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How slow fashion can avoid the mistakes of fair trade

How slow fashion can avoid the mistakes of fair trade

Slow fashion is the new kid on the block, a yet-to-be-recognised offspring of the fair trade movement, a righteous sibling of fast fashion. No matter how you look at it, though, it’s clear that slow fashion leaders need to take a stand together in order to turn the industry into a power to be reckoned with.

There’s a plethora of slow fashion thinkers out there, eager to share their thoughts with the world and rally the next generation of consumers. In fact, most slow fashion articles I see are focused on the consumer and what she has to do to make change happen. It is really simple, you see, she just needs to open her wallet and make the right decision: choose slow fashion brands, like Zady and The Reformation, over the H&Ms and Zaras of the world.

It’s easier said than done, though. Have you tried to buy something from a slow fashion brand before? I have…tried. Not only there is a price issue ($20 t-shirt, anyone?), there’s also a problem of limited selection. Most slow fashion companies have a very small assortment of products, so you have to hop through many sites or stores to find something you like. And, it’s plain hard to even discover slow fashion brands. Consumers have to know the term “slow fashion” to begin with, just so they can Google it and delve into online research.

Here is what I’m getting at. Consumers truly are the only ones who can make real change. Let’s not kid ourselves; money rules the world. However, it is unfair to expect them to make “informed buying decisions” if there is no one to inform them. (Besides H&M marketing gurus, of course.) That’s why it is time for slow fashion to come together as an industry to define itself, set clear standards and elect a governing body.

Slow fashion: Setting up for success
1. Intentionality of impact

At a recent impact investing event, an important point was raised: the intentionality of impact. I think this idea should be at the core of any business that calls itself a social business (either formally or informally). If your social impact is not intentional, your enterprise should not be called “social”. This point can and should be applied to slow fashion movement. What is the intention of your fashion business? Does your mission of paying fair wages inform all your business decisions, or is it just a marketing schtick you can use to join the ranks of slow fashion?

2. Settings standards

So, how can slow fashion brands differentiate themselves from fast fashion, and what standards should the industry be enforcing? An important step toward creating any kind of standards or rules is to understand why they are being created.

Slow fashion standards should have three primary goals:

  • to help the public make informed buying decisions
  • to fend off dishonorable companies
  • to create an identity for the slow fashion movement

The standards should be the key few, a short but exhaustive list of conditions to be met by every slow fashion company. Ethical sourcing, product transparency, safe working conditions and fair wages are the most obvious candidates. (Stephanie Hepburn of Good Cloth provides some good if utterly disheartening statistics on the latter here.) The standards should also be measurable – a minimum wage and minimum age requirement for factory workers, a list of prohibited chemical materials and acceptable levels thereof – and, thus, easily enforceable. Last but not least, they should be community-driven and voted upon by the industry players themselves. This will ensure the practicality and relevance, of the standards as well as their acceptance in the industry.

3. Slow fashion police

I know this doesn’t sound sexy, but without an industry watchdog, any standards are meaningless. A point I cannot overstate: there should be one and only one “Slow Fashion Police” and certification. (We’ve been there with fair trade before; let’s not make the same mistakes with slow fashion.) For example, at GlobeIn, the social business I work for, we source from fair trade and “fairly-trading” companies (companies that set their own standards like paying fair wages and prices to producers, without being certified by the Fair Trade Federation) for our Artisan Subscription Box. In doing so, we’ve learnt that some companies choose not to obtain Fair Trade Certification because they’re not satisfied with the standards established by the Fair Trade Federation. Lesson learnt: consensus is key.

This slow fashion watchdog will have to be a third-party, a non-profit organisation, and ideally will be financed in equal parts by the members of the slow fashion industry. This structure will not only ensure transparency and accountability, but will also prevent the certifying body from having to rely on certification fees (as is the case with the Fair Trade Federation). High certification fees could potentially discourage some companies from joining the movement, particularly smaller companies with lower profits, which in turn will fracture the young industry and stagnate its growth.

I want to conclude on a good note: everything IS in the power of the slow fashion movement, which now serves as a continuation of fair trade beyond coffee and chocolate. The industry is at its naissance, but thanks to modern technology and social media, its first steps are already being watched by millions of consumers worldwide. (I hope in a year or so, I will be quoting statistics from the first slow fashion industry report!) If these three steps– focusing on intentionality of impact, setting clear standards and electing an industry watchdog–are done properly, the conscious consumer already awaits, ready to champion the new industry with her wallet and ready to overthrow fast fashion.

Featured image shows a clothing display in a Zara store. Photo from ThinkRetail.

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Liza Moiseeva

Liza is the Co-founder and Director of Marketing at GlobeIn, a social enterprise connecting artisans with the global economy, and she formerly served on the Advisory Board of Color Me In!, a non-profit that gives small loans to entrepreneurs in Zambia. Liza holds a Summa Cum Laude B.A. in International Studies from Old Dominion University and an MBA in finance. She hopes to contribute her knowledge of business, finance and the non-profit field towards creating a social impact.

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4 thoughts on “How slow fashion can avoid the mistakes of fair trade

  1. Sarah

    Hi Lisa
    I’ve really enjoyed reading your articles around ethical fashion. I’m in the stages of researching for a ethical fashion/artisan start up. I’m really interested to learn what you think the will support an uptake in the slow fashion market? And what role do you think social enterprise startups could play in helping artisans sell to a global market?
    Best

    Sarah

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for your kind words!

      I actually work for GlobeIn and our mission is to connect artisans to the global marketplace 🙂 There is definitely a great opportunity for social enterprises to enter this space but, let me tell you, it is not an easy task (as anything in the developing world, really).

      As for slow fashion, I think it will take an effort from both sides, consumers and ethical brands, in order for the industry to really take off. I see some parallels with the impact investing industry here: there has always been a few conscious investors out there but the industry did not start to grow rapidly until key players (individual investors and fund managers) came together and set standards, created new legislations and (in the case of UK) an industry governing body.

      Another key obstacle is pricing: it is extremely hard for Zady’s $36 t-shirt to compete with the $5 t-shirt from H&M. It will take a whole change in consumer mindset for people to start buying $36 t-shirts and this will take time.

      Feel free to connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn if you have any other questions or ideas to discuss.

  2. Justin, thank you for taking time to read the post and for your comment!

    I thought about this too: laws and regulations are often effective tools in getting companies to do what’s morally right. This can and does work in US and other Western Nations. However, if we are talking about developing countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, etc. I don’t see how such rules and regulations can ever be established and, much less so, properly enforced. Stephanie Hepburn mentions a few attempts at establishing minimum wage, which led to deadly demonstrations in Cambodia and to a whopping wage of $68/month in Bangladesh.

    The governments in the developing world will gladly take any business offer from a big corporation and will gladly close their eyes if needed. Unless Western corporations are forced to closely watch their supply chain, nobody else will (especially in the developing countries). And the only thing that holds power over corporations is money. Consumers are the ones with the money. That’s how I see it at least. (This HBR article uses an example of Goodweave, a company that certifies rug makers in India who don’t use child labor, as an example of what consumer power can achieve: https://hbr.org/2015/05/two-keys-to-sustainable-social-enterprise).

    I am all for supporting trade unions and the right of workers in all countries but I do not see how it can be achieved, given corruption levels in the developing world.

    In terms of where the extra money that we pay for garments goes, I think the likes of Zady will disagree with you on that. I believe there is more to “ethical companies” than just capital. (Not all of them are created equal, but…) If I can’t trust brands whose whole existence is around transparency, fair wages, etc. who can I trust?

  3. Justin

    Or you know, states could pass laws ensuring adequate pay regulations. The problem is capital will always extract the maximum value possible from workers. The portion of a cheap garment’s price going to the person making is miniscule. This could easily be doubled, trebled or more without significantly increasing the retail cost of the product. Does the extra £10 or 20 you spend on an ethical garment actually go to the person making it? Probably not, a small fraction of it does and the product just exists as a high margin niche product to make “consumers” feel better about themselves. Want to help garment workers? Support trade unions and the right of workers in all countries to negotiate the terms of their employment if not collective ownership of the very factories in which they work. Consumer power is a neoliberal myth and it’s sad to still see Dev professionals buy into it.

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