Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable?

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Fashion is driven by desire. But ethical fashion has been driven by — well, what exactly? A wish to semaphore that one is a caring kind of person while walking through life in pleather shoes? There are, of course, style-setters so chic they can rock a hand-loomed yak hair poncho, being good while looking great. The writer is not one of those people.

The writer is, however, a veteran of more than 25 years on the front lines of fashion, possessed of a deep hatred of waste which jars, somewhat, with a love of glamour. Thus, when “green” fashion started to attract attention, I admired the effort but the results just didn’t chime. Ditto those “pity purchase” ranges, created by supermodels, to which I was often allergic because the products weren’t super enough.

This is not to suggest that all supermodel endeavours are empty. Lily Cole and Liya Kibede spring to mind as two whose deep commitment is tangible.

But overall, I am yet to meet the woman who opens her wardrobe in the morning and declares with glee, “Today I want to look ethical.” Most of us, let’s be honest, just want to look as good as we can, add accessories and get out of the house.

Is the tote I’m slinging my laptop into made with fair labour? Is the black t-shirt I have on under my jacket organic cotton? Have all environmental concerns been checked? Nope, not going to happen at 8am. What about getting up to speed at point of purchase instead? No again. A bristling of swing tags, trumpeting good deeds, can be really annoying when they catch in your underwear in the fitting room.

It is my absolute belief that ethical goods have to appeal, even if you don’t know the back story, but, on the flip side, that the fashion goods we desire should be made in the most ethical way possible. Why not? Why shouldn’t sustainability be as central to style as silhouette? Why should it be hard to stride forth in the confidence that you are doing no harm to people or planet?

Maybe the answer lies in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, if only we could be bothered to read those documents companies typically post online. Actually, I do bother. But I find that despite all the moody images of spring leaves and footprints in the sand, CSR brochures tend to muddy the pure blue water — not with what is written, but what is left out. The “light industry” that is fashion can be far from transparent.

So here’s some good news: a rather unusual bunch of bright people are about to get together to grapple with making fashion better. At the end of next week, on June 17th, just before presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro to agree on a way forward for sustainable development, the United Nations Global Compact will host the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. Within more than 60 sessions focused on key sustainability issues, there is one that, perhaps, you would not normally expect: “Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” organized by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. Its focus? Clothes, bags, shoes.

Speakers at this fashion session will include an immaculately dressed Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff and a Fendi with an obsession for plastic carrier bags — or, more accurately, an obsession with how to reduce the mountains of them leaching carcinogenic dioxins into hotchpotch neighbourhoods of the world’s poorest people.

The session aims to demonstrate that it is, indeed, very possible to do good while making profits. Joining Boff and Ilaria Venturini Fendi will be Aminata Traore, who hails from Mali, dresses to turn heads and advocates for making the global use of cotton more fair, alongside Auret van Heerden, president of non-profit group Fair Labor Association, whose political consciousness was forged in opposition to apartheid in his native South Africa. Then there’s the American, Willa Shalit, who, by treading softly, continues to lead some of fashion’s biggest names through the complex challenges of working in Haiti.

But the purpose of all this goes beyond letting some people with good accessories vent for an afternoon. The stated aim of the session is to produce a “roadmap” — free to use — to help big global fashion business become more fair, more green, more inclusive yet never less chic. The panel will be led by Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a United Nations agency for which (disclosure) I have been a consultant since 2009.

How this growing force for ethical fashion differs from others is that Cipriani’s instruction was to conceive a major initiative that would contribute towards two key priorities of the UN: eradicating extreme poverty and empowering women.

He could have said, “let’s open a factory to make tractors.” Instead he said, “I must call Vivienne Westwood.”

We are in Kenya, mid afternoon. After a long drive, there is a longer march to a squatter village, as the community we are visiting have lost their ancestral home to a land grab. The singing of Maasai women acts as an aural navigator.

The matriarch appears first, having donned her finery, adding a towering beaded headdress to her usual daywear collars and cuffs. Vivienne Westwood also dresses for the occasion, ducking into a goat-pen to slip on sky-high rocking horse shoes. Thus do two stylish women utterly “get” one another, then get down to business.

The death of animals due to drought had both unsettled this community and increased domestic violence. While it is the first time Westwood has visited, two seasons worth of orders from her company have allowed the local women to restock the animals, restoring pride to their men and some tranquility to their own lives.

Though they belong to a deeply patriarchal society, these women now have economic power. The matriarch makes this clear. How big an increase is there to be on an order for leather cuffs beaded with the word “SEX?” she wants to know. The negotiations conclude with an additional order for beaded bag panels that read “ILOVE CRAP.” Pure Westwood. Crap, of course, is what this absolutely isn’t.

This is just one small community among many — some rural, some in slums — where lives are being improved by fashion businesses which respond to the real needs of marginalised people. While the fashion world typically thrives on last minute change, this system must be planned in recognition that overtime is not possible in places where, to be safe, women must be home before nightfall. There are also crops to tend, which means that workers might only work three months of the year.

But make no mistake. The impact is real.

Before the orders from Westwood, a key source of income in the village we visit came from the sale of charcoal, which, when burned as fuel, has a devastating consequence in terms of carbon emissions. Dame Vivienne is an ardent advocate against climate change, yet she is amazed; her designs for beaded adornments are having a direct effect of preserving our environment.

Furthermore, Kenyan women typically earn between 150 and 300 Kenyan Shillings (KSH) per day, if they can find work at all. For a Westwood order, for which there is an expectation of high quality, the rate is an average of KSH 600 daily, a substantial increase that translates into quantifiable female empowerment. Indeed, over 70 percent of women working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative now understand banking and have accounts with the Cooperative Bank or the Kenya Women Finance Trust, a microfinance lending institution. And while the Masaai community we visit are squatters, others working for the Ethical Fashion Initiative have been able to use a steady income to rent better accommodation. In another, more settled rural community, the profits from Westwood are evident in a new water tank.

“In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer and in due proportion lodged in his hand.” So said John Ruskin (1819-1900). But while his words ring true today, a Victorian gent who behaved very oddly towards his wife perhaps isn’t the fashion model we seek. So let’s update and call this “Hermès economics” for not only is the craftsman who makes your Birkin getting a proper pay packet and a hot lunch, but the water downstream of the tannery must be cleaner than the water found upstream.

Transfer that challenge to a tannery in Uganda. When Simone Cipriani was a boy, growing up in Florence, tanneries still pumped unfiltered sludge into the Arno, which made standing on the Ponte Vecchio decidedly whiffy. We wouldn’t tolerate that today. So how to make sure a tannery in Uganda does not discharge water effluents into the mighty Nile at inestimable cost to those living on its banks in several countries? The actual cost of a filtering system is about $10,000 — not insurmountable when factored in as small increments onto the finished cost of a bag, or a shoe.

It’s a myth, in my experience, that fashion people are silly people. Many of us are bright and thoughtful but we’d appreciate some guidance. Hopefully next week’s think tank in Rio will provide that.

Marion Hume is a fashion journalist based in London. For more than two decades, she has written for newspapers and magazines in the US, the UK and Australia.

“Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative will take place June 17th 2012 as part of the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, hosted by the United Nations Global Compact.

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  1. I absolutely agree that for the majority of people to buy ‘ethical fashion’, it needs to be beautiful, wearable and accessible. I really think there is some beautiful and ethical fashion around at the moment but it is not quite as accessible to everyone as it could be and not everyone knows about it. Although in some ways sustainability and fashion seem to be a contradiction, surely in the long run a fashion business (as with any other business) needs to be sustainable in order to survive. I really hope that this forum helps to shed some light on how this could work. Looking forward to hearing more!

  2. I am all for ethical fashion if it becomes accessible to everyone, and by everyone I mean the masses. But until then, it is a Herculean task to get everyone to bewail over what’s in their wardrobe.

  3. The initial reason for me to become involved in ethical fashion was simply for the sustainability of my own health. It is no coincidence that the very same chemicals that off gas from the products we use every day are directly related to many diseases such as cancer. The cumulative factor of everything we are exposed to makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint just one culprit. We have to look beyond just our momentary existence and comfort to see the joy and fulfillment in doing what feels right for us. Yes it’s so cliche but finding the balance and union in who we are and this incredible universe will bring more beauty and peace to your overall being than any possession. Sometimes, I do wonder if it’s best to stop designing and creating, but when it’s your blood you must try to find a way. “Ethical fashion” or simply trying to find materials that are less toxic and supporting responsible manufacturing has been my direction. In the end will it all matter? Not sure, but I can tell you thus far it has been the most fulfilling adventure of my life.

  4. Spot on point of view, Marion. Our ecommerce start-up, currently in the concept phase, has identified the rising stars of ec0-design and, to the comments above, will bring these designers to the masses. Our standards are high in terms of aesthetic, sustainability and fair trade. But, we are very confident that the time is right to turn our vision into a reality. Follow our journey @ http://www.beautifuli.com. Also on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

    twitter_shop_beautifuli from Littleton, CO, United States
  5. We, the next (fashion) generation, are thankful for that.


    Laís GS from Piracicaba, São Paulo, Brazil
  6. When I started my 1st business- 20 years ago, I was disgusted at the amount of waste involved in clothing manufacturing (at all levels). My goal was to manufacture-only-to-order & cut only what sold. This is what we do today and we are committed to creating pieces that can be worn and enjoyed (and last) for years. So while companies like mine can address eco and sustainability in our small way – we have limited influence on the broader supply chain. The Mass model – with regards to both manufacturing and consumers habits – in addition to addressing clean and ethical sourcing- has also got to fix the incredible wastefulness involved.

  7. I hope that at some point in the not-too-distant future sustainable design/production will be a voluntary and ubiquitous fact of the fashion industry. Until then (and I’m not holding my breath), we’ll rely on visionaries to create beautiful garments for us to wear that honor all the hands that are part of the process from raw materials to POS.

    We’ll also rely on consumers to demand transparency, sustainability and accountability- consumers who are willing to pay the higher prices that come along with all that.

    If we can encourage both those trends, then we just might make it work.

    twitter_MagnetismFactor from Richmond, VA, United States
  8. Here’s also a goid question to think about? As fashion is season, people should really think on the path that their piece of cloth will take after they don’t want them anymore. And the same should be questioned for the designers that don’t sell all of their collection? What kind of end will they take? Will they go to those outlet stories? But what if it’s not nice to the designer’s brand? What to do with these products that were left out? This a green issue! Not to incinerate then is a good start point!

    Barbara forster from São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
  9. Fashion certainly can be ethical and stylish. Take a look at http://www.johari.co.uk Creative styles and designs that have wide appeal. All of the products are handmade in Kenya by social enterprise Johari Designs. An 18 month apprenticeship programme delivers valuable skills in design, fabric sourcing, tailoring and jewellery making and helps to empower the young women through skills development and employment. 100% of the profit is fed into Johari Foundation’s Social Development Programmes in Kenya. There should be more businesses like this. Fashion that Changes Lives!

  10. This is a very interesting article. Thank you.
    We are an organization which campaigns for sustainable business in Africas textile industry our focus and expertise is ethical fashion of which the main point is that ethical fashion simply be the norm where all aspects of the textile industry is considered – for people planet and profit.
    When we are there then we wouldn’t even need to discuss what us ethical fashion – it will just be called ‘fashion’

  11. Great article with many excellent points so eloquently made. Let’s hope this initiative brings some change to the industry. I strongly believe that so much of the necessary change needs to be consumer driven. If we as consumers don’t begin to question where clothes have come from producers and retailers won’t make it their priority to clean up the supply chain. As an ethical fashion business (thinkboutique.co.uk) I feel it is our job to not only make ethical fashion desirable and accessible but to raise awareness among consumers that their decisions count towards a bigger movement. One moment to stop and think before buying can and will make a difference!