Rant: Covert China lobby at taxpayers' expense

Covert China lobby at taxpayers' expense

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Making it ethically in China – A practical guide for fashion and textile designers
When: 28.10.09 at 18:00
Where: Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London , W1G 7LP

Sourcing materials or manufacturing in China should be considered seriously if you want to compete in a global market and keep production cost low. Many do not think that China should be your first port of call if you have decided to build your brand on a sustainable business model in which worker's rights are recognised, the materials used are environmentally friendly and your carbon footprint is as small as possible. However, China has started to acknowledge the need for sustainable business practices in the production of textiles and clothing, and has set up the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium in Hong Kong in 2008 to promote just that.

Own-it, Ethical Fashion Forum and Creative Connexions have invited a panel of experts to discuss the current situation in China, how designers can source manufacturers and material that meets their ethical standards and how they can monitor compliance. A lawyer will speak about important clauses in manufacturing or licensing contracts concerning IP rights and confidentiality, as well as what to do when you are faced with counterfeits that are cheap, unethically sourced and damage your good name.

Presentations will take place from 6-8pm followed by drinks and networking until 9pm.

This event is being organised by Own-it in partnership with Ethical Fashion ForumCreative Connexions and UAL Ventures.

UAL Ventures is a private company with office space at University of the Arts in London. Creative Connexions is based there with another office in Hong Kong. They have declined to provide a set of accounts, but a freedom of information request may explain. Their web site offers introductions, research an training, translation and help in planning for UK firms trying to do business in China. There is an initial deposit and then a 15% cut on any contract signed. The examples given are of designers selling design skills to companies in China.

Most of the "experts" are intellectual property lawyers talking about own-it's usual subject but the chair for the day is Claire Lissaman who ought to be interested because she works in social responsibility auditing on a Chinese visa for corporate clients like Nike. Or maybe that doesn't follow.

Another rant now forgotten

This is a rant about fashion, written quickly in a fit of pique It is prompted by the usual business problem of a trainer not being on stock when it's time to re-order, but the there is an underlying problem too

I have decided that there are two opposite types of fashion which are called by the same name These bullet points make-up the first

  • People want to express their personalities & style by wearing variations on the simplest designs of shoes and clothes
  • These meanings are un-stable over time, as they are influenced by what other people are wearing or used to wear
  • Styles in the shops therefore change, according to demand This is expensive for suppliers, but has the advantage of making sure that there's a wide range available, just as there is a wide range of books or records

This is what I used to believe fashion was, until I set-up a shoe shop and found that the styles change before public demand - the industry often changes the supply in the hope that demand will follow If they get it wrong, of course, the customer will find ways of fighting back, but the relationship is not so much of an industry serving a customer as a battle between the industry and the customer, with shops often caught in the middle - either stocking something that the customer wants but wholesalers no longer supply, or something that the wholesaler supplies but nobody in their right mind would want The relationship between producer and consumer becomes more distant when one is in China and the other is in Europe - they are linked by a long and powerful organisational chain which is hard to circumvent These chains define fashion in their own way

  • Trends are spotted
  • Designers adapt the next season's range
  • Money is made by forcing shops to change their stock - selling off discontinued stock cheaply to make room for the new season's styles

The more the market is globalised, the more the second type of fashion takes-over from the first because it is unlikely that people outside the mainstream will be able to afford a minimum order of imported shoes or clothes It's possible that one of the big budget brands might meet peoples' real demands, but again unlikely because their near-misses make them money: the endless churning-over of one season's clothes replacing another is one of the main ways that the suppliers make their money

Consumers might not notice this change-for-change's sake as much as people in the industry itself To a consumer, there is no harm in a bit of change and it adds variety to the dull process of shopping to find slightly different things in the shops each year They may all be copies of each other, they may all be ordinary and tame variations on a barely discernible theme, but they seem harmless and, after all, the subject is boring The obvious point to the consumer is the boringness of the subject - the endless isles in M&S of barely different shirts and shoes What is frustrating is that there is no way of fighting back If a consumer wants something for interesting reasons - reflecting their eccentricities, or the more important things about how a product was made like how much the staff were paid and what where the leather came from - they find the industry less helpful It is already busy on it's own agenda of anticipating next year's mainstream boring demand and supplying 20 new styles of very similar shoe to bother with more real and interesting requests

One way of putting things in perspective is to compare the fashion industry with the publishing industry, which is often accused of the same dumbing - down, fashion frenzy & monopoly Fashion ought to show more variety than book & newspaper publishing because the machines are less automated and less prone to economies of scale Sewing machines are not made like photocopiers or litho-printing machines, with their ability to feed material into the works un-attended, because cloth and leather are floppier than paper; they will not be fed so easily Leather is doubly difficult to automate, because cow skins are not produced in a roll or an A4 ream, so cutting as well as sewing is done manually

Fashion ought to show more variety because it has to be produced on a smaller scale Not so What would you think if you tried to order a French dictionary at a book shop and they thought or said "I'm sorry sir - dictionaries are so last year We've only got a German dictionary and a few grammars going cheap in the sale Do you fancy crime fiction instead? Everybody's reading crime fiction this year You don't want to be unfashionable do you? People might point and laugh" If this happened in publishing there would be an outcry, but if it happens in the more whimsical field of fashion, nobody notices

There is a great deal more that could be written about fashion and the economic policies that make globalisation happen at a particular pace in a particular way - you will find some of it by typing "boycott Nike" into Google Much of it is caused by consumers succumbing to the boredom; by being lead to believe that their choices are not controversial and that they are powerless It's just possible that eccentric, individual, low-budget web sites like veganline.com can help consumers
push the other way 

Another rant. This is a cut-and-paste of what a Chinese trade lobby group got away with in 2009, with help from London College of Fashion and even London Developent Agency, who later denied it and said that their badge was on the page by mistake, more-or-less.