Difficult ethical decisions for fashion industry leaders

Difficult ethical decisions for fashion industry leaders

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Ethical Production

Those of us who work in fashion understand that we are in the imagination business. Fibre, yarn, cut and drape ultimately come together to capture a woman’s heart and imagination. When a woman buys that dress, she’s really investing in a vision of herself.

In the last twenty years however, consumers are increasingly looking beyond the surface to how clothes are made, where they come from. Brands have caught on and there is unprecedented buy in into sustainability in fashion from brands and consumers alike. By investing in ethical alternatives in their supply chains, brands are seeing real and lasting loyalty from customers. As the ethical fashion movement evolves, brands have an increasing responsibility to make educated decisions about their sourcing and report its impact accurately to the end consumer.

Brands often approach us with the intent of buying responsibly with limited information on the choices they have and the impact of these choices. At Sonica Sarna Design we serve to educate brands on various ways to make their social vision a reality and how to have the maximum impact through their buying decisions. Not only do we gather and share data on the outcomes of the ethical sourcing decisions of brands but also help them create a road map for becoming truly responsible businesses that have a lasting positive social and environmental footprint.

After more than 25 years in apparel sourcing, we can tell you that there is no easy way to change how we make our clothes. Ethics in fashion are a seemingly unruly mass of issues that cut across environmental impact, worker laws, cultural preservation ….the list goes on. So here is our attempt to simplify some of this ambiguity and share some simple ethical alternatives that exist as viable options in the supply chain today.

Fair Trade

The fair trade movement began as a means to set up fair wage systems for coffee plantation workers and has gone on to become a global movement to protect and empower rural producer communities through the establishment of responsible sourcing practices.

In the context of fashion, this essentially means that the people who made your clothes are being paid a fair living wage for making products in safe working conditions and are being provided an opportunity for community development. Fair trade is extremely significant in the context of vulnerable rural communities that fall within the unorganised sector and are at a severe economic and social disadvantage. Engaging them in fair trade business transactions ensures their empowerment as opposed to their exploitation. More about fair trade principles here

Artisan made

Products made by craftsmen and artisans enjoy luxury status in the western world (think “Made-in-Italy”). However in developing countries, entire generations of artisans and their traditional skills are being replaced by machines in the pursuit of cheap mass production. The social, economic and environmental impact of this will soon become irreversible as entire communities and ways of life are being wiped out.
However, in choosing artisan made, brands have a choice to replace machine processed materials (eg.rotary printed textiles) with handmade inputs wherever possible. By doing so, brands have an opportunity to,

  • Create textiles that are unique, bespoke and hi-fashion.
  • Connect the wearer with the maker and in this way empower the consumer to make responsible buying choices that have impact.
  • Tell the story and provenance behind the product that engages consumers and augments brand loyalty.
  • Sustain livelihoods of entire communities, preserve craft and create opportunities for education, healthcare and social development for the poorest of the poor.

Artisan made textiles include handloom fabrics, khadi or hand spun fabrics, block prints, batik, hand embroidery, shibori, tie dye, ikat and several other traditional artisanal techniques. Write to us at [email protected] to learn more.

Organic Fabric
We all understand that organic farming involves growing crops without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. But this goes beyond the food we eat since the clothes we wear come from crops too (eg. cotton, linen, bamboo). The choice to buy organic fabric has far reaching environmental impact, starting with the prevention of carcinogenic chemicals going into our soil and water tables.

In the context of fashion, GOTS or the Global Organic Textile Standard is perhaps the most widely recognised standard that ensures the prevention of chemical usage in the entire product supply chain from crop, fibre and dyeing to final product. More about this standard here

Ethical Factory made

After reading about horror stories like the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh, people often assume that all factories are sweat shops. The truth is most of our clothes and lifestyle products are made in factories and often the need for sophisticated machinery and infrastructure requires it. Few people know that a dress or a hand bag is as much a feat of engineering and advanced machinery as it is a beautiful design and could not be created outside a factory environment.

Another truth is that factories in urban areas are the largest employers of tailors, pattern makers and workers. There are several global social and technical compliance standards in place that are regularly verified by 3rd party auditors to ensure that factory workers make fair wages and work in a safe and healthy environment. Garment and home goods factory workers are amongst the lowest rung of the urban poor, making the role of ethical and compliant factories critical to large scale social and economic impact.
Write to us at [email protected] to learn about the various social and technical compliances that factories follow.

Natural dyed

Simply put, natural dyed textiles use natural plant based substances to dye fabric and yarn instead of chemicals. Indigo, pomegranate, saffron and madder are a few examples of dyes or colorants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources such as roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood.

Chemicals used to dye our fabric are absorbed by the skin. Using natural dyes is a healthier alternative not just for the wearer but also for the maker. Also when chemicals are used to dye fabric, the residue is often disposed off untreated, contaminating ground water. Ground water affects soil and hence the food grown in it, so these chemicals become part of the eco system and make their way into our bodies causing diseases. This makes a strong case for using dyes extracted from nature.

Recycled

A lot of what consumers buy ends up in landfills because we are buying products at a pace faster than they can decompose. Add to this the industrial waste created during the manfacturing of products (fabric scraps, left over yarn etc)

Recycled fashion uses waste material as the starting point to create fashion. Old sarees, scrap fabrics, old tyre rubber, plastic bags, left over yarns…the list of garbage that can be turned to gold is endless. The impact is obvious, not only do we lessen the load on mother earth, we also don’t create new unnecessary materials.

Vegan

As in the case of food, vegan products use no animal products such as leather and fur. One can make a strong case for prevention of animal cruelty in the name of fashion, a great choice for all our animal loving, vegetarian and vegan consumers.

These are only some of the viable ethical alternatives that exist out there. It’s hard enough for a fashion leader to choose between or a combination of these options, additional factors such as costs, lead time, output and consistency need to be managed alongside consumer expectations.

As daunting as the task seems, there has never been a better time to clean up the supply chain. The consumer is asking for it and brands have on the ground expertise available to make it a reality. We look forward to sharing challenges, victories and stories from the field in this paradigm shifting movement in the fashion industry that we are immensely proud to be a part of.