Can Fashion Clean Up Its Act?
Some brands are now carving out a profitable ethical niche, as a growing number of consumers seek out mass-market retailers that are doing a better job of managing their supply chains and making that difference visible to shoppers. Eileen Fisher is one such company. Among the ways that Eileen Fisher provides transparency is with a hangtag system that categorizes each garment by a set of environmental and labor “call-outs,” to make it clear whether a purchase is fair trade, made in the United States, organic or colored with eco-friendly dye. And starting this fall, a new call-out has been added to clothes made in factories that meet Social Accountability International’s comprehensive SA8000 labor standard. (SA8000 certification entails meeting a strict code of conduct that is verified by a third-party monitoring program.)
One reason Eileen Fisher is able to label its clothes with confidence is that it has a relatively small supply chain and longstanding relationships with the factories it uses (as much as fifteen to twenty years in some cases, says Amy Hall, Eileen Fisher’s director of social consciousness). The company employs thirty-one factories, mostly in China and the United States, to stock its wholesalers, retail stores and websites. By comparison, H&M makes its clothes using more than 785 suppliers and 1,798 factories worldwide (and sells them in 2,500 stores and counting). Gap has more than seventy-eight factories in Bangladesh alone (and 3,000 retail locations). Walmart leverages 60,000 suppliers and owns more than 4,000 stores around the world. “Compared to the Gaps and Walmarts of the world, we’re just barely an office,” says Hall.
Even so, the company’s supply chain isn’t perfect, and its customers are demanding further changes. Hall fields complaints about the fact that Eileen Fisher produces in China: 70 to 80 percent of its clothes are made in just nine factories there. The company defends these arrangements, saying its suppliers are good at maintaining quality and consistency and have the staff to implement codes of conduct. “The Chinese factories are much more equipped to follow through with requests for change,” Hall says. “They’re bigger and have more staff to deal with training and policy.”
One of Eileen Fisher’s Chinese dye houses, for example, recently worked with the company to invest in a greener water- and energy-efficient silk-dyeing process called “bluesign.” Some consumers might like a laundry list of which countries it’s OK to buy from and which to boycott, but no one country’s factories are all good or all bad.
Still, many consumers are opting to avoid the ethical gray area of foreign production. Domestically made garments are increasingly popular and easier to find (Brooks Brothers, Levi’s, J. Crew and Club Monaco are among the major national brands carrying at least some US-made products). Buying local gives shoppers a sense that they are building the economy and bringing jobs home, and designers like it because it gives them control over their product. Swati Argade, who produces a line of domestically made womenswear and owns an ethical fashion boutique in Brooklyn (both called Bhoomki), works closely with three different factories in New York City’s garment district. “I know the sewers and the people who cut my fabric,” Argade says. “There’s a real intimacy and relationship there.”
Consumers are also willing to pay more for locally made clothes. According to a 2012 report by the Boston Consulting Group, 80 percent of American shoppers say they are willing to pay higher prices for products made in the United States, and in fact nearly 60 percent of shoppers said they had consciously chosen more expensive US-made products in the previous month. Argade has seen this sentiment play out at Bhoomki. “When people come into the store, they’re really excited that it’s made in New York,” she says. “Whereas I feel like people come into the store and say, ‘Why is it so expensive if it’s made in India?’”
One of ethical fashion’s greatest challenges is overcoming the cheap mindset of consumers, many of whom still believe that the lowest price is the fairest price and are accustomed to buying clothes in large quantities. (Americans on average purchase sixty-eight garments and seven pairs of shoes per year.) A cotton-strap tank top made by Organic by John Patrick will set you back $70 at Bhoomki, an uncomfortable leap for consumers accustomed to paying $7 for a tank top at Old Navy—and an impossible one for many of this country’s underpaid workers, many of whom toil in retail stores. But consumers with some resources can strive to save up and buy less, while also asking questions of companies about their pricing. The online retailer Everlane follows a model of “radical transparency,” providing customers with extensive information about its factories and the costs behind the clothes it sells (although its emphasis is on product quality, not the working conditions in those factories).
Consumers interested in ethical shopping will find some of the best options away from the strip mall or Main Street, and among small designers, fashion startups and independently owned stores. While early eco-fashion efforts were style-blind, today’s ethical fashion is increasingly fashion-forward: Feral Childe, a womenswear line made in New York City, is known for its artistic, hand-drawn prints as much as for its eco-friendly fabrics. Similarly, fans of Organic by John Patrick rave about the comfort and quality of its chic, minimalist designs. San Francisco’s Amour Vert, one of the leading eco-friendly brands, offers affordable and body-flattering streetwear. All would seamlessly blend in on the streets of New York, Los Angeles or Paris.
The online retail space is booming with ethical fashion options—Modavanti and Fashioning Change are two websites dedicated exclusively to ethical fashion—but there are also an increasing number of brick-and-mortar stores that carry only locally made and conscious-minded fashion lines. A quick Google search for “eco-fashion” or “ethical fashion” in your area might turn up some unexpected options (in addition to the local thrift store, the evergreen green option).
Bhoomki, which opened last October in the progressive neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, carries clothes that Argade says have a “sustainable story,” which can mean that a brand is fair trade, handmade, locally made or eco-friendly. Argade must balance the strong ethics and a strong design aesthetic in choosing lines for her store: “You really want people to buy stuff because they like it without having to shove your philosophy down their throat.” Feral Childe, Organic by John Patrick and Amour Vert are among the store’s offerings.
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