More than once, when asked about my brand, I’ve received the question: “Okay, so what does ethical fashion mean?” It’s more complex than saying that your brand uses eco-friendly fabric. Ethical fashion targets the issues within the fashion industry as a whole, and there are many. Not only are we concerned with fashion’s environmental impact, but with its impact on workers as well in areas such as wages, workplace safety, and working conditions.
The fashion industry is one of our most wasteful and damaging industries. Factory emissions and chemicals from dyeing processes add pollutants to our environment, while excess inventory often ends up in landfills or otherwise destroyed. Fast fashion companies (those brands churning out new, cheap products every few weeks) are the biggest perpetrators of this. They quickly identify new trends and manufacture as many units as possible as quickly as possible, often ending up with severe fabric wastage and excess inventory that did not sell. Even in the supply chain, before production begins, the fuel and pollution from sending materials all over the world takes a significant toll.
In an industry synonymous with wealth and glamour (red carpet, we’re looking at you!), many of fashion’s “essential workers” are facing the opposite reality. Many workers overseas-- and even some in the United States-- are working for cents and struggling to take home a living wage. Workers are often working in unsafe work environments, and for extended hours-- no 9-5 here.
How can you tell if a brand is using underpaid workers in this way? Look for supply chain transparency (does the brand discuss the fabric suppliers, factories, etc. that they’re partnered with? Or is it not spoken of-- treated as a dirty secret?), and also take into consideration the retail price of the garments. To manufacture a garment, the price includes the fabric, any trims (buttons, zippers, embellishments) and then the actual labor cost. It also needs to be priced so that the brand can make a profit when selling to their consumer. So, that $5 T-shirt? How much could an employee at a factory possibly be making off of this?
As there are so many issues in the industry, it’s difficult to tackle them all at once. Of course, taking some measures is better than doing nothing at all. Many brands (and consumers!) choose a few issues to focus their efforts on. For example, some brands manufacture in the USA so they can ensure their workers are making living wages, and that their working conditions are safe and legal. Others focus on eliminating fabric wastage by implementing zero waste cutting techniques or using deadstock fabric for their garments. Still others only manufacture in small quantities, or batches, to reduce the possibility of excess inventory. In our case, we use fabrics made from natural fibers, and also manufacture in small batches in American factories. We do our research before partnering with manufacturers to ensure that our values are aligned.
This is just a bird’s eye view of ethical fashion-- if you’d like to learn more, I’ve linked some great resources below for further education.