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The term “Ethical Fashion” is not easy to explain or even define. Lately, there's been a lot of hot debates around it.
That's because ethics is considered a subjective matter. For some, cheap and fast services might be ethical (regardless of the process or any long-term negative impacts) while for others it may not be. So, we can expect many diverse opinions on this topic.
But everyone agrees on the base definition of Ethical Fashion – it’s beneficial for those who make the apparel, who buy it, and for the environment we live in.
So, we can say that Ethical fashion is the idea of sourcing, manufacturing, and designing such clothes that not only benefit the fashion industry and its consumers, but also helps to reduce its negative impacts on our environment.
However, the process of making clothes and then delivering them to the consumers is not that simple.
This is a long chain and its last link doesn’t even know what’s the first link or how the clothing was manufactured, unless it meets the "sustainable" or Fair Trade designations.
For example, an average guy from New York or London is most probably not aware of the hands that worked in fields in Pakistan to grow cotton in harsh conditions using hazardous chemicals, or the hands that worked over sixty hours per week in Bangladesh in unfair and bad working conditions, or the negative impact it caused to the environment to prepare his $10 t-shirt.
Moreover, some factory owners may be unaware of such processes and their harmful consequences because these manufacturers have contracts with the raw material suppliers so they may be unaware of how the raw material is being sourced.
These factories are only aware of their own working conditions as far as the wages being paid, the working conditions and the number of hours worked.
This is where Fair Trade comes in. The Fair Trade designation assures the artists are sourcing their own materials in an ethical fashion and then producing the items themselves.
It is more important than ever considering the horrible stories and incidents being reported in the news that we don't turn a blind eye to the exploitation going on in the fashion industry as regards production.
Let's take a deeper look into ethical fashion and what it means, shall we?
Following are some of the important factors that touch this concept and can give us a better understanding of what it entails:
Importance of Ethical Fashion:
Many believe that ethical fashion emerged in response to "fast fashion" and the exploitation that’s going on in the fashion industry on the production side of things.
For example, it’s widely accepted that the fashion industry underpays its workers, their working conditions are usually harsh, their buildings unsafe, and their workers work over the legal limit of sixty hours per week.
Therefore, it's important that we raise awareness and unite people against this exploitation in undeveloped countries as well as some developed countries where such exploitation of others is also practiced.
- Fair play:
The first thing ethical fashion demands is fair play with the workers by assuring a fair wage. In addition to a livable wage, safe and clean working conditions are also made available.
One survey claimed that the CEOs of top fashion brands earn more money in 4 days than a Bangladeshi fashion worker can in her whole life!
- Safe working conditions:
According to FW, 75 million people worldwide work for brands in the fashion industry.
A substantial percentage of those workers are female. These women are mistreated, disrespected, abused, and harassed verbally and physically in their workplace while gaining little to no benefits from their jobs.
To make matters worse, their factory buildings often don’t have proper ventilation systems or many have no windows at all. Many incidents are being reported where workers have fainted due to extreme temperatures and no ventilation system.
Thus, Ethical fashion demands a safe working environment where employees can work without being threatened and receive wages that’ll help them meet the basic necessities of life.
- Everyone involved in the supply chain should benefit:
Those at the top might be unaware but a study found that 61% of cotton pickers in Pakistani Punjab are affected by various kinds of chemicals and bacteria and develop certain diseases.
These farmers don’t get what they deserve while getting sick due to the use of different hazardous chemicals.
The same is true for the factory workers and don’t forget about the tons of wastes that are sent to landfills daily.
Therefore, Ethical Fashion emphasizes that everyone involved in the clothing industry needs to benefit fairly and at the least, humanely.
According to EPA, the clothing and footwear waste was 9,070,000 US tons in 2018.
Furthermore, the Fashion industry is responsible for 20% of global wastewater. After oil, it’s the largest polluter in the world!
While the term Ethical fashion is still vague and we still don’t know what are or will be its exact principles and rules, what we do know is that it doesn’t support a clean and sustainable environment. Neither does is focus on treating its workers fairly.
Upsides of Ethical Fashion:
Ethical fashion is a term gaining momentum and is getting popular among eco-conscious people. It aims to ensure livable wages for people in countries with little to no human rights laws or where such laws or not enforced if they do exist.
- Aims to eliminate child labor:
Reducing and ending child labor is one of the goals which can be achieved through Fairtrade and paying fair wages. If the fashion industry were to pay their workers a fair and livable wage, as in the fair trade industry, parents wouldn't be forced to send their children to work just to sustain the family and could instead, send them to school to break the cycle of poverty.
- Modern Slavery:
Many consider, due to bad working conditions and low wages, fashion workers as modern slaves. If Ethical fashion principles are followed, it would end the exploitation of these people and go a long way in making the world a much better place for all involved.
- Gender Discrimination:
80% of Fashion workers are females. They’re employed because they’re exploited easily and their demands are often rejected by the factories’ owners. They’re neither given any maternity leave nor any security measures taken to protect them from harassment and abuse.
Handcrafted products are mostly prepared by women and through association with different Fairtrade organizations, their conditions are improving. Fair Trade levels the playing field for these women and is allowing them to now be able to send their children to school, instead of the factories which for generations, have exploited them.
Downsides of Ethical Fashion:
Along with its many and substantial benefits, there are multiple complications in Ethical Fashion.
- Ethics are subjective:
The biggest problem is that ethics are subjective. Everyone has his/her own moral values and ethics. Everyone will want the Fashion industry to work according to their values and ethics. That’ll complicate things and production can be challenging in where any standard is subjective.
- Ethics vs Sustainability:
In addition, ethics and sustainability don't have to be two separate ideas. If workers are paid a fair and livable wage, if the raw materials are sourced from sustainable farming practices, and if the factories provided clean, safe, and healthy working conditions, the end product would, by its very nature, be ethical as well as sustainable.
Are people willing to pay the price?
Given the above discussion, it is a fair question to ask if implementing sustainable practices throughout the fashion industry would increase costs? And would the consumer be willing to pay it if it did?
As the journalist and author Lucy Siegel put it, “Fashion is not free, someone somewhere is paying." Will consumers agree to pay that price themselves?
These and more questions need to be answered before going forward.
This definition hints that Fast fashion is not about sustainability or some good cause. It’s just another business and a rat race that must be won at all costs.
But we believe the tide is slowly turning and has been for many years. We find that the end buyers of the fast fashion industry, mostly first world customers, are choosing brands that are environmentally friendly, even beneficial
This has lead to clothing and fashion brands focusing their marketing toward their socially responsible practices touting such things as green washing, planting trees, and ethically sourcing their raw products as well as partnering with indigenous crafts people.
This is, undoubtedly, a big move in the right direction. And while big changes don't happen overnight, with sustained effort over time, meaningful changes are made worldwide.
Downsides of Fast Fashion:
Fast Fashion focuses on cheap clothes for the consumers. It doesn’t consider everyone involved in the supply chain or the impact it has on the environment. Millions are being exploited daily to produce fast and cheap clothes.
This one-and-a-half-hour-long documentary is an eye-opener and exposes the Fast Fashion industry and its dangerous impacts on the environment by interviewing people involved in the supply chain at different positions.
In addition, Fast fashion allows and encourages people to buy as many clothes as they can. New fashions are coming out monthly and even weekly.
According to True Cost, clothing consumption has increased about 400% in the last two decades. Every year an average American adds up to 82 pounds of textile waste to the environment!
Today, half of the entire fashion industry is using cotton. To keep up with the new fashions and production, about 90% of this cotton is made genetically by using chemicals and wasting a tremendous amount of water.
It’s contributing 25 percent to the total insecticide use and 18 percent to global pesticide use.
To produce more and preserve the existing production of cotton, farmers are forced to use and be exposed to various chemicals harmful to both themselves and the environment.
It is clear there exists an unbalanced relationship between those in power and those in poverty who are working in this massive industry.
How to change the Fashion Industry: Some suggestions
Governments or certain organizations can work to enforce or otherwise encourage “brands” to provide and publish information about their sourcing, manufacturing, and designing processes.
This way consumers will know if a certain brand is in accordance with their ethics and moral values or not.
Just as food labels in most first world countries are legally required to detail each ingredient in their products, it would go a long way in the fashion industry to require how the item was sourced.
This would further empower consumers in making purchasing decisions in accordance with their ideals of sustainability.
- Vintage shops and closet exchanges:
Another way to minimize the adverse effects of the Fast Fashion industry is to consider vintage shops where you can buy second-hand clothes.
Today, most people aren’t buying new clothes because they don’t have enough clothes but to have the latest collection and fashions.
Thus, their previously bought new clothes become useless for them. However, someone else could buy or utilize them. By repurchasing previously owned clothing, it helps to cut down on the negative impacts to the environment from the fashion industries waste and pollution.
One can also exchange closets with their friends. If you like a dress in your friend’s closet, you can exchange it for a dress your friend likes in your closet. This way the rate of shopping can go down to some extent.
- Allowance and insurance policies:
It’s again the work of governments, human rights organizations, and ethical fashion advocates to convince brands to ensure secure and fair working environments in factories.
Even if factories’ buildings are safer, there are certain processes where individual accidents are inevitable and can’t be prevented. In that case, brands should make sure to compensate for the damages and have insurance policies in place to help injured workers.
- What keeps people from buying Ethically made products:
The end consumers are the backbone of any industry. Fast fashion is successful because consumers are buying it.
The majority of consumers are unaware of the entire production process and thus keep buying clothes to keep up with the newest trends, thus perpetuating the same harmful effects.
We are hopeful the movement toward more sustainable practices will continue to gain momentum as it is already considered popular throughout today's culture and we feel it will only increase.
Just remember when making your next purchase to take a minute or two to see if you can find what you're looking for from a company that's working to combat these issues plaguing the fast fashion industry.
Hopefully you'll decide to make a difference even if it's a small one by making your purchase from the businesses working to make our world a better place, for us humans and for our beautiful environment.