It’s been more than 20 years since fast fashion disrupted the industry. Decreased prices allowed for greater consumer choice, but also multiplied a variety of issues that had been plaguing the industry for years.
In the 90s the industry was largely able to hide its issues from the public eye, and only a few massive scandals came to light. As social media took hold the extent of problems within the fashion industry became more apparent. With more people becoming aware of problems, some companies discovered an opportunity in finding a solution.
Attempting to fix these issues has proven no easy feat. The solutions require major changes to an industry dominated by billion dollar conglomerates whose investors outweigh the ethics of production.
People Come Last – People Come First
Those who pay the highest price for corporate decision tend to be the people working the production lines.
They cut fabric, sew garments, and assemble footwear.
In the late 90s the public got a glimpse as to how some of the productions workers were treated by one of the largest brands in the world, suddenly “sweat shop” became a household term.
Workers were often forced to work 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week, making pennies an hour. It wasn’t just a result of offshoring. The fashion industry has a long history of working with factories in locations with weak labour laws and tend to overlook the exploitation of unscrupulous factory owners.
Lower costs, mean greater profits for investors, regardless the of the human elements involved.
With consumers becoming wise to the lower ethical standards, more brands have begun to turn to manufacturers who are working to make positive contributions in their communities.
Ethical considerations can help improve not only the lives of the people working within the factories but in the neighbourhoods, towns and cities in which they live.
Improvements may be as simple as paying a fair wage or making significant contributions to the community. This might include ensuring safe access to potable water sources, investing in education, or helping to improve housing.
Being involved in the community is important to not only maintaining a high-quality work force, there is now a subset of investors who place value on ethical governance. Where brands used to exploit communities, an ethical shift seeks to build them up. Everyone involved from production, to the brand, and ultimately consumers, benefit.
Scorched Earth – Growing Green
Ethical considerations in the fashion industry goes beyond how it treats the people involved. The industry has also made a massive environmental impact over the years.
Simply, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting on the planet.
Since the rise of fast fashion, the environmental impact has only accelerated. With lower costs and increased accessibility, consumers can fill closets with all the latest trends. Keeping up with the Kardashians has never been easier.
Greater demand has in turn driven production. More chemicals are needed to produce materials, print and dye fabrics, and more waste entering landfills. Common methods of industrial agriculture mean even plant-based materials like cotton, bamboo, and wool are treated with harsh petrochemicals that leach into the environment, contaminate water supplies and soil.
Brands working for a better alternative are faced with challenges but have also made significant innovations and contributions to how the fashion industry can change. Improving access to organic materials, recycling old clothing to make new fabrics, and working against fast fashion to produce more durable garments are all examples of some of the contributions they’ve made.
It’s not that an ethical company doesn’t have environmental impacts, they do. The real change is how they are working to minimize and offset those impacts. How it looks varies from company to company. For some it may be reforestation programs and buying carbon offsets, for others they may be using alternatives to petrochemical-based materials like foams and rubbers.
Feeding Livestock – Growing Plants
Plant-based alternatives don’t just extend to combating the use of petrochemicals in the fashion industry they can also help reduce the dependence on animals for producing our clothing.
Few industries are as unethical as the industrial livestock industry. Millions of animals are raised in poor conditions, including no access to outdoor space, feed intended to make them grow bigger, produce more milk or eggs, and in many operations animals face outright abuse.
Consumers have a right to question where brands are sourcing their animal products from, especially with so many plant-based alternatives becoming more common throughout the industry.
Corn is a common source for plant-based plastics which can be used to make synthetic leathers, and even acrylic wool. Leather substitutes can also be made from cacti, pineapple , apples, and mushrooms. The alternatives to animal products are endless.
While alternatives may be costly, it comes down to volume of production. Right now, there are millions of animals that are slaughtered for human use in the food chain and in fashion, but the number of producers making more sustainable alternatives is still small. As more consumers demand ethical alternatives, brands will have to increase supply and prices will come down.
Importance of Ethics
As technology drives the interconnectedness of the world, it is becoming harder for brands to shirk their ethical commitments. Most brands have some sort of mission statement to this regard, but many brands have fallen short of their promises.
Consumers have a strong voice in giving direction to a brand’s values. As the world becomes more aware of the treatment of workers in developing world and the impact that consumerism has on the environment, supporting brands who have strong commitments to people and the environment is more important than ever.
It’s encouraging to see many producers in the fashion industry are working to change the low standards that have existed for far to long. As the realization spreads about the impacts caused, and how easy it can be to change not only values but production methods, materials, and treatment of workers, it really is starting to feel like we are living in a global village.