In the past two months, the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the second-floor failure of the shoe factory in Cambodia, and most recently, the fire in the Chinese poultry plant have resulted in the deaths of some 1,500 workers in the developing world.
In China alone, more than 100,000 people die annually in factories. These numbers are raising difficult questions among European and American consumers who have become accustomed to goods being manufactured abroad.
How much do we know about where things are made? Are the people who make them working in safe conditions? Have the materials used to make the goods been responsibly sourced? Am I supporting companies with something to hide? Last month, online fashion retailer Asos had to withdraw a batch of metal-studded belts after they were found to be radioactive.
Shoppers are becomingly increasingly concerned and are actively looking for alternatives. As a result, a new generation of companies are emerging to sate a growing demand for ‘conscious consumerism.’ These brands and products are aiming to be more transparent by revealing supply chain data, where its products are made and the conditions inside the places they are made.
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The food and drink industries were early adopters in this sphere, with organic and ‘Fairtrade’ labels designed to communicate to customers that their goods have been ethically produced. These ideals are now spreading into other industries.
Leading the charge in fashion is HonestBy, founded by former Hugo Boss designer Bruno Pieters. His e-store reveals the complete supply chain, including the cost of every component and the price paid for labour skills. There’s a strict no leather, fur, shell or horn products policy, and every item on the site has been thoroughly researched to ensure its environmental impact is minimal.
Baacode is a unique service offered by Icebreaker clothing to allow customers to see the living conditions of the high country sheep that produced the merino fibre that goes into making its garments. And Patagonia has its ‘Footprint Chronicles,’ which provide in-depth details of its practices — from the locations of its factories to the gender of its workforce.
Provenance, the company I co-founded with technologist Jessi Baker, is connecting makers of everything from furniture to fashion with consumers through an online platform that allows users to search for goods by location and material. Our vision is to create an Amazon-style marketplace full of honest products.
But it’s not just new brands identifying a shift in consumer habits. Nike recently partnered with Bluesign Technologies in an effort to use more sustainable materials and chemicals in its products. And last summer UK fashion brand TopShop unveiled a ‘Made in Britain’ collection — which sold out in a day.
The US government has also waded in to the debate, passing the ‘Transparency in Supply Chains Act’ which forces all large retailers and manufacturers to publicly disclose how they are actively trying to eliminate slavery and human trafficking in supply chains.
These new companies, along with new government legislation, have led to a boon in the ethical consumption market. In the UK alone (the world's biggest market for goods and services sustainably or ethically sourced), the ethical consumer market was worth £50 billion in 2011 and will grow to £70 billion by 2016. Compare that with the UK's current economic growth forecast — just 1.5 per cent this year — and it becomes clear that consumers are prepared to pay more for products, even in times of austerity.
The impact of conscious consumerism has far-reaching consequences for brands choosing to ignore it. By offering consumers a choice between a product or service that has nothing to hide and one with a shady past, they now have the opportunity to vote with their wallets for companies that value honesty.
The age of long supply chains is far from over, but with the rise of conscious consumerism, there is now a viable alternative that doesn't involve the needless loss of life.