Ethics, supply chains & sustainability are already buzz words, but recent actions by luxury giants such as Kering have brought them to the fore. Here, as COP21 begins, Oliver Horton expresses his opinion.
I know the apostrophe is doomed because there’s a campaign to save it. By the same measure, ethical fashion has a snowball’s chance in hell. The main drawback is that ethical stuff inspires guilt and discomfort in the people who might care. And no one has come up with a way to sell it. Because it’s like selling austerity: it sounds sensible but it’s dull and hey, there’s new stuff in the shops.
Is there a business case for ethical fashion? I hosted a panel discussion on this topic recently, at the trade event Fashion SVP: curious that “ethical fashion” is positioned as something separate from good ol’ unethical fashion.
“ Small, start-up businesses can effortlessly be ethical because of their modest size ”
We agreed that ethical meant, not harmful to people and not harmful to the environment. Among established fashion businesses, the best ones have their niches.
A bespoke tailor or a couturier can be considered ethical because the volumes are small and they are likely to source their materials locally. Small, start-up businesses can effortlessly be ethical because of their modest size and close-to-home manufacturing, like Hiut Denim Co in Wales.
Then there’s People Tree, the ethical clothing brand, which makes in Bangladesh as if that factory were next to its London design studio. And that’s about it, not much of a business story. Katharine Hamnett had a dream of a top-to-toe ethical designer brand, but couldn’t get beyond organic slogan T-shirts.
Actress Emma Watson for People Tree fashion campaign
Meanwhile, the Ethical Fashion Forum has created a business “dating service” to help link retailers and brands with ethical suppliers, globally. And H&M endeavours to create a painless supply chain that is the new normal.
But more prevalent is ‘greenwashing’, as companies nod towards clean practice: “Be seen to be green, that’ll do”.
If you want to know the commitment it takes to be 100% transparent in the fashion industry, have a look at Honest by, the brand from former Hugo Boss art director Bruno Pieters. Being ethical is an expensive pain in the ass, and reaps a benefit that most Western world consumers and shareholders don’t appreciate.
“ If you want to inhabit clothes more ethically, don’t expect your fashion retailer to do the job ”
So if you want to inhabit clothes more ethically, don’t expect your friendly neighbourhood fashion retailer to do the job on your behalf. Instead, how about Buy Nothing Day? It’s organized by Adbusters, the anti-consumerist foundation out of Canada, and conspicuously scheduled for Black Friday.
Otherwise, since there is little pressure from consumers to change, the fashion industry will keep making clothes in much the same way.
Like selling horsemeat that’s labeled beef, there’s good business in it as long as no one asks questions.