Topshop faces ethical consumer rebellion

By staff writers
February 27, 2008

Big-name, mass supply high street store Topshop is facing increasing criticism from its core customers, with students and young people protesting over charges about sweatshop conditions in the company's supply chain.

Topshop uses the slogan "we love students!", but students across Britain are planning peaceful protests at Topshop branches on Saturday 1 March 2008.

They are backing the Redress Fashion campaign run by People & Planet, Britain's largest student network concerned with human rights, global poverty and the environment. 'Redress Fashion' has also won the support of trade minister Gareth Thomas MP.

Topshop's embarrassment became clear last week, when the company pulled out of a Fairtrade discussion in Oxford for fear of student criticism. Topshop forms part of the Arcadia Group, whose owner Philip Green has refused to sign up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

Sarah Waldron, People & Planet campaigns officer, said: "The Arcadia Group is the biggest high street retailer not to sign up to the Ethical Trading Initiative. Time and again, Philip Green's business has been associated with unacceptable working conditions. If he wants to continue to attract students through the doors of Topshop, Philip Green must drag his company into the twenty-first century and change his business ethics."

Rebecca Jones, costume student at Rose Burford College in London, added: "Young people love shopping and fashion but the big retailers like Topshop are hiding the true sources of their clothes. They blind us with celebrity collaborations and 'must-haves' which make us lose sight of what is truly valuable - human lives."

The protest comes as support for ethically conscious production, trading and sales grows in Britain and across the world.

Sales of Fairtrade marked goods in Britain increased to £493 million in 2007, an 81 per cent increae on 2006. Bananas are the most popular product, going up 150 per cent to £130 million.

The Fairtrade Foundation says that the number of fair trade goods sold in the UK has doubled in a little over two years.

Campaigners say that there is a long way to go, but ethical sourcing is more than just a scratch on the surface of an unfair global economic system.

They dismiss charges by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute that fair trade is simply a "marketing ploy".

Simon Barrow of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which actively backs Fair Trade initiatives as part of its work in exploring alternative economic and social policies, said that the just trade movement was "a giant step forward over the past decade."

"Only a few years ago Fair Trade goods were mostly sold by churches and voluntary groups. Now they have got into the mass market. This has some problems, as the fundamental critique of a grossly unequal global economic system, implied by the very concept of fair and unfair practices, may be diluted. But it is an important wedge for justice, and materially benefits some producers who would otherwise be in a much worse situation."

Barrow added: "Of course the Adam Smith Institute and other wealthy advocates of untrammeled 'free trade' have been quick to use Fairtrade Fortnight as an opportunity to spread their cynicism, claiming that fair trade can damage developing world farmers by distorting market conditions."

He continued: "They say that 90 per cent of producers are excluded from this growing sector. But the answer is to change the system, not blame those seeking to do so. Freedom without fairness is a fallacy."

Ekklesia points out that the fair trade movement has grown into a major political and economic force as a result of the pioneering work of Christians alongside others, working "from the ground up" and bringing companies and politicians on board through persuasion and pressure.

Barrow said: "It shows that individuals and small groups can make a real difference. But it is important to remember that fair trade goods are just part of the equation: we also need fair finance, fair tax, fair jobs, fair aid, fair investment, a break on the unsustainable debt system and fair capital. Markets should serve people, not the other way round."

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.