Beyond Sustainable: The Growing Demand for Ethical Fashion

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\"\"When Vogue Australia quietly hit the newsstands in its home country and abroad earlier this month, its theme, which as recently as three years ago would have raised eyebrows among serious fashion-watchers, caused nary a ripple of controversy. Entitled “Designing Our Future,” and guest edited by Emma Watson, the fashion bible’s most recent edition is completely sustainability-focused, with features on pioneers like Tim Flannery discussing the Great Barrier Reef and Stella McCartney touting sustainable style.

The issue comes at a pivotal time—2018 has already proven to be a year when silenced voices ring out…and it is only April. Cause-related fashion first hit the scene when McCartney launched her fur-free, leather-free business in the early 2000s. Although there were millions of skeptics at first, over the last 15 years ethical fashion – developing, producing and distributing apparel, accessories and footwear in a way that preserves the planet and its inhabitants – has become not only an integral part of the industry, but also a key strategic initiative of many big and small players. As the commercial advantage of brands investing in ethical fashion becomes increasingly evident, companies from Walmart to Gucci have evolved their missions to align with the shifting landscape. No longer just about being eco-friendly, over the coming months and years we will see this trend accelerate and expand to include concern for human and animal rights, community, country, and more.

Young Consumers Are Changing the Game

Brands and retailers are taking this responsibility seriously, encouraged by younger consumers who, it turns out, are more conscious than any generation before it of the origins, composition, carbon footprint, and other consequences of what they purchase and wear. Numerous studies done in the past few years have confirmed that upwards of 65-70 percent of consumers under 35 around the world report that they will choose brands or retailers based on their ethical practices. A 2016 Morgan Stanley Research survey done in the U.K. found that when choosing among retailers, more than half of young consumers find ethical credentials somewhat or very important. These buyers are changing the game for brands, and we will continue to see more attention paid to sourcing factors, as the rapid growth of many new entrants to the fashion scene built on this pillar have demonstrated.

Hugely successful Everlane, one of the first nextgen apparel brands to give detailed information about the factories, costs and raw materials sources for its clothing, was ridiculed early on by industry veterans for its naïveté. Since then, many others, including some large traditional brands like Gap and Levi’s, have included sourcing transparency in the information they share with consumers.

Stockholm-based Swedish Stockings has bucked the decline in the hosiery business by making its sheers and tights entirely of eco-friendly recycled yarns and using recycled purified water and renewable energy sources in its closed-loop production system.

While it would be wonderful if this new generation of consumers could see to it that climate change, human rights violations and irresponsible use of resources grind to a halt on planet Earth, many difficult obstacles exist, from finding a consistent definition of ethical fashion to managing supply chains to communicating with consumers. A focus on any of these areas, which tends to add cost to product development and production, must be undertaken carefully by a brand to ensure that the view is worth the climb.

What Does “Ethical” Mean?

One of the first steps a company should take to participate in responsible fashion is to try to cut through all the noise about what ethical and sustainability even mean to them and to their consumers. Does a sustainable garment need to be made of recycled materials, or is being organic sufficient? Where does responsible use of resources like energy, chemicals and water fit into the values hierarchy? And what about animals – do consumers want ethical treatment of animals, like Canada Goose requires in its traceable down-filled and fur-trimmed jackets, or is it better to make animal-free products, like Stella McCartney and handbag brand Matt and Nat? How important—or feasible– is it to ensure that suppliers’ employees are paid fairly and have a safe and healthy work environment? And what is the best way to make sure your company is following best practices?

Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli pays his employees a premium above the going rate and takes a lower markup than most of his luxury brand competitors, makes sure his company’s practices preserve the environment, and ensures that the cashmere and other raw materials he sources from Mongolia, India and elsewhere are obtained in a sustainable and fair-trade manner.

Big-box retailers are finding that small things can make a big difference. Costco added windows to and dimmed the lights in its stores, and regularly revises transportation strategies to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon footprint.

Though few millennials would think about Walmart and sustainability in the same idea, the Bentonville behemoth has the scale, and therefore the ability, to save more natural resources than any other company in the industry in its effort to sell products that are sourced and produced with people and planet in mind. It uses recyclable materials in the packaging of all its private label products, and its Project Gigaton, which helps suppliers reduce emissions, is on track to reduce greenhouse gases by one billion tons by 2030, three times the amount produced by California in a year, or the equivalent of taking 211 million cars off U.S. highways for a year.

A growing number of brands believe that ethical conduct, like charity, begins at home. Bombas, a New York-based sock brand, gives away a pair of socks to a homeless shelter for every pair it sells. Made in USA Success story American Giant, whose fans call its $89 classic zipped hooded sweatshirt the best hoodie ever made, appeals to those who want to help U.S. industry survive and thrive.

Expanding the Narrative

Enabled by technology and increased access to consumers through e-commerce and social media platforms, marketers are embarking on education and awareness-building campaigns, expanding their narrative and sharing much more about how products come to be. We will see more information about the industry being shared with consumers as the landscape evolves towards a more sustainable and ethical future.

Rag & Bone and AYR are two lifestyle brands proud of their fair-trade supply policies. Yoga brand Prana has gained tremendous traction since evolving entirely to organic cotton and recycled wool and other fibers. Its website and shops contain a wealth of information about the materials it uses and company-wide fair-trade sustainability practices.

Patagonia, considered by many the poster child for environmental and social responsibility, has as its brand mission statement, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” It is fair-trade certified for all its sewing product, and publicly discloses its first-tier suppliers. The company prides itself on its long-lasting products, and founder Yvon Chouinard encourages consumers not to buy unnecessary amounts of clothes, and has been wearing some of the same Patagonia pieces for a decade.

Putting the Brakes on Fast Fashion

An issue getting a lot of airtime these days is the sheer amount of waste humans create and fail to handle properly. A startling McKinsey 2016 report revealed that nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. The same report found that the number of garments produced each year has doubled since 2000, exceeding 100 billion for the first time since 2014, or 14 new clothing items for every person on earth.

Consumers are re-examining their tendency to over-buy and under-wear apparel. There is a growing backlash against Fast Fashion and the Disposable Apparel phenomenon. The philosophy of LA-based YSTR is to minimize waste through a creative purchasing process. Every piece is made to order, and their new model is a capsule “slow fashion” subscription, where the consumer can preview styles, order, and wait for items to arrive. The creation of clothing in small batches does away with the waste of creating too many items that go unpurchased.

Fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara are trying to diminish the black and white nature of cheaper versus environmentally-friendly purchases. In early 2017, both pulled out of the annual Dhaka Apparel Summit, sending a message that they will join efforts to pressure Bangladesh into ending poor working conditions and human rights violations in their garment industry. Zara parent Inditex reportedly has a team of 150 sustainability professionals.

Born-Again Fashion

Environmentalists are praising companies that promote the sharing of clothing, like “Rent the Runway,” to reduce the waste accumulated by dresses and outfits, particularly special occasion styles, that tend to be worn only once or twice. Resale sites such as Poshmark, The RealReal and ThredUp have scaled rapidly, appealing to both buyers seeking value and sellers who want to monetize items they no longer want.

The affordable LA-based, eco-conscious label Reformation has earned a growing following by being endorsed by celebrities like Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss. Reformation began by selling re-worked vintage pieces in 2009, and now sells everything from party dresses to casual everyday pieces. Everything produced by Reformation is made at the brand’s factory with sustainable fabrics and methods.

Will Consumers Pay More?

It’s a tough call to say whether or not consumers, in addition to spending more time and effort to seek out brands and products that were produced responsibly, will also pay extra for the privilege of buying them.

Purchasing one high-quality t-shirt that was ethically sourced, will last for three years, but cost forty dollars could be a far sounder choice than buying one for $15 that will last six months, but how many consumers will make that decision while shopping? Although studies citing consumer willingness to pay more for better quality products abound, there is insufficient data so far to confirm that they’re actually doing so. It could turn out that ethical practices become a price of entry for brands and retailers that want to do business with savvy young consumers.

Late last year, in a very public announcement accompanied by representatives from the Humane Society and Fur-Free Alliance, Gucci said it was replacing the kangaroo fur in its popular fur-lined loafers with more-ethical shearling. Although the material changed, the price of the shoes, at a cool $995, didn’t.

While Gucci’s gesture was a success, taking the ethical route doesn’t necessarily guarantee a following. Zady, a high-profile sustainable fashion e-commerce brand worn by Emma Watson recently closed down its site, no doubt a victim to the higher costs and intensified competition in the e-commerce space.

How Are Brands Ensuring Ethical Production Processes Are Being Followed?

Fashion products are produced in a very complex supply chain in which many transgressions can hide. Although improvements in sourcing transparency, labeling and compliance have been made in the past several years, it’s hard for brands and retailers to truly know for sure where, how and of what their products are made. They can’t visit every factory, or look over their agents’ shoulders every second, to make sure their demands are being met.

Although compliance efforts have increased dramatically in recent years, cheating has, as well. At the same time, however, there has been a rise in companies partnering with Bluesign, Oekotex and other firms that certify compliance with standards. The Textile Exchange, ClimateWorks, Ethical Fashion Forum and many, many other organizations are advancing thought leadership and progress in these areas. Each year, a growing number of conferences, leadership initiatives and campaigns are being launched to advance progress in these areas.

No longer just a side project for a staff person with not enough to do, sustainability and ethical practices are now becoming line management responsibilities. Kering’s CSO, or Chief Sustainability Officer, drives a results-oriented approach at the luxury goods giant. Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger parent PVH has placed the responsibility of environmental and human rights stewardship under its Chief Risk Officer.


What happened to Missguided, a brand popular for its ethical sourcing promise and female empowerment vibe, could serve as a cautionary tale. Last year the Humane Society International discovered cat fur on a pair of the brand’s high heels. Dog and cat fur have been banned for use in clothing across the European Union since 2009, which means that the shoes had been sourced illegally. It turns out that real fur is cheaper to source than faux fur in some Asian countries, opening the door for suppliers to switch to the more economical option.

Further complicating the fur issue is that much of the faux fur on the market is made from non-biodegradable and chemical-laden synthetic fibers and other materials such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester. Similarly, many fake leather products are made from plastic materials that are non-biodegradable and produced using toxic chemicals that not only have a negative impact on the environment, but they could have detrimental effects on the factory workers that helped produce the items. By blindly choosing to be good to our four-legged friends, a designer might be harming people and planet. As consumers become more educated and savvy about the true impacts of the materials they wear, brands must be more careful about their raw materials choices.

Stepping into the world of ethical fashion is not without its potential pitfalls, but the all-powerful consumer will increasingly set the bar higher, demanding that companies behave responsibly and according to a shared set of values. Brands rising to meet those expectations could find that the view is every bit worth the climb.



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