Fixing Fashion: A Framework to Make Sustainable Fashion the Industry Standard

Sustainable Fashion As the Industry Standard needs Action on All Levels

Sustainable Fashion: It Needs Action on All Levels

Often I am part of discussions on the best way to ‘fix fashion’. How do we move such a massive industry from the unethical, environment destroying beast that it is, to one in which sustainable fashion is just the industry standard? You know the drill – clean and clever and kind business.

People feel quite strongly that their own area of expertise offers THE best solution. This is an enduring reality of any specialty area, and why evidenced based decision making was introduced into medicine & healthcare in the 1970’s (more on how this relates later).  Recently questions have been raised about the actual impact of hashtag activism (notably #whomademyclothes). While the development of sustainable fashion brands and the rise of ethical consumerism have been critiqued (and counter critiqued) as an approach that will not work because it fails to address the complex global politics that are involved in making the industry what it is.

It is true that no single solution will work. Like all wicked problems, wicked solutions are required. Yet all solutions are important and make up part of the puzzle in creating an industry where sustainable fashion is the standard. How do we know? Let’s draw some parallels with public health – the specialist area that researches and delivers programmes to prevent large groups of people from getting ill (think preventing lung cancer before it happens by taxing cigarettes). Those committed to changing the fashion industry (in fact any industry) could learn a lot from public health. What years of research investment, experimental trials and implementation of policy have proven is that health is impacted at multiple levels that range from individual to economic & political, and hence improvement occurs when action is taken at all levels. In this slightly ugly diagram (public health could learn a lot from fashion & design I tell you!) you can see a pyramid shape model where actions at the base of the model (the economic & political level) have the largest impact on health for the least individual effort compared to those actions at the top of the pyramid. We know this because we have science  (oh how I love science!). What is important to note is the science also tells us action on ALL levels is needed to achieve the greatest health gain.

Drawing on this model from health we can propose a framework for fixing fashion – a framework where solutions to achieve a sustainable fashion industry (both those that are in practice and some that are not yet in popular usage) are arranged by both the individual effort they require (for consumers and designers) and the size of the impact they are likely to have in terms of sustainable fashion development.

How to Make Sustainable Fashion the Standard

Figure 1. Fixing Fashion Infographic: Making Sustainable Fashion the Standard (Click to Enlarge)

Explaining the Fixing Fashion Framework (Figure 1.)

Level 1. Individual Education

This involves campaigns & projects aiming to influence individual consumer, designer, and businesses practices including buying ethical and sustainable, buying less, avoiding fast fashion.

(e.g. WRAP UK, Story of Stuff, #Whomademyclothes, Sustainable Fashion Blogs)

Level 2. Provide an Ethical Sustainable Product

Ethical sustainable apparel & textiles are made available, accessible, visible & competitive in the market place. This can be through existing brands increasing their volume and new brands arriving onto the market. It is important that they are visible and competitive with non sustainable brands. For examples of sustainable fashion designers & brands refer to existing guides on ethical sustainable kids, womens & mens fashion.

Level 3. Empower Consumers & Designers with Tools to Improve Sustainability & Ethics

Provide consumers & fashion designers with easy to access tools to improve the sustainability & ethics of their clothing. These tools can exist in any number of spheres and be directed at a universal audience or a targeted group. Ultimately the aim is to make it much easier for individuals and small groups to change their behaviour with regard to sustainable clothing (remove the pain).

Consumers

  • Clothing/fabric recycling and compost schemes (e.g. Earthlink)
  • Clothing buy back schemes
  • Brand ranking/reporting guides (e.g. Behind the Barcode Report)
  • Platforms promoting and connecting consumers to sustainable fashion brands (e.g. Good on You)
  • Trading platforms/markets for pre loved and/or sustainable fashion brands (e.g. Clotho London)
  • Easily understood & well marketed accreditation systems for ethical & sustainably produced textiles & clothing (e.g. GOTS, Fairtrade Cotton, Ethical Clothing Australia)

Designers

  • Platforms & services connecting ethical & sustainable producers with sustainable fashion designers & marketers (e.g. My Source (Ethical Fashion Forum), Made By, Factory 45)
  • Platforms & services that help brands with tracking and transparent reporting of sustainable fashion practices (for example MADE-BY, and Sedex . Rapanui shows how they trace and report their data to customers here, and here is a guide for businesses on how to enact traceability in supply chains)
  • Communications/marketing services to assist brands with storytelling & reporting sustainability & ethics (e.g. JUST)
  • Fashion design programmes oriented around sustainable fashion design and textiles (e.g. Space Between)

Level 4. Change the Clothes Buying Environment

Make ethical and sustainable clothing purchasing the default option for consumers. Make it HARDER for consumers to buy non ethical non sustainable clothing. While similar to tools in level 3, work at this level is much more focussed at pulling levers in business and industry, so the consumer just comes along for the smoother ride to sustainability. 

  • Pooled reward and discount systems from ethical & sustainable clothing producers for consumers (loyalty schemes).
  • Industry leaders leveraging their scale & changing/redeveloping business model to sustainable production
  • Point of sales tax exemptions (eg. claim backs) for consumers for ethical and sustainable products
  • Removal of current environmental subsidies for textiles (e.g. free water usage, waste water discard/contamination)
  • Environmental taxes on the textile chain
  • Punitive measures for production not meeting environmental and ethical criteria
  • Waste reduction subsidies and funding grants for brands (e.g. WRAP).
  • Government support (subsides, tax exemptions etc.) for certified organic and ethical production (includes covering accreditation costs) and for using sustainable, organic and ethically produced materials.

Level 5. Social, Cultural and Economic Interventions

Work at the geo political level to change the global environment in which poor industry practice is created, survives and thrives. This is the big stuff, the world changing, development and political levers, which are slower & less agile than those at the top of the model, but mightier in impact.

  • Leveraging international trade agreements to bring about policy changes in country of production regarding employment & environmental laws in the textile (and other) industries
  • Removal of cotton subsidies to farmers in developed countries like the US
  • Women’s development programmes focussed on production
  • Global poverty alleviation & health improvement schemes (Microfinance schemes, International Aid Policy, Evidence based philanthropic giving such as Give Well)
  • Strong climate change policy.

The Fixing Fashion Framework is of course simply a theoretical one for now, but we can assume that what works in one industry to change behaviour and practice and outcomes, has a good chance of working in another. Importantly the model does not set solutions up in competition with each other, but it does indicate where effort is greatest & least for the individual (and most agile). Of course we need evidence – the sustainable fashion industry is not exempt from needing to measure, report and assess the impact that the solutions it markets itself on is having (in this case sustainable fashion as the industry standard).

This model may help spark some solutions, some conversations, and some cooperation. I would love to hear about other examples of solutions currently on offer at each level.

Jess Berentson-Shaw has a PhD in Public Health Research and is a scientific advisor in a NZ based think tank. She loves what science can do to make the world a fairer place. She founded the social enterprise Muka kids’ to connect consumers, designers and garment workers across the world, and empower them to make the clothing industry a sustainable one. Muka kids has a marketplace to trade preloved organic, ethical & sustainable clothing. Through its partnerships with accredited brands it also helps make new sustainable clothing more affordable. Sales on the marketplace fund a micro finance scheme for women cotton farmers in India trying to pull themselves out of poverty. 

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