If the shoe fits and looks great, do ethics really matter?

April 28, 2015

By: Leslie Walsh​​

I recently purchased a suit from the Canadian apparel company Judith & Charles. I was drawn by the cut and fabric, and sold on fit and price – at 30 per cent off, it was a steal. Days later, when removing the tags, I learned that my new skirt and jacket had been “tailored with love in Canada.” I went online to find that the company designs and manufactures ninety per cent of its collections locally. According to the website, it does so to be “supportive of the local economy… and have full control over our production, pushing our strongest assets – fit and quality – to the forefront.”

While “fit and quality” compelled me to buy, I’d like to think that the line’s commitment to doing business in Canada will transform me into a loyal customer. For me, it means most pieces are manufactured in an environment that is worlds away – literally and figuratively – from the deplorable conditions that were exposed when the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1,000 workers two years ago.

Though my act of ethical, albeit passive, consumption made me feel good about my suit, research suggests there are other, stronger influences at play when it comes to clothing purchases. In his article “Would you pay more for fair-trade socks,” Quentin Fottrell, personal finance reporter with MarketWatch, acknowledges:

“There is a wild misapprehension that consumers actually care,” says Iain Davies, an associate professor at the University of Bath School of Management in England. Most research showing support for ethical consumption has largely focused on low value, commoditized products like food, coffee and cosmetics, he says, and doesn’t take into account the value consumers place on higher-end goods and fashion… consumers are less likely to switch luxury brands based on where and how they were made “due to the low priority of the ethics in the purchasing decision.”

This conclusion aligns with research FleishmanHillard (FH) Canada conducted into luxury retailers (e.g. Nordstrom, Holt Renfrew, Saks Fifth Avenue and others) as part of our Authenticity Gap research last year. The study, which measures expert stakeholders’ expectations of industry versus their experiences with individual brands, showed that consumers valued “customer care” and “innovation” (the greater personalization of goods and services) above all else. In fact, “community impact” ranked lowest of the nine drivers that affect a person’s perceptions about a company.

On the heels of the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, I am reminded of the shocking images and human devastation, as well as the international, including Canadian, brands implicated in the event. Though worker safety issues were well known to industry experts for some time, the event was a wake-up call for consumers and it continues as a rallying cry for ethical fashion, worker safety and leadership in supply chain management.

This year, FH Canada will include fast-fashion brands like Joe Fresh, Zara and H&M in our 2015 Authenticity Gap study. We are curious to know whether the injustices exposed in Bangladesh and the worker safety issues that linger will impact consumers’ thinking and whether customer benefits like “better value” will outweigh societal benefits like “employee care” and “community impact.”

We’ll have answers this summer…

Leslie Walsh is vice president of FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice in Toronto. You can reach her at leslie.walsh@fleishman.ca.