Conscious consumption is a trend on the rise. There is an increasing demand for ethical products and more consumers than ever before are concerned not just about the price tag of the things we spend our money on, but also about the environmental and human costs of everything from food, to cosmetics, to electronics. Certain terms like “Fair Trade” and “organic” can be helpful in getting some specific information about a product because they can only be used on products that have been inspected and certified to meet certain standards. But unfortunately there are no reliable national or international standards for what constitutes “ethical”, so it can be hard to tell which of the things we buy really deserve that label.
Determining which clothes, shoes, and accessories meet our ethical standards is especially difficult because the fashion industry is intertwined with so many other industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, design, transportation, and more. Before a shirt or pair of earrings ends up in our shopping bag they start out as ideas in someone’s head and raw materials out in the world. Every product goes through research and design phases, sourcing materials, sample creation, treatment processes, manufacturing, marketing, shipping to retail locations, and finally sale on the shop floor. This journey means that dozens of people in dozens of places may interact with our clothes before we buy them and all those people and places can be positively or negatively affected by that interaction. Creating a truly ethical fashion brand means finding ethical partners in all of these fields and weaving together products, processes, and supply chains that don’t cause harm.
One of the biggest challenges for an ethical fashion brand is to avoid or minimize environmental damage. Every stage of creating a garment or accessory requires careful thought and tough choices for a company that wishes to be truly green, beginning with the raw materials. Polyester, one of the most common synthetic fibres used for clothes, is a petroleum product and manufacturing it can use a lot of energy which in turn creates a lot of greenhouse gases. The process also generates hazardous wastewater that needs to be disposed of in an environmentally conscientious way. And once it’s in our homes, polyester can pose other threats to the environment; with each wash polyester garments can release thousands of fibres of micro plastic into the water. These end up in the ocean and in the food chain, and are almost impossible to remove.
Choosing to use a plant based fibre may seem like the obvious option for a company trying to be environmentally friendly, but things are not always that straightforward. Processing natural fibres into cloth uses as much if not more water than polyester manufacturing. Cotton farming can involve the use of lots of pesticides which damage the surrounding environment and water, and the people and animals who depend on that environment and water, especially in countries where pesticides aren’t well regulated. Even bamboo, which is gaining a reputation as a sustainable textile option, is often processed using chemicals that can be harmful.
When choosing environmentally responsible materials, brands also have to keep marketing in mind. Picking a fibre like hemp may inadvertently alienate some potential customers who falsely think “green” clothes are only for certain kinds of people. Even just being an ethical brand creates the added hurdle of convincing the consumer that ethical doesn’t have to mean bland. More and more people are beginning to understand the importance of environmental sustainability but the eco fashion movement is still shaking off the association with hippies and granola. So brands have to do the work to convince buyers that clothes can be beautiful and ethical, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
These are just a few of the potential environmental problems a fashion company must navigate when choosing fabric. Trying to create an entirely environmentally ethical brand means sourcing raw materials, manufacturing, shipping, and retailing, all without creating harmful waste, using too much water, or leaving a big carbon footprint. This is a daunting task for any company, especially a company trying to maintain a certain profit margin, and the vast majority of fashion brands simply don’t make these kinds of things a priority. However, as an increasing number of consumers look for brands that uphold their own environmental values, some companies are trying to create the illusion of being environmentally ethical without actually doing the work.
This process, known as “greenwashing”, takes many different forms. Some brands will take one or two minimal steps towards environmental friendliness and then proclaim themselves green. Others will use words like “natural” in their marketing, hoping that customers don’t realize that most of these terms have no technical definition and are basically meaningless because there are no standards a brand must meet to describe their product as “natural”, “eco” or “earth friendly”. And sometimes large, global brands will launch a small line of clothes that are less environmentally damaging while not addressing the environmental problems caused by their main lines.
Unfortunately, a number of brands also undertake a similarly deceptive practice when it comes to behaving ethically towards people. A fashion company’s negative impacts on issues such as air and water quality, climate, and the environment can of course be detrimental for the people who rely on those things to live. But fashion can also hurt people in other ways. Unfair farming and mining practices to get materials, child labour, and exploitative or dangerous working conditions in clothing manufacturing facilities are all sadly common practice in today’s fashion industry. So in addition to finding a way to be environmentally safe, a fashion brand that wants to be ethical will also have to figure out how to change the status quo when it comes to how they treat the people affected by their business. Choosing production facilities that provide fair wages and a safe working environment is particularly hard for start-ups as it can mean spending time and money to visit and inspect factories in foreign countries. Some brands trying to ensure fair and safe manufacturing for their products make the choice to produce their lines in places like the U.K. or the U.S. that have better labour standards. But, these countries also have much higher labour costs so these brands then have to convince consumers that it really is worth it to spend more to buy locally made. This is a real marketing challenging given that the number of consumers who say they want to buy domestically made products is a lot higher than the number of people who will actually choose the more expensive local product off the rack when shopping.
For consumers it’s also challenging to stay committed to ethical buying when it seems almost impossible to make sense of all this and find products that don’t have a negative impact on people or planet. Luckily a few brands are out to change that. Here at Yala our main aim is to provide peace of mind to our customers. We will only work with production partners that pay their staff a fair, living wage and are committed to being socially and environmentally responsible.
There are several companies like ours who prove that there is a viable market for products that take ethical fashion seriously. As more and more consumers demand clothes, shoes, and accessories that they can honestly feel good about wearing, then that market will eventually grow. In the future hopefully we’ll see many more companies that can honestly label themselves ethical fashion brands.