One of the big questions we are asking is ‘what does ethical fashion even mean?’ What do companies do to try to be ‘ethical’? Let’s take a look at some of the most common practices.
Fair trade certification is a product certification system claiming that a product meets certain environmental, labor, and business development standards. FairTrade USA certifies products made in the US, while Fair Trade International certifies everything made internationally. One of the critiques of this method is that this certification can exclude the poorest countries and smallest producers from the fair trade market, because the process of getting certified can be cost-prohibitive and difficult to navigate. This label is most often seen on items like coffee or chocolate, but there are an increasing number of clothing brands that have received the Fair Trade certification.
Made in the USA (or Canada)
Because the United States has labor regulations to ensure safe factory conditions and a minimum wage to ensure fair wages, this is often considered an ethical option. However, items labeled as ‘Made in the USA’ aren’t necessarily made of materials that are manufactured in the US (fabric, zippers, buttons, etc), so there is a chance that the supply chain is hiding unethical conditions. Additionally, one could argue that the minimum wage is not high enough to be considered a living wage in America. For example, in Texas the minimum wage is $7.25/hr, which adds up to $15k per year. The 2014 Federal Poverty Level Threshold for two people (say a single mom and her child) is $15,730. Furthermore, ‘Made in the USA’ is certainly not a guarantee of an ethically made product since companies freely break those laws in favor of higher profits (see Forever 21 several years ago). Still, better regulations and higher transparency can make purchasing ‘Made in the USA’ a good option, and perhaps a best option depending on the company. Another advantage of purchasing products made in the US is the ability to keep these trade jobs in country to help boost our economy. Only 2% of clothing purchased in America is made in the US, down from 50% in 1990. Exporting jobs to cheaper factories overseas contributes to the loss of American garment trades, and the decline of domestic wages.
Think of slow fashion as a cousin to the slow food movement. Slow fashion items, similar to home cooked foods, are made with care and sustenance: quality, classic, traditional, small batch productions, often with local production chains. It encourages taking time to ensure quality production, giving value to the product, and contemplating the connection with the environment. We are looking forward to talking more about this in future blog posts with some really inspiring examples!
This category is sometimes a subset of slow fashion. It encompasses everything from the mom crocheting headbands while her child naps to the artisan weavers in South America keeping cultural traditions alive. Small batch production, artisan techniques, and hand finished details – these are the marks of handmade items. Handmade items can be expensive depending on the quality of materials used and the time spent making the product. However, you are sure to receive something that is unique and created with care.
This term describes the raw materials for the fabric an item is produced from; it refers to the ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. This can only apply to natural fibers: cotton, linen, and wool. You won’t find any organic polyester! The USDA National Organic Program sets the standards regulating the labeling of organic products in the United States, and worldwide there is Global Organic Textile Standard Certification.
Trade Not Aid, Mission-Driven or Social Enterprise
This is one of our favorite categories because we love what some companies are doing to work with artisan groups to make their crafts and traditions known to the world, and how they are empowering entire groups of people to rise out of poverty. These companies focus on providing a living wage to their artisans, which varies from country to country. A living wage is broadly understood as pay high enough to cover the cost of a family’s basic needs such as food and water, housing and energy, clothing, healthcare, transportation, education and childcare, as well as modest funds for savings and discretionary spending. There are tons of companies that we love in this genre and we will be sharing them with you over time!
Companies like Everlane are making everything available for consumers to see – the conditions of their factories across the world, their supply chains and the costs of everything that goes into the product. The transparency of product costs and product markup allows you to purchase a t-shirt knowing that you have not paid more for it than its worth. (In traditional retail, a designer shirt is marked up 8x by the time it reaches the customer.) Additionally, this transparency offers a safer production chain for garment workers.
This category includes your local thrift store, vintage shops, and online thrift stores like ThredUp (*referral link) or Twice (*referral link). Thrifting is a great way to begin engaging in the ethical fashion conversation; you can save money and you aren’t supporting the corporations that are dealing with unethical supply chains. You promote reuse and recycling instead of trash. Thrifting may not get to the root of the Fast Fashion issue, since many thrift stores sell poorly made, stylish clothing in addition to higher-quality items. Still, it is a valid and inexpensive option for ethical consumers.
Upcycling is often a combination of the Reuse/Thrifting and Handmade category. When you upcycle something, you do not break down the materials as you do in recycling. You take old or discarded materials and modify them into something useful. For clothing, this could look like turning old t-shirts into yarn and crocheting a handbag, thrifting a dress that is too big and tailoring it to fit you, or taking an old pair of jeans and turning it into a jean skirt.
The most common recycled fabric is PET – Plastic bottles that are processed into polyester yarn. Polyester lasts for a long time, is very durable, and has the potential for multiple life-cycles because the garment can be recycled again. The downside is that polyester is a petroleum-based product and will never biodegrade. Other natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, can be recycled as well when they are shredded back into their fiber state and re-spun, in combination with virgin fiber into yarn.
Zero-waste, while not a new concept (think Kimonos and Saris), is beginning to make it’s way into mainstream modern clothing. This is a method of clothing production generates little to no textile waste. “Zero-waste fashion design refers to fashion design that ensures that all of the fabric used to make a garment is in the garment. On average, 15 percent of fabric used to make the clothes we wear is wasted during manufacture. All fabric embodies investments of material, water, energy, and labor; recycling fabric waste can only recapture some of these investments. Avoiding waste is always better than recycling it,” (Timo Rissanen, professor at Parsons in New York).
This is another area where fashion is similar to food. Through purchasing items that have been designed or produced locally, you reduce CO2 emissions from shipping, support your local economy and local jobs, and possibly even create long term relationships with local vendors.
What to focus on?
So many options, right? We have found it helpful to identify which factors are personally most important to us. Often, companies that embrace one of these ideals naturally encompass multiple facets of ethical fashion practices.
None of these categories should be considered a fail safe, and products that do not fall into one these categories are not necessarily unethical. There are factories in China with excellent working conditions where workers are treated fairly and paid well for their work. There are factories in America where workers are exploited, work in poor conditions, and aren’t paid fairly. It’s worth doing the research on individual companies, figuring out what categories are most important to you, and finding businesses that align with your views and price point. This is something we will dig into more as we continue this discussion.
A recent article in Forbes regarding Mission-Driven Companies states that most American consumers are not aware of which businesses are providing socially responsible products and services and that there needs to be a grass roots education effort. This is one of our goals with this blog – we want to be the grass roots effort among our friends, and hopefully beyond!
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