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The ethical fashion revolution

A recent fashion trend is changing how we value our clothes, writes Jay Ng.

In June 2014, a woman in the UK found a call for help written in the label of a Primark garment. Rumour circulated that the message was allegedly written by a Chinese prison worker, who claims that he has to work 15 hours a day to make clothes for Primark, a fast fashion chain. Another rumour says workers in Bangladesh sewed it. ‘Labelgate’ sparked discussions on the problems with fast fashion, after the tragedy happened in April 2013 at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. Numerous articles have been published on how unethical is a $2 t-shirt. Many suggest solutions or who to blame, but is anyone listening?

This is particularly crucial as consumers warmly welcomed the introduction of fast fashion chains such as H&M and Zara in Australia. Local Australian fashion institutions like Ksubi went into liquidation and Myers and David Jones were well aware of the competition fast fashion poses. Australian consumers need to understand there is more behind a $5 shirt. A piece of clothing requires numerous workers to produce raw materials (often cotton) from planting to yarning, and cut and sew in factories. The current fashion market is designed and marketed to make us ignore the production process.

In Bangladesh, factory workers’ minimum monthly wages is US$68; it was increased by 77 percent last year from US$39 per month due to the Rana Plaza tragedy. It was also reported that factory workers in countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and China have working hours as long as 19 hours a day. Such a statistic is not surprising when retailers like Zara can design, produce and shelve products in just 15 days.

Fast fashion brands – such as Primark, Zara and H&M – remain hugely successful despite the growing attention to their problematic supply chain issues. Bucking against the trend, a small but growing number of fashion enthusiasts have started to create demand elsewhere. They wear the conscious shopper badge and shop from fashion social enterprises – stores or brands committed to ethically produced fashion and giving back to the community. Shopping from fashion social enterprises allows one to get access to garments that were made with respect and integrity, as well as quality. Interest in these enterprises has been bolstered by the fact that many consumers were already concerned with the lack of quality in fast fashion. Everyone knows a $3.95 knit from Forever 21 won’t last all that long.

This is not something particularly new to fashion, but the nature, and success, of social enterprise in the industry has changed over time. In the past, many fashion social enterprises around the world only focused on being ethical and forgot that fashion is a commodity. Clothes are only valuable if people want to buy them, and any brand needs a dose of realism to survive. Many older enterprises made products that were not appealing to customers and could not sustain those businesses. Hence, it completely defeats the purpose of helping the ones in need.

Fashion social enterprises have always had to fight against the perception that they are ‘not chic’ is still in many people’s mind. A new generation of fashion social enterprise has emerged, particularly in the post-GFC period, which are flourishing. TOMS, Oscar Wylee and Bottletop are a few well-known fashion social enterprises that started their businesses in the past decade or so. These new brands marketing themselves as ethical are doing a better job providing commericalised ethical products that suit the tastes of many. They seem to be driven by many young university graduates with bright business minds who took note of how the public expressed outrage at exploitative, risky and unethical businesses. These entrepreneurs are taking a myriad of different approaches, but all trying to do something positive whilst still making profit.

In America, Maiyet is a new brand to luxury and ethical fashion that hires artisans ‘from unexpected places’ such as Kenya and India, as opposed to how luxury goods production is exclusive to European countries like France and Spain. Paul van Zyl, the co-founder of Maiyet, explains that this is a first in luxury fashion, without patronizing developing countries. The company has been so successful that fashion editors overwhelmingly applaud their designs at fashion shows, and the worth of the company has skyrocketed.

Quality and ethical fashion products are not exclusive to the rich. Everlane provides quality and affordable clothing on top of their ‘radical transparency’ approach. Customers know everything about their clothing from factories to a clear chart of cost breakdown. It has also runs successful marketing campaigns with famous Instagram users, mostly artists and photographers, as opposed to fashion bloggers. The choice highlights their focus on craftsmanship and slow fashion. Fashion bloggers have been blamed for recent surges in impulsive shopping in fast fashion, especially those that team up with unaffordable fashion houses whilst simultaneously emphasising new and unmissable trends.

With brands that market themselves as social enterprise, the reality is not always as great as the marketing image. TOMS sells shoes with the Buy-One Give-One model; for every pair of shoes you buy, one will be donated to someone in need. This consumerist ‘feel-good’ approach has been incredibly successful – TOMS are stocked in major department stores all over the world. Adriana Herrera, CEO of Fashioning Change, a website that curates ethical fashion brands and products, wrote in the New York Times that TOMS did not make the cut for her website because the shoes are manufactured in developing countries where the workers don’t get paid fairly. Other critics have agreed that the way TOMS fills its labour needs contributes to the root cause
of poverty.

In Australia, fashion social enterprise is quite different. The Social Studio is a successful non-profit social enterprise based in Melbourne. Established in 2010, it focuses on local skill development, rather than just the products made or overseas workers, and provides practical training for new migrants and refugees to learn skills in fashion, design and retail. The brand provides students with programs to learn from professionals from fashion industry and express themselves creatively without being restricted by any language barrier. The products these students design are sold to the public, with profits then invested into further programs for students. The brand has benefited students by giving them positive experiences in Australia and a sense of productive community, as well as providing them with a multifaceted education and future employment opportunities.

Fedila, a fashion student describes her experience with The Social Studio: “It’s fun here, we are like family. I love making clothes, the photo-shoots and modeling all the wonderful clothes.” It is great to see how fashion makes a difference for refugees and new migrants in Australia, which contrasts with the portrayals of them in mainstream media. Last month, The Social Outfit, a sister organisation of The Social Studio opened their door in Newtown and provide similar programs for refugees and new migrants in Sydney. Jackie Ruddock, CEO of The Social Outfit, said “the Newtown community has been very welcoming and supportive of programs, events and donations of fabrics”.

As many NGOs and commentators have suggested, retailers should take an active role to commit to ethical fashion by reducing unnecessary textile waste, invest in better production systems to prevent water pollution and so on. Consumers have a responsibility as well. We have a lot of power to decide how we shop and where we shop. As consumers, we have a choice to shop with conscience. Staying conscious is a start- we need to show retailers that there are purposes behind our purchases and that we care about how our clothes are being made and how workers were being treated. It is important to slow down and develop our own style to avoid making mistakes when we purchase goods. It is up to us to shop better; we must take responsibility by researching brands that produce goods ethically and support them.

Photograph by Jay Ng.