Can Fashion Clean Up Its Act?

Can Fashion Clean Up Its Act?

In the wake of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza disaster, consumers are showing new interest in brands that do right by their workers.


Protesters hold up a sign commemorating those killed in clothing factory tragedies in Bangladesh outside Wal-Mart Stores Inc. headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas June 5, 2013. Reuters/Rick Wilking 

Nearly three months after a factory collapse stole the lives of 1,129 garment workers in Bangladesh—and, along with them, our peace of mind about what we wear—progress for Bangladesh’s factory workers has been slow at best. The New York Times has described just how “disorganized and haphazard,” and in some cases entirely ineffective, the process of inspecting the country’s factories has been thus far. And some of the biggest US retailers have refused to sign on to a legally binding factory safety accord.

Indeed, reading some of the reports, it’s easy to despair about what an ordinary shopper can do. It’s true that the mass-market clothing industry, as it exists now, is not at all transparent. It’s almost impossible to determine if what we wear is ethically made. And yet, despite all of the daunting challenges laid bare by Rana Plaza, there are ways consumers can have an impact, ranging from being conscious about which companies are making efforts to be more responsible, to adjusting our buying habits and patterns, to thinking about what it means to support domestically made clothes.

Also, thanks to Rana Plaza, we now know disturbing details about exactly how “big fashion” companies have been doing business. The story, briefly, goes like this: around the mid- to late aughts, when rapid changes in trends and ultra-low-priced fashion became a worldwide phenomenon, supply chains grew too fast and without proper investment in safety and workplace standards.

Case in point: just a month after the Rana Plaza collapse, Walmart—in a show of commitment to safety—released a list of more than 200 factories banned from producing its products in Bangladesh, saying those suppliers did not meet its list of workplace standards (Walmart is the second-largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh, after H&M). Less than a month later, ProPublica reported that two of Walmart’s so-called banned factories sent “massive shipments” to Walmart stores as recently as late May. The story crystallized an image of lumbering corporate fashion entities that, despite what they say, have little connection with and no control over their supply chains.

Still, some promising post–Rana Plaza measures have emerged. The Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh is an entry point for consumers looking to support decent workplaces with their dollars. This union-sponsored agreement dedicates funds to upgrade the infrastructure and safety equipment of factories throughout Bangladesh. Most important, it’s legally binding. More than seventy of the world’s largest brands—including many based in Europe, like H&M and Zara, and some US companies like PVH, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch—have signed on.

However, US retail giants Gap, Walmart, Macy’s, Sears, Target, L.L. Bean and Kohl’s are among the seventeen companies that have shunned the deal in favor of a much weaker pact, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Where the original plan holds retailers accountable for funding repairs and improvements, the Alliance requires Bangladesh’s factories to fix problems themselves (or pay back a loan for repairs). If the factories can’t or don’t get up to code, the Alliance’s retailers say they will simply cancel orders and cut ties. Some activists are taking to the streets to protest the retailers who have embraced the weaker plan. In late June, student-led demonstrations were held in front of Gap and Walmart stores in over twenty-five US cities as well as Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan. But it remains to be seen whether bad publicity will cost these brands more than they are saving with their deadly low-cost subcontracting practices.

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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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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).

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