There is a bit of a myth that surrounds more expensive and designer clothing brands. It has come about mainly as an unintended consequence of our focus on the evils of cheap Fast Fashion ones.
This week during Fashion Revolution week the Behind the Barcode report was released. This report rates well-known clothing brands on their ethical practices based on the information they provide about their supply chains. It is a useful tool, though we argue that an A+ is pretty much the minimum we should ultimately be demanding from those that sell us clothes, as this offers workers employment conditions comparable to our own (i.e. safe, respectful, protected by legislation, meaningfully paid etc).
While there were a number of New Zealand and Australian ‘Fast Fashion’ brands who performed poorly, there were also plenty of so called ‘designer brands’ who do equally poorly. For example Karen Walker achieved a pretty feeble C. These are not cheap garments and they are being marketed as high quality designer clothes. Why does the price make a difference?
Those Selling Higher Priced ‘Designer’ Clothes Don’t have the ‘Budget Airline Excuse’
Cheap fast fashion labels have been able to play the ‘you want to pay peanuts, well then this is what has to happen to meet that need’ card. What is the excuse of those larger global designer clothing brands that have both success and scale?
As we have talked about before clothes are produced on a long long complex supply chain starting most often with cotton seed grown in rural areas in the developing world. There are multiple suppliers involved from the cotton farmers, the milling and spinning factories, the dying factories, the fabric cutters and sewers, the printing, screen printing and embroidery suppliers. So it can be difficult for clothing companies to keep in touch with all these suppliers. Often they are working with multiple factories (not just one) for different types and styles of garments. BUT this is no excuse. A business selling itself on quality needs to know where its products are coming from.
Businesses selling ‘designer’ products in particular should be knowledgeable about their supply chains because they sell themselves on garment ‘quality’.
How can a brand know its garment is a good one, a quality one, a luxury one if it has no idea what is going on in their supply chain? And why don’t they bother finding out?
There are a myriad of new tools and businesses out there now that work to help clothing and apparel companies trace and report on their supply chains. We covered many of them in an earlier blog on the multiple ways to fix fashion. All it really takes is a business that has ethics and sustainability built into its values. And that gets to the heart of the problem: designer clothing businesses (and fast fashion ones) that pay lip service to transparency, ethics or sustainability, that do a little bit here and a little bit there, who are engaging in corporate green washing, do it because their businesses values are out of kilter. Whether intentionally or unintentionally they are thumbing their nose to consumers (most of who want more ethically produced garments) and to the idea of climate change being a clear and present danger that industry needs to help solve.
Business needs to have ethical practices and sustainability at the CENTRE of their values to really be believed.
If designer clothing brands do not have strong ethical and environmental values in great big letters in their corporate then of course they will not be transparent about who makes their clothes and in what conditions. Nor will they be really committed to changing their current practices. Because values determine the entire culture of an organisation and organisational culture matters.
A Business’ Culture Eats it Strategy for Breakfast.
If a designer clothing brand has a culture of disrespect, of profit above people and environment, of looks first and substance later then tokenistic approaches are all we consumers will get. It is a culture that leads to a strong ethical strategy, where action is made and measured and reported. So in the age of social media and direct consumer power we have real influence in asking for a cultural change and we can use it. Never underestimate your power as their consumer. They are selling you a lifestyle and you need to buy it for them to exist, if you think their lifestyle pitch is tainted they need to know. Here is how.
Here is a Toolkit to Help you Let the Designer Clothing Brands Know What You Expect (and the fast fashion ones too)
We have organised the toolkit by effort- because some days you can embrace the revolutionary inside you, and sometimes well you just need to gently does it.
Dip your toes in
On Fashion Revolution Day (April 24 each year) ask clothing companies #Whomademyclothes- take a picture and tweet or facebook it with the hashtag #whomademyclothes to the brand in question.
Get in Up to your Knees
Email the brand (or better still post on their Facebook page) these 5 quick questions that aim to will get to the heart of their ethical and environmental values (or just send them the picture below) If you get a satisfying response share it around (reward the good behaviour!)
Full body immersion
Get an answer that seems vague, insufficient or basically just avoids the issue? Then go all out on social media with the following.
Thanks for the response to my questions about your supply chain. The answers you gave me suggest that your company is not as committed as I would like to ensuring meaningful ethical and environmental standards are met within your supply chain. As a customer of your business I would love to keep buying your products and also be able to recommend you to others. I encourage you to make a commitment to greater transparency in your supply chains and to embed ethics and sustainability into your organisation’s culture and values. There are many specific tools available to help businesses like yours improve in this regard; listed in this guide to a more sustainable fashion industry are just some of those tools. I would really appreciate being kept up to date about specific actions you intend to take.
Ethical designer clothing is clearly possible and doable (there are loads of brands doing it these days). Lets stop giving the rest of the industry a free pass.
Jess Berentson-Shaw 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.