Who are the real fashion victims of London Fashion Week?

February 20, 2015 by Mark Dunn

You won't find many articles on human trafficking when the 61st London Fashion Week opens its doors today. The media will undoubtedly be focusing on heat-reactive handbags, millinery and the latest in couture creations. But while the catwalk shows paint the glitzy face of the multi-billion dollar apparel industry, ethical sourcing remains fundamentally linked to the brand - and to the business - of fashion.

fashion week

Forced labour in the Supply Chain

It is a little known fact that over 200,000 young women and girls are trafficked to work in the cotton industry in the Tamil Nadu region of India.  Female workers, mainly aged 14 to 23 years old, are recruited with false promises of a good job and a lump sum payment under the guise of an 'apprenticeship' scheme called Sumangali. Once recruited, they are essentially trapped within a factory for up to five years.

The cotton is spun, dyed and woven in these factories to be sold to consumer markets all over the world. It is likely to be found in most of our favourite shops and labels. It is likely to be in cotton garments in our wardrobes and drawers.

cotton paper'Dressed to Kill', a report published jointly by LexisNexis and non-governmental organisation, STOP THE TRAFFIK, shone the spotlight on the issue of forced labour within cotton production.

According to Ruth Dearnley, CEO of STOP THE TRAFFIK, fabric made by trafficked young women and girls may be in the clothes we wear today. However, with the complexities of the modern supply chain, the multiple levels of outsourcing and subcontracting, and the huge number of people 'touching' a single garment, many fashion retailers and labels simply do not know who makes the clothes they sell.

While consumers have a role to play, STOP THE TRAFFIK believes the global brands that dominate the world of fashion are best placed to use their power and influence to ensure garments are ethically sourced and made.

If the brand and moral imperatives are not enough for fashion to get its houses in order, then increasingly onerous legal implications may be – as Thomas Firestone and Lina A Braude highlight in their recent Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) blog looking at the five risks for Fashion Week 2015.

The United States' Department of Justice (DoJ) has legal devices that allow for the prosecution of companies that knowingly profit from forced labour. Similarly, the United Kingdom's Modern Slavery Bill is set for a line-by-line examination in Parliament on 23 February – at the same time as the models are walking the boards less than a mile away at London Fashion Week's Somerset House venue.

After months of political debate on the Modern Slavery Bill, all parties in Government are very close to an incredible achievement. You can follow the progress of the Modern Slavery Bill here.

Ultimately, addressing worker safety and eliminating human trafficking and forced labour within the apparel supply chain requires a detailed analysis of potential risks, complete transparency and fundamental due diligence on all suppliers and their extended networks.

This task demands a high level of insight throughout the chain. While it is a complex challenge, failure to act can have wide ranging consequences – not least for the millions of workers (and forced workers) across the world who suffer to make us look good.

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