Many of the world’s biggest and most elite fashion houses pay virtually no regard to corporate ethics and have yet to take even the first steps on reporting on the social and environmental impact of their operations.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Luxury brands must wake up to ethical and environmental responsibilities” was written by Simon Birch, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 16th September 2011 06.00 UTC

London Fashion Week kicks off on Friday with a frenzy of champagne-fuelled fashion shows.

But of the world’s biggest and most elite fashion houses now gathered in London how many will be sparing a thought for the workers who make the clothes for their multi-billion pound empires? Hardly any, according to Ethical Consumer’s new buyers’ guide to luxury clothing brands, published on Wednesday.

While high street brands such as Gap and Primark have long been the target of anti-sweat shop campaigners, luxury brands from Armani to Valentino have largely managed to evade the ethical spotlight and have yet to be inconvenienced by reputation-damaging sweatshop scandals.

What we’ve found is that luxury brands pay virtually no regard to corporate ethics and have yet to take even the first steps on reporting on the social and environmental impact of their operations.

Even fashion’s favourite ethical champion Stella McCartney came next to the bottom of our ethical rating table. Full marks for McCartney for championing animal rights but the bad news is that Gucci, the company that owns the brand, sanctions the use of fur in many of its other fashion brands. Gucci has neither an environmental nor supply chain policy in place.

It’s the same story for Vivienne Westwood, fashion’s other ethical pin-up company. Whilst Dame Vivienne may be personally committed to fighting climate change her company has no environmental policy in place to reduce the global warming impact of its operations.

We believe that it’s unacceptable to charge such high premiums for clothing which don’t have guarantees that they’ve been produced in a fair and responsible way, and we call on luxury brand companies to wake up to their ethical and environmental responsibilities.

The reality is that in terms of ethics, luxury clothing brands are now being outperformed by a number of high street clothing companies who sell clothing at vastly lower mark-ups.

In the latest Ethical Consumer buyers’ guide to high street clothes shops we gave Monsoon and New Look top rating for their supply chain policies, meaning that the companies have made at least a basic commitment to providing decent working conditions for their overseas workers.

Overall though, if you’re wanting to buy clothes which have been ethically produced, then you’re not going to find them anywhere on the high street. Instead go online to visit one of the 12 companies which we rated as being a best buy in our alternative clothes shops buyers’ guide, a list which includes Bishopston Trading, Gossypium and Greenfibres.

Further evidence that high street clothing companies have yet to step up to the ethical plate comes from clothing campaigners Labour Behind the Label.

Their report this week, Let’s Clean Up Fashion , shows that the workers who make the clothes for high street retailers still aren’t being paid a living wage, the rates of pay being so low that they can’t even afford to adequately feed, clothe or house their families.

Gap is singled out for particular criticism because in previous reports it has received a top grade. The company has recently backtracked on plans to work towards paying a living wage to workers and now will monitor payment only of a minimum wage, a figure which leaves workers struggling at the bottom of the poverty scale.

Sam Maher, one of the report’s authors, said:

“As London Fashion Week is revealed in all its glamour, nowhere is the disparity between the huge profits reaped by fashion retailers and the reality of poverty for garment workers overseas more apparent. It’s high time that fashion giants, such as Gap and H&M, took this seriously and committed to pay all their workers a living wage.”

• Simon Birch writes for Ethical Consumer Magazine

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