The fashion industry is complicated. From the farmer that grows the cotton, the weaver that weaves the fabric, the factory worker that cuts and sews the garment to getting a product into a wardrobe; an item of clothing travels through many hands, sometimes across many countries to be made and ultimately, sold.
Our clothes shape first impressions and define who we are. But what about what goes into making that item of clothing? How far does our association go? A large part of the global fashion industry is dominated by “fast fashion”. Companies are providing consumers with over 20 collections a year which means thousands of garments are driving the “on-trend”demands. The desire for cheap and rapidly changing styles has distorted the market to such a degree that as the global middle-class continues to grow, the demand in fast fashion consumption is only likely to increase.
People have traditionally had limited, if any, knowledge of the process or the social and environmental impacts associated with the fashion industry. That is changing. It’s becoming clear to consumers that fashion shouldn’t come at the expense of people working in poor conditions, for meagre wages or at the cost of the planet. Businesses have to respond and it is this that will differentiate a brand in the future.
How entrepreneurs are responding to the call for a sustainable fashion revolution:
1) Allowing worker voices to be heard
The majority of garment factory workers are young women who experience low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. Often with basic or no formal education, the women are unrepresented and unheard. Lensational is a social enterprise that works with disadvantaged women by teaching them photography and storytelling skills, allowing them the opportunity to have a voice. Women continue to be marginalised in both economic and social terms in Bangladesh and through partnering with the organisation Fashion Revolution and its Who Made My Clothes? campaign, photography presents a way for female factory workers to breakdown some of the barriers that they experience, at work and at home. By telling their stories from their own eyes, the partnership provides an opportunity to deepen consumer understanding of the people our clothes are made by and provides a human face within a complicated process. A share of the money from the sale of the photographs provides additional income for the women, deepening their sense of accomplishment.
2) Creating responsible supply chains
Fashion entrepreneurs have the power to create change within the industry by being part of every step of their supply chain and demanding good social and environmental practices from those they work with. Why is this important? Because it defines who you are and what your brand stands for. Big brands are having to retrospectively look at the ethics and transparency in their supply chains through working with organisations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Better Cotton Initiative amongst others. There has been a rise of ethical fashion brands defining themselves by what they stand for and this is an opportunity for fashion entrepreneurs to lead the way. Companies like People Tree and Tales of Thread work with growers and artisans in India and Africa supporting local communities directly by providing fair wages and good working conditions.
3) Influencing consumers
Breaking the pattern of fast fashion is a difficult one, especially when the onus on business is to sell more clothes. How can fashion entrepreneurs make a difference? Helping consumers to think about what they’re buying and to look after their garments is one step in the right direction. Offering repair services to extend the life of clothes and accessories is one way for brands to stay in touch with consumers and to offer a valuable service. The outdoor clothing company Patagonia controversially placed advertisements with the slogan “Don’t buy this jacket” as a way to get consumers to think about need verses their desires. They repair worn clothing and equipment and also recycle old items helping consumers reduce their environmental footprint and fashion waste. Conscious consumerism is part of the brand’s identity.
4) Exploring different models
Sustainable fashion is experiencing a movement as entrepreneurs think about the different business models and opportunities available to them. With resource scarcity and social welfare at the heart of some of these solutions, creativity in “take-to- market” ideas is growing. Some like Kenyan brand Suave, see the opportunity in using fashion waste for either new clothing or accessories by converting them in to new products. My own business cards are made out of recycled t-shirts and are 100% cotton waste rather than paper - the market's ripe!
Then there are initiatives from brands who are addressing broader environmental waste issues by combining these with the fashion industry. Like US brand G Star Raw which is using plastic waste taken from oceans to make jeans and t-shirts, helped by celebrity endorsement from the musician Pharrell Williams, and Elvis and Kress which uses decommissioned fire hoses to make handbags and wallets. Rent the Runway is a business that hires clothes rather than sell them to consumers which means that people can stay “on-trend” for a special occasion whilst reducing the number of one-off items in their wardrobes. This increases how often an item of clothing is worn, and helps reduce waste overall. This is in parallel to the growing second-hand vintage clothing market for both high street and designer fashion which is attracting more consumers.
There are now endless opportunities for fashion entrepreneurs to hit the runway without workers or the planet paying for it. The emerging conscious consumer is right behind you.
Featured in Negolution: www.negolution.com