Striving for an Ethical World – an event commemorating the publication of “Why is fast fashion so cheap?”
Left to right: Ms Rika Sueyoshi, Ms Natsuko Shiraki, and Ms Yoshiko Yoshida
On July 5th, 2016, Human Rights Now (HRN) held a discussion event to debate how we can tackle the current trend of “fast fashion” in the world. We invited Ms. Rika Sueyoshi, a founder of Ethical Association (General Incorporated Association), and Ms. Natsuko Shiraki, CEO of HASUNA, an ethical jewelry brand.
While some people may enjoy purchasing and wearing cheap and stylish “fast fashion”, many people are deprived of their future by being forced to work for extremely low wages. Ms. Kazuko Ito, Secretary General of HRN, discusses these issues in her book “Why is fast fashion so cheap?”. On July 5 2016, HRN held a discussion titled “Striving for an Ethical World” commemorating the publication of Ms. Ito’s book.
To initiate the discussion, Ms. Ito, Ms. Sueyoshi and Ms Shiraki introduced their activities aimed at achieving ethical world.
Voice of each individual can change the world
Ms. Ito explained that the investigation undertaken by HRN exposed that the fast fashion industry exists based on the sacrifice of employees in developing countries. In her explanation, Ms. Ito discussed the harsh conditions and low wages under which employees in developing countries are forced to work. She highlighted examples of HRN’s investigation including (i) the victims of the Rana Plaza Building collapse in Bangladesh (2014), (ii) UNIQLO’s subcontractor factory in China (2014) (which HRN co-investigation with a Hong Kong based NGO) and (iii) sewn goods factory in Cambodia (2015).
Additionally, Ms. Ito mentioned that when HRN held a press conference detailing their investigation into UNIQLO’s Chinese subcontractor factory, the story was broadcast by NHK and Yahoo! News. The attention pressured UNIQLO’s parent company, Fast Retailing, to take actions to improve conditions at their Chinese factories. “Though there are a lot of things to be improved, the attention of each consumer and individual was required change the current situation” Ms. Ito said.
Ethical consuming is the spirit of “Otagai-sama”
Ms. Sueyoshi said that “ethical” means ethically appropriate consumption, behavior and life style which is conscious and aware of other people, society and environment. She pointed out that each consumer’s behavior has the potential to result in an employee’s poverty, abuse of human rights and environmental destruction. Introducing activities by various corporations, the United Nation and Japanese Government aimed at achieving “ethical consumption”, she emphasized the importance of the “ethical consumption” including recycling and fair trade. She explained the authentication labels for ethical products, fair trade authenticated products, development plans made by United Nation and activities by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency, the government of Tokyo and school officials.
Finally, Ms. Ito pointed out that an “ethical” attitude is consistent with the Japanese spirit of “Otagai-sama” [helping or relying on one another] and “Taru wo shiru” [satisfied or fulfilled; to be content with what one has]. She urged everybody to keep in mind the word “ethical” by remembering “e” for effect, “thi” meaning deeply and “cal” meaning ‘to think’ (“think the effect of action deeply”). She believes each consumer’s behavior has, to some extent, the potential to affect the world and the importance of increasing society’s ethical consumptive behavior.
Ethical Jewelry based on fair trade
Ms. Shiraki introduced her jewelry brand HASUNA, which she established in April, 2009. She introduced her way of making jewelry at HASUNA paying attention to the social and natural environment. She explained that at HASUNA she goes to developing countries by herself and purchases only raw materials authenticated by third parties. Also she introduced HASUNA’s fair trade dealing through local NGOs. According to Ms. Shiraki, in Pakistan, more than 90% of gemstones are purchased at low price by smugglers and as a result local people are living in poverty. She pointed out the importance of purchasing gemstones not from smugglers but from NGOs supporting the local people.
Ms. Shiraki told of her time living in a farming community in India when she was studying in university. She explained that this experienced triggered her to start HASUNA. At that time, she saw exhausted children working in mines instead of going to school and she decided to improve such situation by making her favorite jewelry through fair trade.
Standing up to large corporations
In the last half of discussion meeting, a panel discussion was held, facilitated by Ms. Yoshiko Yoshida, a producer of Y’s 455 Bag Life.
Ms. Shiraki asked Ms Ito: Aren’t you afraid when you publicly point out issues of and request improvement against large corporation like UNIQLO?
Ms. Ito: In foreign countries, we act with the belief that we must stand up to authority on behalf of local people who are restricted to do so by government even if our actions involve some risk and we are afraid. I was concerned about the possibility of UNIQLO initiating legal action or other bashing through the media when our report was released. I made sure we had prepared an irrefutable report by collecting thorough evidence which was supported by our investigation.
Ms Sueyoshi: When you release investigation reports, do you set a timeline by when the corporation need to resolve the issue and how do you decide which issues to investigate?
Ms. Ito explained that UNIQLO announced its improvement plan with its own schedule after HRN’s report was released. On the other hand, Ms. Ito criticized UNIQLO stating that explanations to their consumers was necessary because the progress of such improvement plan has not been disclosed. As for the selection of issues to investigate, Ms. Ito explained that they decide it and start investigation based on the information provided by various NGO groups on a daily basis.
Ms. Yoshida: How did “ethical” activity become part of your life?
Ms. Sueyoshi: my experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro when I acted as “mystery hunter” on a TV program named “Sekai Fushigi Hakken”, was the turning point. I was shocked when I heard that 90% of glacier in Mt. Kilimanjaro had already disappeared due to the global warming, although there were people who needed meltwater from the glacier for their livelihoods. At that time, I decided I would spread this information in Japan and endeavor to make ethical activity and fair trading a part of my life.
Ms. Yoshida: how do you manage and continue the brand while keeping fair trading?
Ms. Shiraki admitted there were difficulties faced by her business resulting from limits on what stones and gems she was able to purchase ethically. She tried to keep manage this by maintaining techniques used by Japanese craftspeople and seeking sophisticated design of jewelry.
Motive force for NGO activities
Ms. Yoshida: What is motive force for your activity while there are a lot of problems which cannot be resolved immediately”
Ms. Ito responded that she views the progress cumulatively, and that somebody’s smile is a precious treasure for her. Also, she explained that her years of continuous activity could have improved the situation to some degree even if such improvement could not be measured in 1 year or a shorter time period. She takes pleasure in seeing this practical change.
Meaning of “Ethical”
Towards the end of the discussion, there was a time for attendees to ask questions. In question to Ms. Sueyoshi, one attendee expressed concern about the spreading of the word of “ethical” without understanding its substantial meaning, and the other attendee said the definition of the “ethical” may be different from person to person.
Ms. Sueyoshi responded that she and the Consumer Affair Agency also have similar concerns. She pointed out that the definition of “ethical” has been discussed when administrative authorities try to set the standard for ethical activity applied to corporate entities. On the other hand, she emphasized the importance of the word of “ethical” as a catch phrase by which we can deal with environmental problems by encouraging society to resolve them.
How we can achieve ethical consumption?
In the meeting, attendees asked questions like “what does each panelist do to spread the concept of ‘ethical’?” and “what kind of ethical activity is done by each of the panelists in their daily lives?”
Ms. Shiraki responded that through her business, HASUNA, she places practical importance on making quality, ethical jewelry in developing countries, not just advocating a conceptual understanding of “ethical”. Also, personally she usually purchases items which are consistent with her brand’s concept.
Ms. Ito emphasized the importance of spreading messages through social media, for example “I like this product, but issues relating to the product should be resolved”. Also, she thinks that not only criticizing, but making ethical choices is important because it sends a message as a consumer and affects a company’s product development.
Ms. Sueyoshi agreed with Ms. Ito’s opinion and said she would like consumers to exercise their rights as much as possible. Also, she added she tries to buy products whose origin is clear.
Closing the discussion, Ms. Ito said that she would like to cooperate with Ms. Shiraki and Ms. Sueyoshi to make a better society even though they each occupy diverse roles and positions within it.