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Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained

Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained

We’re pleased to announce that Liza Moiseeva is joining us as a regular contributor! She’s previously written for WhyDev on impact investing, and her monthly articles will focus on social enterprise and private sector-approaches to development.

Green fashion, eco-fashion, slow fashion, fair trade. Not to mention the “buy-one-give-one” models that companies like TOMS and Warby Parker so successfully implement, despite ongoing criticism from aid professionals. What hides behind all these trendy terms? And do any of them actually translate into positive social impact?

Why Fashion?

You might be wondering why I’m writing about fashion on a development blog – surely, fashion is the last thing on the minds of aid workers! Social impact, however, is always on our minds (or at least should be), and the global apparel industry has the means (read “money”) to create it. According to a recent report from Euromonitor, global apparel and footwear sales currently total about US $1.8 trillion and are expected to reach US $2 trillion by 2018. That’s a lot of dough.

Graph from TMD 433 Textile Markets.

Unfortunately, it feels like about 99.9% (my personal estimate) of these revenues go to fast fashion – a term that expresses the speed at which designs move from catwalk to stores in order to capture the latest trends – companies, which spit out new collections and catalogs of “must-have” items that will be heavily discounted and forgotten after six weeks, when the ever-shortening fashion cycle comes to an end.

How much of these revenues go to the producers, whose hands actually stitched together your pants or my dress? The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh last year, which took the lives of 1,100 garment workers, showed just how bad things are on the flip side of the fashion industry. Workers are not only underpaid, but they often work in unsafe – even deadly – conditions.

But what if the fashion industry could be a source of empowerment instead of exploitation? What if the workers, most of whom are from developing countries, could receive fair pay and work in safe conditions?

Slow Fashion: Beyond the Fair Trade Movement

We all have some idea of what “fair trade” is. According to FairTrade International, it’s “an organised social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability.” Essentially, this means producers get a say in how much they receive for their products. Unfortunately, fair trade is mostly about coffee, cotton, and chocolate.

The apparel industry is a whole other game, and big fashion brands aren’t embracing the ethical consumerism trend as wholeheartedly as they would have us think. Take for example H&M’s Conscious Collection, which abides by seven commitments:

  • Provide fashion for conscious customers
  • Choose and reward responsible partners
  • Be ethical
  • Be climate smart
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Use natural resources responsibly
  • Strengthen communities

The company claims to pay fair living wages to all its workers and impose strict regulations on all its factories. It sounds great, but is it really having an impact? And what about all the rest of H&M’s collections? And the fact that they change every three weeks and that, in the end, they still promote unnecessary and wasteful consumption?

The slow fashion movement goes beyond “sustainable collections.” The term was coined in 2008 by sustainable design consultant Kate Fletcher and is “about the consumer becoming aware of the whole process–from design through production through use and through the potential to reuse.”

Perhaps, the best example of slow fashion is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company (and a certified B-Corp) that not only promotes fair labour practices through it whole supply chain but also advocates responsible consumption. Through its Common Threads Partnership, the brand actually encourages customers to buy less, by promising apparel of great quality that Patagonia will repair if and when needed.

Graphic by Patagonia.
Graphic by Patagonia.

Now that’s whole different story, isn’t it?

Supporting Artisans

Next, there is a whole generation of companies who work with artisans from developing countries. Artisan trades are the second-largest “employer” in the developing world. However, most of this economic activity is offline, and it faces increasing threats from retail globalisation. But more and more emerging fashion brands are starting to work with artisans – not only providing employment, but also preserving and promoting traditional cultural crafts.

One such brand is Matr Boomie (formerly Handmade Designs), “a wholesale fair trade collection from India that marries modern design sensibility with inspiring traditional art forms.” I’m singling this company out particularly because of their fair trade Artisan Assessment Index (the first of its kind to my knowledge), which strives to quantify Matr’s social impact. While I’ve yet to see the full index, their sustainability report details their wages paid to artisans, sums reinvested in artisanal communities, material scorecards (measuring their environmental effects), air shipping reduction, etc. This is one of the few examples of social impact reporting by a fashion company.

Bringing Artisans Online

E-commerce is taking over global retail, but most artisans have typically worked entirely offline. Now, companies like Ten Thousand Villages, Etsy and Fair Trade Winds sell artisans’ products on the Internet, giving them a global market base. At GlobeIn, the social start-up I work for, customers buy directly from artisans, who receive 100% of the asking price for their products (higher than the price paid to them by resellers from local markets and bazaars.) GlobeIn provides its services for free for all artisans, making the platform affordable for even the artisans living in the poorest and most remote regions of the world. Besides being an e-commerce platform, GlobeIn is also a network of individuals and partner organizations who support artisans on the ground and often provide them with business and computer training. The company has just launched its first iOS app, which turns your phone into a street market – one where artisans get fair prices for their creations.

In conclusion, I have great hopes for the future of ethical fashion and I hope you will as well! If you look hard enough, you’ll discover a whole new generation of new fashion companies, which have a new vision for themselves: good quality products and fair wages and safe conditions for workers.

However, these idealistic new fashionistas are up against a strong enemy (big-name, mainstream companies), who can confuse buyers in no time: what is ethical fashion and what it is not? As with any new movement, there is a lot to be done. Particularly, there’s a need for clear definitions, and a better understanding among the newcomers about what they want to achieve. Do these companies want to create a real social impact or just make millennials feel better about their excessive shopping habits?

Featured image by The Hudson Company.

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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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13 thoughts on “Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained

  1. Liza, thank you for posting on this topic. I used to work for a fair trade apparel manufacturer in West Africa and I can relate. There is so much waste throughout the apparel supply chain from the manufacturer to the consumer (even in fair trade). Until consumers realise that the industry’s waste issue is a two part problem, the market for one-sided solutions will likely grow. Everlane, a San Francisco based start-up, is another interesting company to check out. They don’t label themselves as an ethical fashion brand, but they do encourage conscious consumption.

    1. Claire, that is so interesting that you have actually seen how a fair trade apparel company works. I would love to see it for myself too. I am wondering what kind of standards they have to oblige to and if there are any universally-accepted fair trade apparel manufacturing standards?

      You are absolutely right about the waste issue! I have just recently been told about this and I am glad to hear that there are some bright minds who are working on addressing this problem and diverting all this waste!

  2. Great article, I have talked about these topics and people like Summer are still some of the very few exploring this topic. I wrote a piece on how contradicting H&M’s Conscious collection is and, like it’s happening with the Slow Food movement, there will be tons of contradictions and people misleading customers, that’s why the tast starts with each one of us.

  3. […] Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained | WhyD&#101&#118 […]

  4. You are absolutely correct that confusing ‘greenwashing’ and ‘ethicalwashing’ is done by large multinational fashion houses, which may lead consumers into a false sense that they are making and ethical and sustainable purchase. This is the major reason why I started my ethical and sustainable fashion blog- to educate ethically minded consumers on the truly ethical independent alternatives. Fashion purchases can absolute have an impact, but only when we commit to buying from small scale quality producers that are committed to their workers and the environment. As long as we continue to buy from ‘fast fashion’ multinational companies, and change is merely window dressing. To education yourself about truly ethical and sustainable clothing options, I’d love you to join the conversation on my blog http://www.tortoiseandladygrey.com

    1. Hi Summer! Thank you for the comment! I think that consumers’ laziness and unwillingness to do their research (we are all guilty of it) is one of the main challenges that prevents slow fashion movement from really taking off, which makes blogs like you a real treasure! 🙂 The other challenge is, of course, the price that comes with handmade, ethically sources products. What do you think?

      1. Hey Liza, I think you are right- many consumers don’t have the time to do their own research, which is why I like to share mine. But I think also many consumers just assume that their aren’t sustainable ethical fashion alternatives out there. That was my mistaken assumption before I started on my sustainable fashion journey. I worked in international and community development for years, including with women migrant workers in China, so I was well aware of the problems with conventional fashion. But for years I made the mistake of assuming that I had no alternatives, and just kept buying the clothes I felt terrible about buying. Once I became aware that there were alternatives, I made the conscious decision to research every purchase and to spend time thinking about whether I actually needed it first. The blog was the logical next step for me- my readers may as well benefit from all my time spent researching sustainable fashion! Price does put consumers off, but I encourage people to rethink their relationship to consumerism, and spend time deciding whether the purchase is needed first, and also to compare like with like. I have found that good quality conventional fashion is a similar price to good quality sustainably and ethically produced fashion so the choice is easy. Plus, when you consider that a good quality blouse will last 5-10 times longer than a poor quality fast fashion version, you begin to see that you will save money in the long run. It just requires a shift in our thinking. To help people think through these issues, I’ve created the 20 Day Sustainable Fashion Challenge, and email-based course that is completely free and helps people to change their thinking around the clothes they buy. I hope people will join me http://www.tortoiseandladygrey.com/20-day-sustainable-fashion-challenge/
        I am absolutely committed to changing the way the fashion industry operates by encouraging social change at the consumer level. When consumers provide a market for ethical/sustainable fashion, it encourages more independent designers down that path. Social activism aimed at fighting the old has an important place in changing fashion, but I choose to focus on positive social action which builds the new. Without consumers, the harmful fast fashion market cannot exist!

        1. Great resources and good for for thought in this conversation 🙂

  5. As someone who is trying to figure out both how to go post Eco in the eco-conscious space to open it to a broader space, while trying to figure out what it will take to get the kind of scale that food has gotten around textile. I really like this piece.
    -gratitude from the http://www.ishivest.com team!

    1. Thank you for the compliment, Harish! I am super excited to get feedback from people like you who are working to make sustainable fashion a reality, (a clearly defined one and the one creating real social impact). I would love to chat with Ishivest some more! Maybe there is an opportunity for collaboration with GlobeIn?

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