The readymade garment (RMG) sector of Bangladesh has made universally applauded advances in the fields of ethical and sustainable manufacturing practices, with huge investments being made in the sector to improve working conditions and environmental standards. But, are the vast improvements that have been made being fully appreciated by the end-consumers and are those consumers willing to pay for ethically produced fashion products?
Following the tragic events of the Rana Plaza disaster, there has quite rightly been huge international focus on the compliance and ethical credentials of manufacturers working in the nation’s apparel sector, with the Bangladesh RMG industry now subject to scrutiny regarding all aspects of health and safety in the workplace as well as guaranteeing that ethical and environmental standards are maintained. Initiatives that were implemented since that fateful day have ensured that all standards within the Bangladesh RMG sector have greatly improved and the country now has some of the highest rated LEED factories in the world, manufacturing product that meets global ethical and social compliance standards.
Are these endeavours to improve our industry being acknowledged, not just by the buyers and brands that purchase our products, but by their customers, the end consumer? Evidence suggests that consumers are becoming more aware of their environmental impact and strive to lead a more sustainable and environmentally aware lifestyle—but who are these consumers and are they willing to pay more for ethically sourced apparel?
There are growing numbers of consumers in Europe and the US (the RMG sectors key export markets) who consciously strive to reduce their carbon footprint by supporting sustainable agriculture and ethical fashion brands, buying organic products and choosing alternative transport rather than driving their own cars. These consumers are concerned about the rights of workers and their safety, living wages and health and the social and environmental impacts of the product they purchase. What is changing this attitude is the viewpoint of the millennial generation (those consumers in their 20’s-early 30’s who are more aware than their parents of the benefits of ethically and sustainably sourced products and, when surveyed are more willing to pay for them.
Retailers and brands have to provide what their consumers want, but what is increasingly more important is that they also educate their consumer regarding the ethical and sustainable business that they are developing. A survey conducted by the Fairtrade Foundation found that ’82 percent of UK teenagers think companies need to act more responsibly, while just 45 percent said they trust businesses to do so’. Obviously more work is required by our trading partners to communicate all the ethical and sustainable initiatives that have been invested in by the RMG business in Bangladesh to these millennial consumers who, in the large part constitute their target audience.
In the past, the thought of who produced your garments and under what conditions never crossed the consumer’s mind and was merely a secondary concern after price and style. Things are very different today, and the millennial generation has a lot to do with it. They’ve grown up understanding the current state of our environment and desperate need for sustainable and ethically sourced products and are more willing to pay for it than former generations.
A survey conducted on 1,000 UK customers and their views on leading clothing retailers by Morgan Stanley Research found that even though price and quality concerns continue to rank the highest, ethical concerns have gained importance, specifically with the younger consumer demographic. Fifty-one percent of respondents stated that ethical credentials of apparel retailers are somewhat important to very important while only 13 percent stated that they are somewhat unimportant to not important at all. The survey also found that younger consumers are more concerned about ethics when shopping as 58 percent of 16-24 year olds stated that ethical credentials are very or somewhat important while 49 percent of people aged 55 or older viewed ethical credentials as somewhat unimportant or not important at all. One can see that this number rises with age.
However, Steve Polski, the senior director of supply chains and sustainability at Cargill, a US company specialising in bringing sustainable foodstuffs to consumers, has found that “even though consumers demand sustainable products and services, they are often unwilling to pay a premium for them”. He also states that it is clear that consumers care about brand’s sustainability efforts, but they generally won’t pay more for the products and would instead reward the brand with customer loyalty. This suggests to me that the onus weighs heavily on the brand—through their efforts to source more ethical, sustainable product they can be rewarded with greater customer loyalty, thus increasing sales, whilst at the same time applying pricing pressure on the manufacturers so that the costs inherent with these ethical, sustainable practices is borne at source. Should the brands not consider that, to achieve a truly sustainable, ethical sourcing process they share the burden of the cost implications, possibly even absorbing some of the costs as part of their marketing budgets—after all, increased brand loyalty is what the majority of brands and retailers aspire to with the advertising that they pay for annually?
In another example, co-author of, “The Myth of the Ethical Consumer,” Professor Timothy Devinney argues that there is a belief that our purchasing behaviour is driven by our values, but that in reality, factors such as price, quality and value override our core values in the end. He goes as far as saying that conscience-driven shopping does not exist and that there is a disconnect between the values people express and the actual buying of ethical products in the market.
There is also the simple issue of economics that must not be ignored. A vast customer base exists both in Europe and the US who, quite simply, cannot afford to put ethical concerns to the forefront of their purchasing decisions. For those on limited household income, the priority when making a purchase is price, with quality a close second and ethical sourcing far lower down the scale of concern. It is not that this sector of society does not care it is, simply, that they cannot afford to! Thus, it is the premise of the lower middle class and above sectors of society that appreciate and support ethical product who should be encouraged to change their buying habits sooner.
Changing the buying habits of the end-consumer is a duty that needs to be embraced by the brands and retailers that Bangladesh trades with. It should be their responsibility to communicate with their customers and detail the steps that they are taking to produce ethically sourced product and, where necessary, detailing the impact that this has on goods in-store.