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Topshop Boycott: A Sister Act That is Well Overdue

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Two years ago I conducted a film interview with Alexa Chung which I suspect is unique in the thousands she has given, in that every question related to current affairs. Neither Mulberry nor Miu Miu were mentioned.

Alexa was advised against participation by a PR assistant but resisted, broke away and we talked. I found her to be charming, bright, well informed and while clearly without any agenda, definitely tapped in to the social/political world around her. One of her starkest observations stood out then, and has snowballed ever since.

At 00.31 here, you can view Alexa describing being "pulled in" by Topshop prices, even though they use "sweatshop labour". As genuinely uncomfortable as she was with this, she spoke for a generation of young women magnetised by cheap style. As a man, I have observed the hypnotic lure of Topshop over girlfriends, sister and friends. It is the undoubted high street fashion touchstone, its flagships stores mini meccas for cool consumers.

Topshop has been accused of using overseas sweatshop labour - carried out under truly appalling working conditions - to produce its most desired lines (including the Kate Moss lines) too many times for anyone's comfort.

The Topshop group was also exposed by the Channel 4 Dispatches team for using sweatshop labour suppliers here in the UK, with "dirty, dangerous and appalling conditions" uncovered, as well as employees being illegaly paid at half the minimum wage.

When the Sunday Times ran a front page story on Topshop sweatshop practices, owner Sir Phillip Green was asked by a ST journalist why his group were one of the very few UK retailers not to sign up to the Ethical Trade Initiative, Green replied that he had already offered to punch her colleague "on the nose...and throw him out of the window".

And despite owner Green paying himself a £1.2 billion dividend a couple of years back, in its London stores Topshop still refuses to pay the London Living Wage to staff; the hourly pay rate that the Mayor of London (no radical, tent-dwelling hippy) and the Greater London Authority say is the amount an employee working in the capital must earn to attain an acceptable standard of living. The Living Wage is paid by many London employers including Westfield, Barclays, LUSH and the Olympic Delivery Authority.

As the Evening Standard's campaigning journalist David Cohen pointed out, "the first step to addressing deprivation and inequality in London - where 40% of inner-city children live in poverty - is to pay a living wage." Quite so, agrees Boris, it is "not only morally right, it makes business sense."

Add to this litany of unethical behaviour the fact that Phillip Green has been identified and pursued by groups like UK Uncut (if not yet the taxman) for alleged tax avoidance on a major scale, which of course depletes our local and national economies and curtails spending on schools, hospitals and care provision, and you have an ethical dilemma for any prospective customer.

But for Topshop, it is no generalisation to say this dilemma will be overwhelming for women, often young women.

Critically, a majority of those working in overseas sweatshops are women, a majority of UK employees in working poverty - often retail - are women and as has been widely recorded to the prime minister's immense discomfort, those most negatively hit by the current cuts agenda - seriously exacerbated by tax avoidance of the systemic Phillip Green variety - are also women.

Terrifyingly, Green has been advising David Cameron on how to be more financially efficient.

So it would seem to me, that if one could say that an endemic culture of utter disregard for fairness exists within the highest echelons of Topshop, and that women at home and abroad are disproportionately harmed by this endemic disregard, then women who care should vote with their purses and boycott Topshop with immediate effect? As a man I do, because sartorially and socially they ain't my style; but I get that the former would be harder for young women.

Topshop and its parent Arcadia Group are not alone in their ongoing exploitation of those producing, selling and consuming its products, but they are the most visible and their lines most popular to this generation of young women - in the public arena and ubiquitously across social media - questioning the decency of world they live in.

From St Paul's to Fleet Street, I cannot recall a time when young women were taking the lead more against gender specific and economic injustices, and so I make a direct appeal: send a message to the mercantile Sir Phillip Green and, painful as it maybe, boycott Topshop until they change their policies at home and abroad.

The fact that Green and Topshop consistently operate in this way looks characteristic or even hard wired and it is the young who are challenging them, with students opposed to sweatshop labour and activists furious about tax avoidance closing Topshop branches literally every week, including Liverpool this Saturday just gone.

Incidentally, I would also appeal directly to Harriet Walker of the Independent and Rosamund Urwin of the Evening Standard - in my view the two national newspaper columnists covering gender issues and style in the most interesting, counter intuitive and increasingly authoritative way - to remind their growing readerships and twitter followers that cheap style for one woman should not mean degraded life for another, and until Topshop seriously accept that ethical behaviour and style go hand in hand, they should be out of fashion.

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