A brief history of ethical manufacturing (from 1900 – today)

14 April 2016 | 0 Comments | News


“Ethical manufacturing is vital because everyone deserves to feel safe in the workplace and empowered to make choices about their life. We take this responsibility very seriously and strive to make a positive difference every day.” – Melanie Smith, Operation Manager, Jermyn Street Design.

The fashion industry is full of cautionary tales where ethical standards have fallen short, customers have deserted and brand reputations have been ruined. In the 1990s, Nike, with its suppliers linked to child labour and sweatshop conditions, became one of the most high profile cases. The harrowing images of the collapsed Bangladeshi garment factory where 1,130 people died in 2013 led to a public outcry. And while much has been done to raise the bar during the last century, this deadly accident is another reminder that more can be done.

At JSD, we strive to be at the forefront of what is happening in our industry. Our hands-on approach to CSR can be seen in all areas of our business. Our strong supply chain is at the heart of our service offering and the key to our success. We have taken steps to ensure that our partners and suppliers deliver quality manufacturing and have a high ethical reputation, exercise a duty of care to the environment, and take care of their workers.

We only work with independently audited factories around the world, and as a member of Sedex (the Supplier and Ethical Data Exchange), we are able to link our clients directly to these factory audits, enabling complete transparency and peace of mind that our supply partners are ethical and fair to all.

There have been dramatic developments in sustainability over the past 100 years. To see how far the industry has come since the invention of the power loom and the cotton gin, take a look at the timeline below:



  • Technological developments in the textile industry brought about by the Industrial Revolution dramatically increased productivity. However, a decline in working standards and conditions accompanies this new era of mass production and urbanisation. Factories are hazardous, unsanitary and allow child labour. Conditions gradually begin to improve as the government passes labour reforms and trade workers gain the right to form unions.
  • The Cotton Mills and Factories Act 1819 is passed, outlawing child labour for under 9s and capping working hours at 72 hours per week for children aged 9 to 16. Several more Factory Acts are passed during the 1800s but the biggest problem is enforcement. While qualified inspectors are given factory access to run checks, they are poorly paid and easily bribed.
  • Welfare capitalism becomes a popular tactic as manufacturers begin to see employee welfare as a way of boosting profits. Major manufacturers start providing employees with benefits and housing to increase productivity and quash unions.

1900 – 1950

  • In 1947 after WW2, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is signed to establish rules for worldwide trade to aid economic recovery by reducing trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas.

1960 – 1970

  • The 1960s brings about a change in attitudes and values with focus shifting to environmentalism, the Age of Aquarius and world peace. The public start to question the ethics and values of big business. In response, some companies establish mission statements, codes of conduct and embrace corporate social responsibility.
  • In 1968, the Club of Rome is established and commissions a global study to examine the connection between industrial production, environmental damage and natural resource usage. The report brings this to the world’s attention the issue of human consumption in a world of limited resources.

1970 – 1980

  • 1970 is a big year for environmentalism in the US. It marks the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and its first piece of legislation – the National Environmental Policy Act. It also marks the signing of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in the US, a significant piece of environmental legislation, setting standards for air quality and deadlines for the reduction of automobile emissions.
  • 1974 – The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act (HSWA74) is passed to regulate and enforce workplace health safety and welfare in the UK. The Act defines general duties of employers, employees, contractors, suppliers, persons in control of work premises, and those who manage and maintain them.
  • 1974 – The Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA) is established to allow more developed countries to apply for restrictions on textiles exported from less developed countries to reduce competition from countries with cheaper labour costs. This negatively impacts larger textile producers (mainly in Asia) but allows smaller textile supplying countries to prosper.

1980 – 1990

  • 1982 – The UN World Charter for Nature. 111 UN members sign this charter recognising that the world needs procedural environmental protection from the adverse impact of social and economic growth. The notable exception is the US.
  • 1984 – British scientists discover a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. Ozone levels here are found to be 10% below normal. This leads to the signing of the UN Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985.
  • 1988 – The Toronto Conference put the issue of climate change on the global policy agenda. Scientists meet in Canada and determine that human pollution is already having a detrimental effect on the atmosphere and is a major threat to international security. They propose a target to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2005. It leads to a global pact and the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • 1987- The Brundtland Commission publishes its report examining social, economic and environmental issues and its recommended solutions. It presented a new (now vernacular) concept of “sustainable development” to the world, defining it as “[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

1990 – 2000

  • 1990 – Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Expanding health and safety acts to tackle concerns with the working environment, employers must ensure the workplace is safe for employees and is suitable for the tasks they will perform.
  • 1992 – Nike is exposed for using subcontractors that exploit their factory workers in sweatshop conditions. A public outcry leads to a global boycott as other retailers are exposed. In response, the retail brands establish codes of conduct and best labour practices to manage the working conditions of employees in their supply chains.
  • 1995 – The World Trade Organisation is established. The MFA is slowly phased out and is replaced by a WTO Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC), which aims to remove import quotas for developing nations to industrialised nations. The WTO establishes a Textiles Monitoring Body to oversee this.
  • 1999 – The Fair Labour Association is established by Nike and other major retailers. It offers resources, training and independent assessments for global companies and supply chains, with the aim of improving labour practices.

2000 – 2010

  • 2000 – The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) creates the first global framework for comprehensive sustainability reporting.
  • 2004 – The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) – the international industry body for sustainable fashion – is born. Their members believe that ethical fashion “represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises the benefits to people and communities while minimising the impact on the environment.”
  • 2005 – The MFA is phased out and has a significant impact on where companies choose to source their clothing. Asia and China see substantial growth in textile and clothing trade, leading to an increase in sweatshops and poor working conditions.
  • 2009 –The GreenShows (TGS) begin raising awareness of sustainable fashion within the luxury clothing market. The first show takes place at New York Fashion Week.

2010 – Present

  • 2012 – Inadequate safety procedures are blamed for the Tazeen Fashion Factory fire in Bangladesh, which leaves 117 people dead. Customers include C&A and Walmart. It leads to the signing of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, to create new workplace safety procedures.
  • 2012 – Uzbekistan is found to be using forced labour to grow and deliver cotton quotas, with many large international retailers sourcing their cotton there. Following this, many retailers sign the Cotton Pledge to boycott Uzbekistan cotton.
  • In 2013, Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh, collapses. 1,130 people die and over 2,500 are injured after the building owners ignore advice that the building is unsafe. Angry riots ensue as garment workers protest for safer working conditions. In response, many fashion companies sign a document promising to further improve working conditions in Bangladesh.
  • 2013 – H&M launch Conscious Collection – a new ethical clothing range and a garment recycling service.
  • 2015 – The Modern Slavery Act. Businesses with turnovers greater than £36 million must now publish an annual statement showing the steps taken to ensure that no slavery or human trafficking is taking place in their business or within their supply chain, ensuring a greater degree of transparency.

It is the responsibility of every company, regardless of the industry, to ensure that the wellbeing of their staff comes before profit. Change is happening but in many cases, still too slowly. Public pressure, customer and supplier demand is what drives change. Industry organisations like the Ethical Fashion Forum also provide a platform for people to speak out and keep these issues at the top of the agenda. The more we keep talking about ethical manufacturing, the more likely we can encourage positive change.

Find out more about how we ensure our projects are ethical and sustainable.

 Do you meet the EFF’s 10 criteria for ethical fashion?

  • Countering fast, cheap fashion and damaging patterns of fashion consumption
  • Defending fair wages, working conditions and workers’ rights
  • Supporting sustainable livelihoods
  • Addressing toxic pesticide and chemical use
  • Using and / or developing eco- friendly fabrics and components
  • Minimising water use
  • Recycling and addressing energy efficiency and waste
  • Developing or promoting sustainability standards for fashion
  • Resources, training and/ or awareness raising initiatives
  • Animal rights

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