Why you should care
Fashion may be the next sustainability juggernaut. But consumers won’t do it alone.
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Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
In a little utopia within the fashion industry, all the fabrics are organic, all the wages are fair and all the clothes are good-looking.
Whatever you call it – sustainable fashion, ethical clothing, slow fashion – this utopia was until recently pure fantasy. Especially in a world dominated by fast fashion, the high-volume business of cheap clothes that last half a season.
Then came the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013. It killed 1,133 people and injured more than 2,500. Its horrors were broadcast the world over.
70 percent say they’d pay more for ethically sourced clothes … but sustainable fashion is still less than one percent of the overall market.
Today, sustainable fashion is less of a fantasy. Some 70 percent of consumers say they’d pay more for ethically sourced clothes, according to an ISPOS poll last year, and even mega-retailers known for churning inventory, like H&M, are trying to jump on the sustainability train. Fashion schools have embedded sustainability into their core curricula, while a spate of recent books describes the apparel industry’s effects on the rest of the world.
Though it’s still a smidgen of the apparel market, sustainable fashion is taking share. Sales of organic cotton, for instance, more than tripled from 2007 to 2011, reaching $6.8 billion. In Britain, the sustainable fashion market has grown 30 times over since 2000, to $241 million in 2012, according to the Ethical Consumer Markets Report. But it still constitutes less than one percent of sales.
This April 24 is marked for Fashion Revolution Day, a global event intended to remember the Rana Plaza workers and to catapult consumer consciousness ahead. Tagline: Who made your clothes?
Those inside the industry liken Rana’s effect to that of Fast Food Nation, the 2000 exposé of factory farming, or, looking farther back, the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. “Rana really galvanized the conversation around this,” says Mike Noel, of Futerra Sustainability Communications, a consultancy. “And the early adopters and the activists are trying to leverage that to keep the conversation going.”
Still, the phrase “supply chain procurement” isn’t likely to elicit oohs and ahs from fashionistas. Some exemplars of the movement are too lampoonable, and some materials perhaps too avant-garde for a mass market. Consider, for instance, clothing dyes made from osage sawdust (downed trees, only) or dried cochineal bugs ($70 for 250g).
No one claims ethical fashion is an easy sell. Forty percent of respondents to the same ISPOS poll said they prioritized choice and cost over how and where their garments are made. Even in Britain, a global leader in ethical fashion, the “ethical” segment constitutes less than one percent of total sales. Estimates of the size of the segment in the U.S. run even lower.
Can we really shop ourselves into a perfect world?
What’s more, the movement is still defining itself. “Sustainable fashion” can mean fair labor, fair-trade certified, organic, non-toxic, up-cycled, recycled, or local, or many other things. “It’s like a prism,” says Kate Black, founder of the ecofashion website Magnifeco. “There are a lot of different angles you can look at it from.”
Zady, a buzzed-about online retailer that launched last year, exemplifies the movement’s fuzziness. Targeting “conscious consumers,” the site labels items by virtue: “environmentally conscious,” “made in the U.S.A.” and “high quality raw materials,” among others.
Time may solve both the identity crisis and low demand. Standards for Fair Trade foods and organics took years to define and develop, and demand took off only over the past 10 or 15 years.
But a more philosophical issue lurks: Can we really shop ourselves into a perfect world?
“We need to push people away from thinking they can shop their way to justice,” says Nadia Idle, of War on Want, a U.K. organization that campaigns for fair labor in factories abroad. The “mantra of ethical consumption” wrongly emphasizes shoppers’ intentions, she says. “It’s not about us. It’s not about the Western … person. And I won’t say ’Western consumer’ because I don’t define myself by what I buy.”
…sweeping change won’t come until big companies commit to sustainable supply chains.
Ethical consumption alone isn’t enough to force change, either, some activists say. “While corporate power is growing, it’s all accompanied by this narrative that it’s the consumers who are to blame,” says Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, published in January. “The blame is put on these 14-year-old girls shopping at Primark, which just allows corporations to get off scot-free.”
Retailers, consultants and activists say sweeping change won’t come until big companies commit to sustainable supply chains. “You’re not going to see [ethical fashion] really scaling until the huge players start making some hard decisions on price,” says Swati Argade, who opened her boutique, Bhoomki, in Brooklyn in 2012.
The Rana disaster led some companies to take steps. Primark, Benetton and Marks & Spencer, among others, signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, which requires workplace safety inspections and public reporting. Unlike many industry agreements, it’s legally binding.
Still, there’s resistance, primarily from U.S. retailers whose business models are built around cheap clothes. Neither Gap nor Wal-Mart signed the accord, for instance. “A lot of companies are hesitant to want to change,” says Noel, of Futerra. “They think any change in their supply chains will add a cost.”
Which puts U.S. companies way behind those in Europe, he adds. But he predicts that “it’s only a matter of time before you have to step up.”
Meanwhile, small retailers are confronting another issue: How to market virtue without preaching to customers. “We don’t want to shove this down their throats,” says Bhoomki’s Argade. Nor do they want to incite despair over the fashion industry’s ill effects, adds Black. Neither preaching nor despair whet consumers’ appetites.
What does, then? Black recently convened a panel on sustainable textiles, featuring a designer who makes clothing dye from old onion peels and marigolds. It’s a misconception that natural dyes “will make us all look like we’re wrapped in tree bark,” says Black. Vivid colors – fuchsia, gold, green, red, blue – are easy to produce naturally, she says. But the color black is not, she adds, creating conundrums for the die-hard fashionistas.
In fashion utopia, cochineal bug red might be the new black.