The fashion industry has struggled over time with an opaque manufacturing system. What once began as a natural process, working with a tailor down the road to create your jacket or a local seamstress to buy a new dress has grown into a massive industry with a manufacturing process so far removed from the consumer it is easy to forget our clothing is made by people. Four years ago, Rana Plaza, a large factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring thousands more. The worst part of this event? It was entirely and easily preventable if there had been attention to safety in building the factory or simply if factory owners had acted on the concerns about cracks in the ceiling and generators on the top floor that shook the place when turned on. The blame however does not lie solely on the owner but is a problem that is engrained in the system of creating our clothing. I won’t bore you with specifics but the reader’s digest version of clothing production generally goes like this: clothing is designed on a seasonal calendar, the sketch is created and sent to the factory, a sample garment is created and then priced out per piece for cost to create the garment in bulk. If this cost is too high, this information is used as leverage to find a factory that will accept the production at a lower cost. Then this factory is expected to create those garments at this agreed upon cost in a certain amount of time while completing orders for other company. The entire process is a numbers game, the more product a factory turns out, the more money it makes. However, with this practice of paying unfair prices the workers need to work more and more hours, the factory needs to spend less on facilities and employee care in order to keep up with this vicious cycle. Worse yet, often most of this money doesn’t make it in the workers pockets.
The collapse of Rana Plaza was a wake up call to some and shook up the rhythm that the industry had settled into. So, the burning question, what has happened since? How can we affect change as consumers or business owners? This is what Jessica Kelly, of Thr3efold, set out to answer when she organized the event “The Road to a Completely Ethical Fashion Industry”. Set in a beautiful co-working space in lower Manhattan, the Mezzanine, a panel discussion ensued with moderators Elena and Rachael Baxter of Conscious magazine, and panelists: Alden Wicker of EcoCult, Carmin Black of Half United, Ashley Austin of Bheno, and Jessica Kelly. Each of the panelists come from different backgrounds and offered unique advice based on their approach to solving this problem within the industry.
What does ethical fashion mean? Is this the same as sustainable fashion? Not entirely, though they can go hand in hand, the two are not dependent on each other. Ethical fashion is the practice of paying workers fairly (meaning a living wage), creating safe work conditions, and being conscientious of the impact a company is making on surrounding community and lives. By contrast, sustainable fashion encompasses practices that help a company to live a long time by taking into consideration higher standards in all aspects of the product’s lifecycle. One of the ways to tackle this is by keeping workers happy and healthy but it is certainly not the only answer!
Carmin Black delved into how she went about setting up an ethical business model. Half United is a company that works to fight world hunger by providing 7 meals to a child in need with every purchase. The company also employs women who have suffered in order to offer them safe and comfortable working conditions. Carmin says the best way to start an ethical company is to build helping people directly into costs and ethos from the beginning. Her brand sells because people want to be a part of something authentic. Half United started out as a company built around it’s ethical goals then tried moving the direction of marketing as a fashion company and actually found that her sales went down. Once they returned to their original vision, sales came back up. She pointed out that ultimately what we hope for is companies to build caring about people and environment into their structure. Then, eventually the term “ethical fashion” will fall away and this will be known as the standard for “fashion”.
The panel discussion turned to how we are at an interesting point in fashion history where mid tier companies are beginning to struggle and will eventually fall away. Mid tier companies struggle under the weight of the production system created in the industry because it is a system that relies on reducing costs at the factories to maintain steady revenue, so fabric quality, sewing quality, and fit suffer in order to cut costs. We will eventually be left with fast fashion and slow fashion. Fast fashion means that companies have insanely quick turnarounds in production and very cheap, typically flashy product meant to only survive a few wears before ending up in a landfill. This way of buying fashion ensures that the consumer will have to buy more consistently. Slow fashion is fashion that has a slower production time to allow for the necessary steps to create longer lasting clothing. The concept of slow fashion is that we will buy less and invest in pieces that will last a lifetime.
So let’s take a look at our clothing and why slow fashion, ethical fashion, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion are worth the investment. As consumers, we’ve accepted the low cost of clothing as the norm, so why change our views now? In terms of people, ethical clothing means no child slave labor, no sweatshops, no inhumane working conditions, and enough money for workers to have a roof over their heads and food on the table. Eco-fashion helps to reduce waste in the landfill and water supply, reduces the carbon footprint, and takes better care of our natural resources. Where humanitarian or environmental arguments fall flat in persuading people to go for a higher price tag, a health argument may have stronger appeal. We wear toxic chemicals daily in the finishing and dying of the fabric, for example, common chemicals include: formaldehyde linked to increasing likelihood of lung cancer, disperse blue dyes that put you at high risk for dermatitis and is considered a classified human carcinogen, dioxen-producing bleach, petrochemical dyes, and the list goes on. There are 2000 types of chemicals used to create our clothing, not all are toxic but is the risk worth it? As a nation we are becoming more aware of how the foods we eat affect us and the environment. Our beef consumption is down 19% in the past decade because we have realized the affects on our health, why should clothing be any different? Ultimately it comes down to education, we are ignorant about what we are putting on our bodies. It’s time to get educated to make smarter decisions to make us happier and healthier!
There are a couple of ways to approach shopping for a more ethical closet. There’s the 30 wears test: what are the chances that you will wear the piece 30 times? If you don’t love it and you won’t wear it 30 times, it’s not worth the purchase. This is an easy way to quickly weed out silly trends that won’t survive the test of time. Another option is to do some research, sustainable, ethical, and eco fashion are all growing branches of the industry! There were several vendors at the event, so here are a few to start you off: Saint James, Soko, Sudara, Behno, Under the Canopy, Thinx, DoneGood, Half United, Imby, Round + Square, Uniforme, Rallier. If you are looking for options outside of just clothing, check out Conscious Magazine to join the conversation or try some ethical drinks with Soto sake, Ripe Life Wines, and Harmless Harvest for refreshing coconut water. Ethical clothing will come at a higher cost initially but instead of buying too much clothing that falls apart quickly, ethical clothing is instead an investment in quality to last for years to come. If you cannot yet afford to make the investment, buy thrift or vintage, this is the surest way to not create new waste and no new carbon footprint! If you are someone who struggles to pair outfits together, check out capsule Collections. The idea behind these collections is to only have a select number of pieces in your wardrobe that all match back to each other.
When we remember that there are people behind every product, it is hard to leave those who are suffering for your new $16 fringe jacket for that festival you are going to wear once, in the dark. As I consistently argue, the most important thing in solving this issue is tapping into community. At risk of sounding hippy-dippy, if we love and understand each other then we cannot allow these issues to continue. We can learn through organizations, meetup groups, panel discussions, articles, blog content, etc. The amazing thing is, with as little governmental regulation as there is, we are still at a point where our dollar really does make a difference. The consumer truly has the power to change. If the consumer stops buying clothing that is hurting people and environment and starts buying into the standards of the ethical brand leaders, then the industry has to shift. Together with the fashion revolutionaries, we are the answer to a completely ethical fashion industry.