Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained

Wearable impact: Ethical fashion explained


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This guest post by Liza Moiseeva was originally published in WhyDev, a blog for individuals passionate about development, aid, and other global issues.


Green fashion, eco-fashion, slow fashion, fair trade. Not to mention the “buy-one-give-one” models that companies like TOMS and Warby Parker so successfully implement, despite ongoing criticism from aid professionals. What hides behind all these trendy terms? And do any of them actually translate into positive social impact?

Why Fashion?

You might be wondering why I’m writing about fashion on a development blog – surely, fashion is the last thing on the minds of aid workers! Social impact, however, is always on our minds (or at least should be), and the global apparel industry has the means (read “money”) to create it. According to a recent report from Euromonitor, global apparel and footwear sales currently total about US $1.8 trillion and are expected to reach US $2 trillion by 2018. That’s a lot of dough.


Graph from TMD 433 Textile Markets

Unfortunately, it feels like about 99.9% (my personal estimate) of these revenues go to fast fashion – a term that expresses the speed at which designs move from catwalk to stores in order to capture the latest trends – companies, which spit out new collections and catalogs of “must-have” items that will be heavily discounted and forgotten after six weeks, when the ever-shortening fashion cycle comes to an end.

How much of these revenues go to the producers, whose hands actually stitched together your pants or my dress? The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh last year, which took the lives of 1,100 garment workers, showed just how bad things are on the flip side of the fashion industry. Workers are not only underpaid, but they often work in unsafe – even deadly – conditions.

But what if the fashion industry could be a source of empowerment instead of exploitation? What if the workers, most of whom are from developing countries, could receive fair pay and work in safe conditions?

Slow Fashion: Beyond the Fair Trade Movement

We all have some idea of what “fair trade” is. According to FairTrade International, it’s “an organized social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability.” Essentially, this means producers get a say in how much they receive for their products. Unfortunately, fair trade is mostly about coffee, cotton, and chocolate.

The apparel industry is a whole other game, and big fashion brands aren’t embracing the ethical consumerism trend as wholeheartedly as they would have us think. Take for example H&M’s Conscious Collection, which abides by seven commitments:

– Provide fashion for conscious customers
– Choose and reward responsible partners
– Be ethical
– Be climate smart
– Reduce, reuse, recycle
– Use natural resources responsibly
– Strengthen communities

The company claims to pay fair living wages to all its workers and impose strict regulations on all its factories. It sounds great, but is it really having an impact? And what about all the rest of H&M’s collections? And the fact that they change every three weeks and that, in the end, they still promote unnecessary and wasteful consumption?

The slow fashion movement goes beyond “sustainable collections.” The term was coined in 2008 by sustainable design consultant Kate Fletcher and is “about the consumer becoming aware of the whole process–from design through production through use and through the potential to reuse.”

Perhaps, the best example of slow fashion is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company (and a certified B-Corp) that not only promotes fair labour practices through it whole supply chain but also advocates responsible consumption. Through its Common Threads Partnership, the brand actually encourages customers to buy less, by promising apparel of great quality that Patagonia will repair if and when needed.


Graphic by Patagonia

Now that’s whole different story, isn’t it?

Supporting Artisans

Next, there is a whole generation of companies who work with artisans from developing countries. Artisan trades are the second-largest “employer” in the developing world. However, most of this economic activity is offline, and it faces increasing threats from retail globalization. But more and more emerging fashion brands are starting to work with artisans – not only providing employment, but also preserving and promoting traditional cultural crafts.

One such brand is Matr Boomie (formerly Handmade Designs), “a wholesale fair trade collection from India that marries modern design sensibility with inspiring traditional art forms.” I’m singling this company out particularly because of their fair trade Artisan Assessment Index (the first of its kind to my knowledge), which strives to quantify Matr’s social impact. While I’ve yet to see the full index, their sustainability report details their wages paid to artisans, sums reinvested in artisanal communities, material scorecards (measuring their environmental effects), air shipping reduction, etc. This is one of the few examples of social impact reporting by a fashion company.

Bringing Artisans Online

E-commerce is taking over global retail, but most artisans have typically worked entirely offline. Now, companies like Ten Thousand Villages, Etsy and Fair Trade Winds sell artisans’ products on the Internet, giving them a global market base.

In conclusion, I have great hopes for the future of ethical fashion and I hope you will as well! If you look hard enough, you’ll discover a whole new generation of new fashion companies, which have a new vision for themselves: good quality products and fair wages and safe conditions for workers.

However, these idealistic new fashionistas are up against a strong enemy (big-name, mainstream companies), who can confuse buyers in no time: what is ethical fashion and what it is not? As with any new movement, there is a lot to be done. Particularly, there’s a need for clear definitions, and a better understanding among the newcomers about what they want to achieve. Do these companies want to create a real social impact or just make millennials feel better about their excessive shopping habits?

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