I was having a chat with someone the other day and we were bemoaning the fact that being aware of all the social and environmental issues facing the world can be a real downer.

We both agreed that if we were utterly ignorant of the precipice we’re standing above, we could go on with our lives with reckless abandon, unencumbered by any obligation to think about our actions and their contribution to all that ails the world.

Unfortunately, we’re both sufficiently au fait with the bad stuff – climate change, economic inequity, the after-effects of colonisation and the like – to simply get on with life. Alas, our knowledge means that we feel a sense of personal obligation to push against the status quo.

Like I said, ignorance is bliss. Imagine being able to revel in conspicuous consumption, throw caution to the wind and just live in the moment. Sigh.

I was thinking about ignorance and education recently when thinking about the Tearfund Ethical Fashion Report. The Tearfund report is an initiative that measures labour rights and environmental management systems in the fashion industry. It has its origins in an ambition to put an end to forced labour, child labour and exploitation within the clothing supply chain. The theory goes that by increasing transparency in this area, consumers will make more prudent decisions about their consumption.

In recent years, Tearfund has moved on from their sole labour focus, and brought a dual social and environmental lens to the equation. Tearfund’s approach is to educate consumers so that when they’re making clothing purchasing decisions, they might think for a moment about the social and environmental impacts of that consumption.

Here we have a perfect example of the ignorance versus awareness difference. Those who have no knowledge of the social or environmental impacts of their consumption can carry on with reckless abandon, simply enjoying the fruits of their consumption. Those who understand the issues, however, feel a sense of guilt as they consume. In building visibility for the perils of unethical fashion, Tearfund is helping people reduce their footprint.

Well, maybe it’s not that simple. Firstly I need to state that Tearfund’s motivations are absolutely pure – their aim is to drive positive outcomes for vulnerable workers (and vulnerable environments) and in this, they should be applauded.

But alas, sometimes the reality is that sometimes good initiatives drive wrong outcomes, and this is where I worry that Tearfund falls short.

In the nearly 30 years that we’ve been involved in the apparel industry, and especially in the past couple of decades where the move to manufacturing in low-cost economies has gained steam, I’ve seen an increasing number of large brands come up with reports, certifications and initiatives that would suggest their workers are happy, well-paid and not overworked. At the same time, they’ve managed to convince customers and others that the environmental impacts of their manufacturing are, in fact, generally positive.

Consumers, not having any way to test the veracity of those claims, are convinced that buying from the brands in question is actually a great way to reduce the impact of their consumption. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

But even worse is when an initiative like Tearfund relies on these same protestations of social and environmental goodness. In that case, we move on simply from a case of a consumer being swayed by a brand’s great marketing, to a third party giving a brand a quasi-imprimatur of goodness.

We’re no longer in a situation of Jim’s Jeans saying “we’re all good, buy from us and the world is OK.” We’re now in a situation where a credible source, with noble aims, gives Jim’s Jeans an “A” rating.

I’m not sure exactly what the answer is here, the work Tearfund and others do is important and valuable. But, like so many things in life, it can have unintended consequences and result in sub-optimal outcomes.

Simply put; in an effort to increase transparency, sometimes people reinforce the opposite and create an ingrained ignorance that is harder to change than were they to have not even bothered. I sincerely hope that, in the case of the Tearfund report, that’s not what’s going on.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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