With global summits such as the UN talking about the fashion industry and its social responsibility there is a conversation happening about what it means to be sustainable and ethical as a fashion brand today. Houses such as Gucci and Oscar De La Renta are opening up a discourse and leading the shift in paradigm. The objective is to make sure green isn’t just the new black…but the new rule. Take british fashion for example, it has shown itself time again to be resilient in the face of a recession and a key area of growth for the services sectors responsible for our economic recovery. This can perhaps be an indication of why we often overlook the social responsibility that should be upheld. The British Fashion Council estimated that the direct value of the UK fashion industry to the UK economy is £26 billion – up from £21 billion in 2009, a nominal increase of 22%. When compared to Oxford Economics measurement of jobs supported by the UK fashion industry which has decreased there is indication that the fashion industry is outsourcing manufacturing for increased productivity. This creates a conundrum when assessing how we respond to the UK fashion industry, on one respect it is pivotal for our economy and sustainability as a global player, yet on the other hand if the productivity is rising then the questions of ethics are sometimes ignored. We live in a society of fast fashion, where consumers are conscious of trends not ethics. One look at the Bangladesh sweat shop disaster where thousands of people lost their lives for less than minimum wage, and it is with great irony that we assess the label “fashion victim”.
So the question arises, what constitutes ethical fashion? The EFF, or Ethical Fashion Forum, says that it represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment. For the EFF, the meaning of ethical goes beyond doing no harm, representing an approach which strives to take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimising and counteracting environmental concerns. This includes animal safety. The importance of such organisations is mirrored by the TNS Worldpanel Fashion Study where over 7 million consumers say ethical issues are important to them but feel availability of such items is poor. The same study found that 60% of consumers under the age of 25 did not care about the ethics of their clothing. The clothes we wear on a daily basis can be sociological signifiers, but the value is misplaced solely on the aesthetic. The fact that young adults are increasingly unaffected by a lack of ethics is a symptom of the tactics and budget spent by fashion houses. Fashion advertising is huge business and often times shocking tactics are a way to engage a consumer in a very competitive market. Chanel designer Karl Lagerfield said:
“To do this job you must be able to accept injustice. If you want social justice, be a public servant. Fashion is ephermeral, dangerous and unfair.”
With such messages being advertised to our young there are generations at risk of becoming detached and materialistic. There is often a dissolution of responsibility placed from consumer to manufacturers and this is a statement on the wests relationship with fast fashion. The perfect mixture of consumerism and capitalism has led to us becoming “slaves” to trends, but fortunately there are various houses who endeavour to ignite an honest conversation. Green fashion is no longer the preserve of niche markets, with designers such as Stella McCartney leading the way for sustainable luxury. The challenge lies in engaging the consumer with an ethical message and validating their higher price point. The fashion industry has often been driven by desire, but it seems the tides are changing with LVMH chairman Bernard Aurnalt saying
“LVMH is committed to advancing both the social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, which plays an intrinsic role in the development of our brands.”
An important step towards changing the way fashion houses work would be to correctly define what it means to be ethical. According to the Collins dictionary “If you describe something as ethical, you mean that is morally right or morally acceptable” but this is too broad a definition when you put into the mix the question of sustainability and all the ways in which we can interpret this. The answer to this complex question lies in brand transparency which then returns responsibility back to the consumer. The way in which to still partake in the luxury market as a fashion brand is to continue speaking its language. If we take Stella McCartney as a case study and assess her comments to The Business of Fashion, McCartney was clear about her priorities:
“Obviously, I don’t use any animals which has a huge impact on the planet. But my first job is to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing for women to want to buy. Then I ask myself: can I do this in a more environmental way without sacrificing design? If I can, then there is no reason not to. I think that women buy my product because they like how it looks, feels, fits and being sustainable is an added extra bonus.”
In my opinion to truly affect great change within an area, you must be engaged with it to a certain degree. Niche brands who defy and crituqe the fashion industry may find it harder to effect consumer habits than brands like Stella McCartney or Edun who play to the rules, then bend them. They create on trend pieces with factors such as fit and design as equal a priority as manufacturing and ethics.This is why I believe that it is so great to see the prevalence of faux fur on the catwalk. McCartney has created beautiful timeless faux fur pieces, as have Shrimps and Charlotte Simone. Other brands of note are Beulah, Adolfo Dominguez, Matt + Natt, Polly Wales and Blackscore. I’ve never seen a woman more beautiful in fur than the animal on whom it belongs but instead of preaching, allow for there to be alternatives at all ends of the spectrum. The challenge comes in making sure that green fashion is not just another trend discarded by the fashion industry, that we create the language in which to discuss it appropriately and we become more aware as consumers of the brands we engage with.