Can Fashion Clean Up Its Act?
No matter how many people switch to thrift store shopping or donning dresses stitched by a local designer, fast fashion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But big retailers such as H&M operate on such a large scale that even small improvements in their way of doing business can have a seismic impact. H&M, for example, is now the world’s largest consumer of organic cotton. Big brands also have the marketing budgets and know-how to translate ethical fashion for the lay consumer. To the uninitiated, ethical fashion can be overwhelming, an umbrella concept that might include safe working conditions, fair-trade artisanship or domestic production, not to mention the environmental implications, from the use of nontoxic dyes to recycled materials and biodegradable packaging.
Sass Brown, an eco-fashion journalist and a resident director for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s study-abroad program in Italy, admits that operating a fashion company more ethically is “a complex, layered issue,” and she believes that big brands can boil down the principles of conscious shopping: “For your average consumer to make a more conscious choice, it can’t involve too many more layers of consideration.” H&M has a Conscious Collection, for example, made of organic and recycled materials. And Mud Jeans has introduced a leasing program where customers rent denim for a month.
The ethical fashion movement is often said to be about fifteen years behind the local and organic food movement, but the comparisons aren’t entirely accurate. While the food supply is still made up of many varied and smaller-scale entities, fashion is startlingly consolidated, and reforming it will entail getting a handful of very large corporations to change their ways.
Many food products are necessarily grown relatively close to the point of sale to assure freshness. As of 2011, no more than 15 percent of the food consumed in the United States was imported. The fashion industry, on the other hand, is mostly globalized, with supply chains spread across the world. Just from a logistical standpoint, making fashion more transparent and ethical is going to be a more complex undertaking.
There is no easy solution to fashion’s problems, and for the majority of people—those who live in an ethical fashion desert, or for whom paying much more for clothing is not an option—being a responsible fashion consumer for now means supporting chain stores that are making steps in the right direction. Brown says that supporting stores that have signed the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety provides consumers with a “very simple” way to do the right thing. “Who’s signed it? Who hasn’t?” she says. “The bottom line is that they’re not legally responsible, and if they’re not legally responsible, then you’re back to the same old story.”
For fashion to truly stop wrecking the planet and start supporting better work environments, the pace of production on new products will have to be slowed significantly. While consumers can’t stop stores from producing too much clothing, they can buy fewer things—ideally things they love or need. Reusing, recycling and sharing clothes—in which the avoidance of buying new is implicit—is more popular than it has been in decades. Adherents include thrift store shoppers and users of collective consumerism websites like Yerdle, which allows members to exchange underused goods such as clothing (think of that dress with the wacky print on it that you bought and never wore). The website’s slogan is “Why shop when you can share?”
In Swati Argade’s view, people love to tell stories about their clothing—where they bought it, where they’ve worn it, how it makes them feel. As clothing has become increasingly globalized and depersonalized, those stories have become humdrum and often go something like this. Person one: “I love your dress!” Person two: “Thanks! I only paid $5 for it.”
Ethical fashion offers people a chance to build healthier economies and workplaces, but it also gives shoppers the chance tell a more complex and emotionally rewarding story about their clothing. Argade says that people come into Bhoomki wanting to talk about where a garment they’re interested in purchasing comes from and how it’s made. “Most people are interested in having that conversation because they’ve been thinking about organic food for so many years,” she says. The appeal is about connection and engagement, in other words, as much as it is about morality.
On a reporting trip to Bangladesh, Elizabeth Cline saw that Rana Plaza was a disaster waiting to happen. Read “The Case for Ethical Fashion” (May 20).