People Tree: fighting for fair fashion

What do slavery, smoking in restaurants and eggs from caged hens all have in common? Answer: all were once commonplace; all were eventually banned; and none of us can quite get our heads round the fact they ever existed in the first place.

One day, says the Soil Association's Peter Melchett, it will be the same for ethical fashion. It too will become — indeed it must become — the norm.

The Simple Things is at People Tree's Rag Rage event in the aptly-named Fashion Street in Spitalfields. It's an evening of discussion and short films intended to keep the need for change at the forefront of the media's minds, six months after the devastating garment factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in which 1129 people died and another 2500 were injured.

Melchett's fellow guest speaker Liz Jones is visibly moved as she talks about her own visit to the "hell" of a Dhaka sweatshop. She is vehement that legislation is the answer; the average British woman shopper, she says, is not encouraged to invest in good quality, ethically-made clothes and will not simply yield her right to a £2 T-shirt. It was not always thus, she says ruefully: "I still wear a pair of trousers from 1996," she says. "My mother owned one handbag. Where did this mania for loads of stuff come from?"

People Tree founder Safia Minney, whose ethical fashion brand has grown 23% in the past year — partly, she says, due to both trade and individual buyers' revulsion at big business — shares her own horror stories of workers' suffering in the name of our throwaway clobber. But a boycott is not the answer, she replies to one question from the audience. The trade unions don't want us to boycott the 'bad' brands, but to force them to give their workers more money and basic rights.

Finally, fluorescent-haired design legend Zandra Rhodes says she wishes The Archers would run a storyline about organic cotton. After all, she says, the show is renowned for introducing environmental issues to a mainstream audience. It's clearly an off-the-cuff idea, and everyone chuckles, but then Peter Melchett chips in. He knows the show's farming adviser well. He will have a word with him.

And suddenly the dream seems a step closer — first we take Ambridge; then we take the world.