Five Big Benefits of Supporting Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion is becoming more and more popular around the world, with everyone from grassroots designers to celebrities supporting this part of the industry. The past few years have seen prominent stars such as Emma Watson, Victoria Beckham and Vanessa Paradis collaborate with fashion houses and major high street brands to create ethical collections.

In mid-2014 supermodels Christy Turlington Burns and Amber Valletta even worked with the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights to release a video about the conditions faced by many of the people working in textile factories around the world.

“It can’t be $12.99 without some sort of conflict. It’s just impossible,” Valletta says in the Humanity: Driving Fashion Forward video.

“Can we do this better? Can we lift poverty, can we lift the way we treat people and the rest of the world that are producing these material objects for us?”

Turlington Burns adds that many of the women in these factories do not have basic health care, work in extremely cramped spaces and often die as a result of this labour and the pressure placed on textile factories by both big and small players in the fashion world.

She explains how huge the difference is between the money these workers get and the profits made by the fashion labels, saying: “The prices of the garments go up and the labour [cost] goes down…the margins are enormous.”

“The idea that human beings are being sacrificed for that margin is just completely unethical.”

As more awareness grows around these issues, so too does the variety of ethical fashion options out there. Even fast fashion giant H&M has released capsule collections – such as the Vanessa Paradis for H&M’S Conscious Collection – that address some of the issues brought to the fore by the ethical fashion movement.

Meanwhile, a report on the Business of Fashion website reveals that the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin is attracting a growing number of brands dedicated to more sustainable and fair practises. In 2014 there were 116 brands at the show, up from 85 in 2013 and just 36 in 2012 when the Ethical Fashion Show launched.

But all the hype around ethical fashion means it is also easy to lose sight of the true meaning of this movement. In some cases the “ethical fashion” label could even be a marketing tool (much like the “free range” label on some brands of Australian eggs). So here we take a look at five of the biggest benefits to ethical fashion and how to make sure they are met by the brands supporting this movement.

On This Page

Introduction

  1. Fashion without sweatshops
  2. Environmental sustainability
  3. Supporting designers
  4. Changing the industry
  5. More individuality

Conclusion

Fashion without sweatshops

One of the biggest issues with traditional fashion is the way in which it is created. Major garment factories are typically in third-world countries such as China, India and Bangladesh, with hundreds or even thousands of workers.

Unfortunately the conditions in some of the factories are incredibly poor – as the video with Amber Valetta and Christy Turlington Burns highlights – and wages at the very minimum (if not below it). Ethical fashion, however, sets a minimum standard that is much more reasonable for the garment makers, with the Ethical Fashion Forum saying this includes “defending fair wages, working conditions and workers’ rights”.

Many of the ethical fashion brands out there now offer information about where garments are made and the workers conditions to help create more transparency within the industry. There are also independent certification bodies that can be employed by brands to assess the conditions of workers, so if you want to know how they are treated, consider looking for brands with certification from the following organisations:

  • The Ethical Trading Initiative
  • Made By
  • The International Fair Trade Association
  • The Fairtrade Foundation; and
  • The Responsible Purchasing Initiative.

These companies, as well as the Ethical Fashion Forum, also have resources to help you find brands that are known to work within these guidelines. As certification can often be an expensive process (and many ethical fashion brands are small), another option is to ask a specific brand about their processes and working conditions so that you know you are supporting fashion brands that value all of the people involved.

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Environmental sustainability

Fashion has the potential to cause huge amounts of environmental damage. Whether it is from the way raw materials are gathered and woven, the dyes and treatments used on them or myriad other manufacturing elements, there is often a run-on effect for the surrounding environment.

Conventional cotton crops, for example, use pesticides, finishing aids like formaldehyde and fertilisers that can damage the soil and longevity of the crops – not to mention raising health risks for farmers. Organic cotton farms, on the other hand, do not use these chemicals and plase more focus on crop rotation and other farming methods to produce quality cotton that is also environmentally sustainable.

Similarly, many of the dyes and chemicals used for print screening on t-shirts can create water run-off that is dangerous for marine life. Worse still, some have trace elements of chemicals that are damaging to humans.

While conventional fashion brands might be happy to use whatever dyes and printing methods they find most cost-effective, ethical fashion brands spend more time considering what types of dyes and printing methods to use based on principles such as:

  • The environmental impact
  • The impact on workers/manufacturers
  • The impact or potential impact for customers

The financial cost of these methods always plays a part, but an ethical fashion brand is more likely to increase the price of their wares than compromise on their values towards the environment and society. So you might end up paying more upfront for ethical clothing than conventional clothing, but you will also give more back to the environment by supporting these companies.

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Supporting local fashion

There are a lot of ethical fashion brands in Australia, with both well-known and boutique companies focusing on more sustainable processes compared to conventional fashion companies.

According to Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), the growth in ethical fashion in Australia will continue to rise as more and more consumers seek to support it. But, with such a small fashion industry here, it really does depend on consumer demand for ethical and locally made fashion.

“The Australian fashion industry faces a moral dilemma in terms of trying to compete in an ever-changing and competitive global market, while also ensuring workers are not exploited,” the organisation says.

“What is becoming clear however is that ethical and transparent businesses can in fact be competitive and ultimately, commercially successful. Further, the stigma often attached to ‘ethical fashion’ is gradually deteriorating as fashion labels continue to create stylish and high quality garments that have also been made ethically.”

What this means for you is that by going out and getting some clothes from a local designer who makes all their own items, or shopping with a brand that outlines its processes (and/or is accredited by organisations like the ECA), you can support both ethical fashion and the Australian fashion industry. And that could help see the growth of both ethical fashion and Australian businesses, which will mean even more choice (and affordability) in the future.

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Changing the global fashion industry

Ethics and fashion have rarely been seen together in the past, but the movement towards more sustainable, supportive and caring fashion processes is definitely here to stay. The impact of ethical fashion, however, depends on how many companies commit to these standards, and that often boils down to their bottom lines.

The fashion industry, on a global scale, is worth billions and billions of dollars. But it has been built on the cheap processes that do serious damage to both the environment and people involved. In order to create significant change, big brands need to realise that there is real consumer demand for ethical processes.

The profit margins are never as big for ethical fashion brands because so much care is put into every part of the manufacturing process. But the message that ethical fashion advocates want to send to big brands is that it is worth it.

According to Italian fashion designer and ethical fashion champion Simone Cipriani, major fashion brands already can and should be spending money investing in ethical fashion. In an interview with the Australian Financial Review, Cipriani says that profit margins for upmarket labels are “wide enough that they can be harnessed to lift the poorest people in developing countries up and out of poverty.”

“We have to realise that the era of cheap fashion has to come to an end,” he says. Instead, it is the time for “true creativity”, where paying standard wages and focusing on sustainable development has the potential to beat out “mass market, just-in-time, rapid-response clothing brands”. And the more we buy of the former, the less we’ll see of the latter both locally and globally.

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More individuality

At the moment, there is more access to boutique ethical fashion brands than to globally based brands. What that means for us as consumers is that the ethical fashion items we buy are less likely to be worn by other people we know or see on the street. They are more unique.

So from an aesthetic point of view, supporting ethical fashion can also mean that you end up having more individuality through what you choose to buy and wear. In a way, it gives you more power to create your own fashion identity in a conscious, ethical way. To set trends and stand out from the crowds.

On another level, the number of local, ethical fashion brands also means there is scope for you to request customised fashion directly from designers. You might have to pay a bit more for it, but it means you can get bespoke fashion while supporting people who care about everyone and everything that contributes to this industry.

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Conclusion

Ethical fashion has the potential to revolutionise the entire fashion industry. But the impact really depends on how many people are willing to pay more for ethically produced clothing ­and on how many brands are willing to sacrifice profits for more sustainable processes.

As well as supporting the farmers, garment makers, designers and others that are part of the ethical fashion industry, the five benefits above reveal just how much of a difference your dollars can make. So whether you choose ethical fashion for everything in your wardrobe or simply budget for a few key pieces, now you know that every single choice you make can help change the fashion industry for the better, both here and overseas.

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