Thoughts for the new decade | By Elizabeth Peyton-Jones

As the sun rises on the new decade ahead, I am sure CEOs, businessmen, world leaders and philanthropists are gearing up to make the most of what this year has to offer. From where I have been sitting, it looks like it will be a busy year for change and a great year for the planet. We are all peering through the darkness to see the spectre of 2020 and what it may bring. Without doubt this year will have its causes for celebration and gratitude, but out of the corner of our eye we will be keeping watch on the mythical Cerberus who will be snapping at our heels, reminding us not to stray too far from the path of good.

One of the challenges of growing as a brand is keeping control of operations in a way which benefits the company. Allowing growth and flexibility, while keeping hold of the ethical and corporate messages which are the values and heartbeat of every brand’s image, is no mean feat.

Loyal customers often look for their own values to be reflected in the brands that they choose. Those brands therefore have a need and a duty, not only to highlight their own values but to ensure that they are not broken.

The supply chain of a brand is as important as its sustainability record. Human rights are part of sustainability and one of the drivers of the consumer.

So, one of the questions that retailers and businessmen alike will be asking will be, ‘how can I maintain control of the supply chain?’

The supply chain sounds sort of abstract and tubular; something that if you polish up will remain nice and shiny for all to see. The truth has become somewhat more complicated. Subcontracting and the distance between brand and operations, can mean the difference between upholding ethical values and going down that tunnel, from which brand identity will forever be tarnished.

Since the collapse of the Dhaka garment factory in 2013, in Bangladesh, that caused 1,134 deaths, manufacturers have become more aware of their supply chain. They have investigated sweat factories, child labour and minimum wages. Created resources around ensuring best practice and endeavoured to create a clean bill of health for their workers, so that consumers are comfortable and the company is morally in the black.

One end of the supply chain which a retailer may never consider to be part of that chain, apart from as a vehicle for sale, is the model. Yet we have found that there has been either physical, financial or sexual misconduct in almost every model with whom we have interacted.

This is how it tends to work. Modelling involves travel and hotels, meetings and castings, living expenses in foreign cities, it sounds glamorous, but all of this costs money, often to the model, who may or may not earn enough to cover their expenses. They are told to fly all the way from London to NYC, on spec and end up with nothing, except more debt. There’s a risk of falling into debt, serious debt and too often, it’s a risk that nobody warned the model of in advance . Too many models spend and end their careers in debt. And, of course, the more unscrupulous the agent, the more significant the debt is likely to be. And what happens when you’re in debt? You’re vulnerable. You’re open to abuse and exploitation. And if you’re indebted and vulnerable enough, there’s almost nothing you won’t do to get work, make money, keep the dream alive.

Remember that these are attractive boys and girls, and that they’re often in foreign cities and financially and legally, scarcely literate and of course, almost by definition, they’re young, extremely young. Very many are minors: under 18, many, many are under 16 and almost all were minors when they started out.

The Brand indirectly employs the worker from the garment factory, in the same way they source and indirectly pay a model from a model agency. Model Agencies house young people who work for a brand. The difference is that there are no optics on the model agency or model at all, because they are self-employed. The only time we see them is when they are shown glamorously attired and beautifully made up. Model agencies are unlicensed, and unregulated. They have no best practice, code of conduct or third-party auditing and yet they are dealing with children, many of whom are asked to appear naked, sexualised or unrealistically thin.

The problem with an unregulated industry is that there is often abuse of power, mostly because that’s just the human way. It is a fact that when humans are unsupervised, they go to the lowest common denominator or take the easy route, unless they are required to do more. The idea of working with models attracts a certain type of person and unfortunately that type of person does not always have the best of intentions.

The other piece of the puzzle is that when an industry as large and as attractive as the model industry goes under the radar, it allows for scamming and trafficking, because this underbelly can exist with the legitimate claim of ‘scouting’ models. It is a fact that many of these children will never see the inside of a fashion house. As has been demonstrated by the Epstein affair.

So now the problem is out there what can be done about it? The Responsible Trust for Models (RTM) has a pledge which is a working document. It is open to photographers, model agencies, brands and models themselves to sign up to. It allows conversations to take place which are otherwise discouraged. It sets a standard on set, at castings and during fashion shows. It allows the model (who has also signed to best practice) to talk about being naked, being paid, requiring food or water, a screen for changing etc. without feeling awkward and embarrassed.

The RTM Pledge, will herald the beginning of a global Gold Standard, which will be independently audited, allowing model agencies to opt in to show their compliance.

Brands can become a member of RTM, which will act as an insurance against abuse in their supply chain and the model can choose agencies that will treat them well and respect their career. It is a win /win, with no downside. A holistic approach to a systemic problem hiding in plain sight. Everyone can play a small part creating a better functioning, intrinsically modern and all together safer, kinder environment.

Having read this article, if you wish to know more about our organisation and how you can become part of the RTM community, please email sue@modelstrust.com. We have an Instagram @models_trust, which tells some of the story, as does our website www.modelstrust.com, but we are working with organisations such as the UN Global Compact, UN Women, Female Quotient, The B Team, Delta 8.7, PRI, ILO and many other organisations to help put this on a world agenda and create a safer and more ethical environment for our children working as models.