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Mandela: Let's Not Talk About the Batik-Style Shirts

06/12/2013 08:57 GMT | Updated 04/02/2014 10:59 GMT

I imagine that today, fashion writers around the world will be mentioning Mr. Nelson Mandela's penchant for Indonesian batik-style shirts. Let's not do that here. Instead, let's talk about his life's work for a more just, more humane world.

In my final year of high school, I was invited by the Toronto Board of Education to hear Mr. Mandela address an audience of secondary school students from across the city. Mr. Mandela had only been out of prison for four months and according to Lloyd McKell, one of the educators who organised the event, "He [Mandela] expressed a strong desire to speak to young Canadians." writes McKell "About 1,500 students attended".

Why Canadians in particular? I think one of the big reasons was because Canada was the only G7 nation that imposed full economic sanctions on South Africa. Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Italy and West Germany refused a full embargo. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Canadian trade unionists took part in anti-apartheid actions in their workplaces and their communities to pressure the Canadian government to take action against South Africa.

Back in the day, it was possible to oust a government and dismantle a wholly unjust system by ceasing trade. Gone are the days when one nation in "the developing world" brave enough to take a stand against injustice by putting its full weight behind an economic embargo and achieving results are over.

"Boycott" is the dirtiest words anybody can utter in polite conversation these days. I find this utterly frustrating, especially when we are all complicit in another unjust system - the cheap apparel industry. The large majority of us (myself included) have purchased an item of clothing in the last year that was made by a hideously exploited garment worker in Bangladesh, Cambodia or some such place where it is a race to the bottom to provide the cheapest labour possible. At the time of the Rana Plaza disaster, a consumer boycott of the guilty retailers was dissuaded because it would hurt the workers more than help them. Government could not be persuaded to take action because international bi-lateral trade agreements make it so that it would be illegal to impose sanctions on the offending state. Bangladesh has no quota restrictions on its exports to the European Union, even ones that have been made by slave labour.

Last week, Hennes and Mauritz, the second largest global retailer, announced that they would start paying a living wage to all their Asian textile workers by 2018 rather than wait for government legislation because it would take too long. What is the world coming to that we must rely on the Corporations to take the lead on basic human rights where this ought to be the responsibility of Government?

Listening to Mr. Mandela's speech on that summer's day in 1990 was the most inspirational I have ever heard. His message to us was to "stay in school". He about talked the virtues of education, knowledge as power and how nobody, no matter what, could ever take it away from you. His words stuck with me throughout my life and today, especially today, they serve as a reminder of why I choose to focus my interests in the fashion industry on the niche area of ethics and sustainability.

Learning more about responsible supply chains and acting on that knowledge is the only immediate way forward at the moment. I know times are tough, and like many, I struggle to find it in the household budget to justify a certified Fair Trade £50 jumper from People Tree versus a £10.00 one from Primark. But I have to remind myself that the £10.00 purchase will last me six maybe seven wears before it frays or the dye washes out or it just falls apart and goes to landfill. The £50 purchase will be a wardrobe staple for a longer time and it provides a knitter in Nepal enough income to put herself and her children through university.

The depressing fact of globalisation in the early 21st Century is that we are forced to put our faith in the corporation to do good where government cannot. As such, we must demand supply chain transparency from the corporations so that we can make an educated, preferably moral, purchase decision. I'm not saying that the every single large corporation has a questionable supply chain. However, taking five years to implement a living wage policy for your workers is far too long. It seems ludicrous to wait when that living wage is already being paid right now by a smaller and more efficient organisation. Until the big retailers can get a handle on their lust for large profit margins, I will forego my daily soy latte for a month to pay for a jumper that isn't made by slave labour.