For my final year dissertation, i am creating a magazine for a little ethical website entitled ethicsgirls.co.uk. Here is the interview i conducted for the magazine with the eco-preneur Brian Whitters.
The ethical sector is one of the fastest growing and is increasingly becoming one of the best paid in the industry. Here, we highlight a few eco-preneurs who have acted on their passion, fed up of the ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach when it comes to ethical issues.
I first met Brian in 2008 and after ten minutes with the man i felt extremely inadequate. Don’t get me wrong, I am actively involved in recycling and reducing my carbon footprint, but this is nothing compared to the work this individual has done for the fashion industry. Throughout his work, Brian has helped improve the lives of thousands of workers in third world countries, and we take a look at how it all began.
Brian started Auchinglen Consultants in 1997. The company sets out to improve conditions of workers in retail environments by developing and implementing strategies to ensure they have reasonable working hours, a safe and healthy working environment and no child or forced labour.
After realising his childhood dream of becoming a pilot was a little out of reach, it was his mother who persuaded him to get involved in the fashion industry. (Although he admits it would have been fun to be a pilot) ‘When I finished my A Levels I had applied to three different universities to study three different things, which were English, Gaelic and Textile Technologists. At that time a lot of teachers couldn't’t find work and were going on the dole, so my mum suggested I go for the textile technologist course as she didn’t want me to be unemployed.’ A wise decision from his mum, as shortly after his three years at university, he was employed by Marks & Spencer’s as a technologist and whisked off to Asia where they were just starting to manufacture abroad. He explains that this was a life changing experience ‘At this time not a lot was known about trading abroad and whilst I was there I saw some horrendous sights in factories - it was truly awful and something i will never forget.’
In 1997, after 15 years in Asia, Brian came back to the UK with the determination to make a difference to what he had seen as his time as a technologist. However, 12 years ago, ethical trading was not heard of and was definitely not as important as it is today. ’I tried telling people about the appalling conditions I had come across but no one would listen.’ The frustration of brands adopting the ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach resulted in Brian setting up his own business. ‘I decided to set up my own business and attempt to make a difference to the lifestyle I had witnessed in these third world countries.’
This was not plain sailing though, as the fashion world was not interested in this area and Brian consequently found it difficult to encourage businesses to listen. Determined to make it work, he turned his approach to companies who were already morally upstanding, such as Disney, who ended up being his first client. ‘Disney were great to work with, they were so much fun. Toy story had just been launched and so we were constantly surrounded by Buzz light year!’
His second clients were Anglo Accessories. A small sunglasses brand who when Brian started had nothing in place regarding ethical trading and he explains that ‘they had no idea on how to make their brand ethical and this was especially challenging.’ However after Brian had left his mark they had a fully implemented a trading regime using factories that are audited thoroughly and abide by the ETI code. He explains that ‘It was a great achievement, and i am still in contact with them today.’
From then on, Brian didn’t look back, as ethical issues became more prominent in society, his client list increased by the truck load; from small companies such as Ethel Austin, to the big players, such as Marks & Spencer, they all wanted a piece of him.
After a couple of years in this industry, Brian realised that he could help influence the next generation. ‘When i was at university i was never aware of the planet and the affects my buying decisions had on it. Nowadays though, students are far more knowledgeable and i think this level of awareness should be maintained. If you can influence their decisions from an early age, it will make such a big difference to brands that will employ them in years to come.’
It may come as a surprise but the impressive client list is not what Brian is most proud of as he is not a fan of the limelight. ‘I set out to help people; this is where i get my job satisfaction from. Whilst i was I was working for Wal-Mart, I came across a cleaner who was regularly being beaten by her manager, and through my work I was able to stop this. This is my greatest achievement.’ And i think you’ll agree, it is definitely one to be proud of.
Brian’s Top tips?
Make sure you have a solid grounding when you start out and know who you are as a person.
Network, network and network!
Make sure people know who you are and what you are doing.