian Society awards its label to food it deems suitable for vegetarians. Unlike the Soil Association, however, it doesn't have the law on its side.

Liz O'Neill, head of communications at the society, says: "There is nothing to stop a manufacturer putting a 'suitable for vegetarians' label on one of its products. But we are the only independently recognised standard.

"We would like to see some protection for vegetarians in law because at present they can buy food in good faith only to find out it isn't actually suitable for vegetarians."

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