collaborating for changeI headed off once again to the Amnesty International HQ in London for the annual Ethical Consumer Magazine conference which took place on Friday 30th September – this year entitled ‘Collaborating for Change’.  The goal of the conference was to explore ‘How consumers, businesses, campaigners and governments can work together to advance ethical markets’.  This seemed a particularly vital area to explore in our current political and economic climate, so I was looking forward to hearing the speakers, taking part in workshops and networking with other brands, organisations and consumers.

The opening session was hosted by Rob Harrison, one of the founders of Ethical Consumer Magazine, and now Editor.  Rob had the unenviable job of setting the scene, moving from the conclusions of last year’s conference on how to mainstream ethical consumption, to the alternative possible futures we have before us today.  As the UK is currently defining its post-Brexit strategy there is a lot of uncertainty but Rob was able to take us through a number of possible scenarios linked to the theme of collaboration – the most positive being a future in which consumers, campaigners and companies work together (sometimes with government support) to push ethical consumerism forward.  Describing the current May government as ‘hostile to ethical interventions’ he discussed how we could work instead with local governments, governments from other countries and even some of the large corporations that we are often in disagreement with, in order to push the ethical agenda forward.

fair-tax-2016 collaborating for changeThe next session, a panel session, ran under the theme ‘collaborating on ethical purchasing by government and local authorities’ and the panellists were Paul Monaghan from the Fair Tax Mark, John Hilary from War on Want and Dani Paffard from 350.org.  Paul Monaghan focussed on tax avoidance, describing it eloquently as ‘The talk of the town’ – referring to the high profile tax avoidance by major brands such as Starbucks.  He outlined the Fair Tax Mark and showed us who has already committed to it (see slide).  John Hilary talked about local government procurement and how choices to boycott certain countries and organisations (Palestine an area of focus here) have been overruled by central government.    Dani Paffard talked about Carbon Divestment and urged us to deliberately choose to put our money with organisations that don’t support fossil fuels.  Fundamentally this session focused on conscious choice in procurement by local government, business and by us as consumers.  The growth in organisations (especially co-operatives but not solely) in signing up to the Fair Tax mark was seen as a huge positive but central government overriding ethical procurement choices by local governments was a definite area for concern.

After a break we moved into workshops. I chose to go to the session entitled ‘Setting Minimum Standards’ which was hosted by Fashion Revolution’s Sarah Ditty, and we had a wonderfully interactive debate on transparency in clothing supply chains, Fairtrade and how we as consumers can find out which are the most ethical brands.  There was an amusing discussion as to why there is a perception amongst fashion consumers that ethical clothing is about as stylish as a hemp sack, which led to reflection on why H&M’s ethical range may not be quite as bright and exciting as other clothes in their range!

After a delicious buffet lunch made up of sandwiches and fresh fruit we headed back to the auditorium for a session called ‘Collaborating on transparency and disclosure’.  The first speaker was Colleen Theron, a sustainability lawyer, who outlined the Modern Slavery Act and it’s impacts.  This act is something close to our hearts at Where Does It Come From? as it requires all businesses over a certain size (turnover of £36million) to make a statement regarding any slavery in their supply chain.  The main upshot of this is that businesses need to have a clear understanding of their supply chain before they can make such a statement, and this clarity can only be a good thing.

fashion revolution collaborating for changeNathaniel Dyer of Global Witness then talked about conflict minerals and how to ensure traceability so that well known brands are not selling them unknowingly to consumers.  Sarah Ditty covered the Fashion Revolution message (right) which, as any of you who follow my blogs regularly will know, is something I feel extremely strongly about.  The whole culture of fast fashion MUST change as it is having such a detrimental effect on garment makers, our planet and even ourselves as consumers.

Fiona Gooch, Senior Policy Advisor at Traidcraft gave an impassioned talk on why its so important to campaign for justice in trade.  She explained how power is completely bottle-necked with the supermarkets who get to control the majority consumer-bottleneck-2016 collaborating for changeof buying decisions and force all the risk onto producers (see left).   It certainly makes you think doesn’t it? Finally Jenny Carlyle of Suma Food Co-operative then gave an overview of some of the issues involved in sourcing food ethically and transparently.  Interestingly Suma is a worker owned co-operative and everyone in Suma is paid the same, from the boss to the packagers – and apparently it works!

The next session was our keynote speaker, Marilyn Croser of CORE Coalition who spoke about how we can hold companies to account.  CORE and its partners work to ensure legislation is in force and upheld that protects human rights and the environment from corporate abuse.  Marilyn opened by reminding us that although we can often feel that companies are constantly making profits on the backs of workers and the planet, there are some good news stories such as the recent legal challenges and victories over companies such as Sports Direct and Apple. However global companies currently have massive and growing power and governments are reluctant to antagonise these corporations for fear of being seen as anti-business and also of losing investment.  In 2015 185 environmental defenders were murdered for standing up against corporations.  Marilyn expressed concern over the likely effects of Brexit – fearing that it might lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ on human rights and environmental issues.  Marilyn closed by paying tribute to Ethical Consumer and to us as ethical consumers for continuing to question and boycott companies that continue to effect these abuses and urged us to continue to take positive action.

brexit-panel-sessionIt’s fair to say that although this was a conference about consumerism, the theme of collaboration coupled with our current political situation ensured that politics and government policy was a subject often returned to.  The final session was a panel discussion on Brexit asking ‘Where next for Ethical Consumerism in the UK?’.  The panellists were Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party (which ensured a political emphasis!), Michelle Thew, CEO of Cruelty Free International, Marilyn Croser of CORE, Constance Laisne, co-founder of Altgen and Matt Grady, Policy and Advocacy Adviser at Traidcraft.

We had sent in questions in advance which were then presented to the panel.  These were mainly related to how Fairtrade and environmental standards were to be enhanced and upheld post-Brexit.  Interestingly Michelle Thew had found that her support base of animal lovers came from across the political spectrum so her main focus was to work to lobby any governing body.  For the other panellists there was a clear view that our current government would need to be pushed hard to uphold and enhance support for their areas of the environment, corporate abuse prevention, support for young and freelance workers and Fairtrade.  Jonathan Bartley, being a politician and a talented speaker, was very vocal in his calls for a change in government and was generally supported by the audience by a round of applause!

fashion revolution The networking was enjoyable too and I had lots of chat with many people including Kathryn and Joanna from BAFTS (The British Association of Fairtrade Shops and Suppliers), the ladies from Paramo outside wear, Sarah Ditty from Fashion Revolution plus many others.networking with bafts

If you’ve enjoyed this and want to know more then as luck would have it the marvellous people at Ethical Consumer have recorded everything so you can listen to all the speeches and discussions by clicking this link!  http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/aboutus/conference2016.aspx