Whilst Whistles, Fawcett and collaborators Elle investigate the claims of exploitation of low-paid, female migrant workers in the production of the t-shirts, here is the really pressing question: what do I do with mine?
I have shopped at Whistles, read Elle occassionally and I am a member and supporter of Fawcett so my many worlds came together in a t-shirt. I have a confession though. I don’t actually know where or how all the clothes that I buy are manufactured. I also confess to a small amount of self-congratulation when it is a happy coincidence that the garment I have chosen to buy is made from organic materials, or from the wool of happy sheep, or that some of its proceeds go towards something good. So I wouldn’t describe myself as the MOST ethical consumer in town, but neither do I have a wardrobe chock full of £1 t-shirts from brands-we-all-know-do-it-too-cheaply.
This isn’t a new campaign by the way. Fawcett have been merchandising the “This is what a Feminist looks like” t-shirts for a few years. I have got one of the old ones. I didn’t need a new one; I wanted to support the campaign. What is new is the collaboration with major fashion brands. Whistles was shrewd enough to spot a fashion moment, not for t-shirts per se, but for the rising popularity among their target consumers of claiming feminism as their own and gaining confidence in declaring it. The prospect of raising funds for Fawcett to continue to do what it does and to take an equality message to new places will have been motivation enough for the small UK charity to partner with the big brands.
Fawcett doesn’t own the feminist message and it doesn’t claim to. But it does own “This is what a Feminist looks like…” moniker which I think should be considered a brand in itself. Albeit one that now feels unlikely (without the considerable effort of the best branding brains) to reach its full global potential. It certainly won’t generate the sales if consumers with even a hint of a moral-compass guiding their purchasing decisions are as perplexed as I am about what to do.
It is possible that all three parties could have been hood-winked into believing the factory-owners assurances of compliance with ethical standards. This will all come out in the investigation that is going on now. In Fawcett’s statement the charity says it wanted ethical production in the UK. My guess is that it is perfectly possible to experience sharp-manufacturing practice in the UK, but perhaps Fawcett felt that the due diligence would be more straightforward and practices more auditable with a UK-based supplier. Nevertheless, once presented with what appears a fait accompli of Mauritian-based production, they did ask questions about ethical production and they did insist on assurances that standards would be complied with. They knew the reputational risk of not doing so. Whether the allegations are true or false, hypocritical or typical of the practices of big fashion brands, it feels like a small UK charity working for gender equality might have come off worse here.
Anyway, let’s not get confused. It is not feminism that is the issue here, which is what certain newspapers and commentators might have you think. The issue is the ethics and politics of 'charity' fashion production and how consumers don’t always purchase with their politics.
I think it probably makes me a hypocrite not to wear the t-shirt because of its questionable ethical provenance as this stance wouldn’t be entirely consistent with my own chequered purchasing history. But this particular purchasing decision of mine was with a purpose and intent. Not to wear the t-shirt feels like I am distancing myself from this branded feminist message that I was keen to support. Fawcett has said if the allegations prove true they will expect Whistles to withdraw the range from sale. Will waiting for the outcome of the investigation give me any more confidence in my judgement to wear or not to wear? It might do. In the meantime I might just wear my old one.