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Will "Ethical Fashion" Become the New Norm?

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Last month in London, the actor Colin Firth hosted a book launch for To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out Our World?, written by Lucy Siegle, ethical living columnist at the Guardian newspaper. The book, which is not yet available in the U.S., has been described as intense, thoroughly researched and hard-hitting. It chronicles all we'd rather not know about the long, complex supply chain feeding our "fast fashion" culture. Says one reviewer:

There are conversations with Cambodian garment workers, visits to factories in Bangladesh and west Africa and tales of forced teen labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Human misery seems endemic at every point in the production line, from the alarming suicide rates among Indian farmers to young seamstresses forced to take contraceptive pills.

Social injustice is just one of the skeletons lurking in fashion's closet. There's also the industry's devastating environmental toll to consider – rivers flowing denim blue, the uncertain legacy of "Frankenpants" cut from GM cloth.

And there's more. Forget polka-dot bikinis -- in this book, fashion is anything but fun.

The author scored Firth as party emcee thanks to her friendship with his wife, Livia, a known advocate for what's called ethical fashion. Livia Firth is famous for her Green Carpet Challenge, asking celebrities to wear sustainable and recycled dresses and suits to black-tie affairs. Her concern is quickly gaining followers in the UK -- it's been a concept in the air for about 10 years, also promoted by activist Ali Hewson and her husband Bono.

All of which made us wonder -- is "ethical fashion" gaining ground on this side of the Atlantic at all, and if so, what does it say about the mood in our culture? Might we be finally willing to give up our access to dirt cheap t-shirts, leggings, swimsuits or sweaters in pursuit of some intangible reward, like the ability to say that we care for our distant neighbors?

As it happens, yes, there are a handful of US companies and designers tuning in to this nascent movement.

"Consumers in the UK are probably most aware of supply chain issues," Dan Viederman, CEO of the labor watchdog group Verité tells Minyanville, "but people here are increasingly paying attention to a more nuanced set of problems, so companies do feel compelled to be more open about what’s going on in the places where they source."

"It matters most to the companies," he emphasizes. "No company wants to be considered a social pariah."

On its website, Verité lists several major clients who have, in past years, hired the firm's researchers to examine labor conditions in their overseas factories. These firms include Gap, Levi's, Nordstorm's, New Balance, Timberland, and Eileen Fisher. Still, warns Viederman, there is no big label that can claim the right to call itself truly and fully "ethical" -- at least not yet. The network of farmers and small manufacturers that cater to the industry is simply too vast and interconnected, with problems overlapping on several levels. "Companies may have visibility, say, into the factory that sews their clothes, but not beyond that, all the way down to the raw materials."

Because many clothing labels share suppliers, and since conditions are constantly changing, it's impossible to ascribe a good or bad practice to one multinational, adds Viederman.

"It's not as simple as fair trade in agriculture. There are many more moving parts, and we're also dealing with human interactions in an industrial setting. We're talking about questions like: How does a supervisor treat a female employee? Did someone spend thousands just to get to a place offering a low-paying job? Did a brand make a last-minute design change to a massive order leading to hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime work?"

Debora Pokallus, a New York fashion broker who runs the sustainable fashion showroom Bel Esprit, also believes that consumers are slowly turning their attention to these issues. And, though it may seem counter-intuitive, she feels the recent recession may be partly behind the shift. The clothing budget may be tight in most households, she says, but priorities are also in flux.

"I think people are watching the union-busting movement here, and thinking about the attacks on our social network, and equating it with the ideals of fair trade," she tells Minyanville.

"We're thinking about this concept, that what you do to the least of the people defines your values." So, says Pokallus, Americans are looking at their reliance on cheap, disposable goods built by child laborers or in factories where suicide rates are high, or where there are deaths by factory fires, "and asking, 'When did we become a country like this?' Our current struggles bring home what everyone has been talking about in the Third World."

For now, aside from a handful of small businesses like Bel Esprit, there are few outlets where consumers can feel confident about the ethical and ecological pedigree of any clothing for sale. "The most important thing consumers can do is be vocal, and that means more than spending dollars the right way, because it's not easy to know what the right way to spend is," says Viederman. "Consumers have to demonstrate that they care about workers' concerns. We want people to walk into stores and ask the staff, or ask for disclosure from the companies on websites or Facebook."

He suggests asking: How does my preferred brand deal with the problems workers face in the factories it uses? What does the brand know about conditions at ‘lower tiers’ of the supply chain, where raw materials and components are harvested and made? Has the brand improved the welfare of workers who make its product?
Ethical fashion advocates also promote recycling clothes, as in wearing the clothes you have for several years (what a concept!), or remaking them at a local tailor, instead of always buying new. Some high-profile women -- style mavens Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, for example -- are making it a habit to appear in front of the paparazzi in "repeats." 

But whether ethical fashion will become the new norm -- at least the way organic and local has become de rigueur for a certain set  --  it's difficult to say. Ironically, if things get worse for us here, as some economists predict they will, we just might see it happen.

For more, see:

  • Edun, the fashion label launched by Ali Hewson, wife of U2's Bono
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.