Emma Waight is a Tutor in Design Management at Winchester School of Art and Visiting Researcher in Cultural Geography at the University of Southampton. She’s been writing about sustainability and ethics in fashion for eight years, writing for the likes of Oxfam Fashion and her own blog.
Guest Post by Emma Waight
As an academic I am often asked to give guest lectures and talks on ethical/sustainable fashion to a range of audiences, most often students. Earlier in 2017 I presented a teaching session to second-year fashion marketing degree students on the environmental impact of the fashion and textile industry. Covering topics like pollution, climate change and pesticide use, we took an in-depth look at the impact of cotton agriculture on the Aral Sea (it dried up) and the high use of pesticides and insecticides in the cotton industry (cotton is responsible for nearly 25% of global insecticide use). When it came to student discussion one of the comments really stuck with me – “If we’re fashion students and we don’t know this stuff, how is anyone else suppose to?”
It was meant as a rhetorical question, but I chose not to take it as one. I asked the students if they thought consumers wanted to know ‘this stuff’. They thought not. Talking about cotton farmer suicides or the pollution caused by leather tanning isn’t sexy, it’s downright sad. And no one wants to feel sad when they shop. But consumers DO want to know a bit more about where their clothes come from; at least that’s what they say in the surveys. According to research by Mintel, 70% of 16-24 year olds believe that fashion retailers should be more environmentally friendly and 58% of the same age group are concerned that retailers should provide more information on where clothes are made. Not only is this the group buying the most fast fashion but they are also the industry professionals of the future.
The lecture that day isn’t the first time I’ve been met with blank faces. Most students choose to study fashion for the glamour and creativity; I know I did. You might say that as marketing students they don’t need to know ‘this stuff’ because they’re not designing or buying a product. What they are doing however, is promoting it, and learning how best to communicate the complexity of the fashion supply chain to consumers is a pressing concern.
As high street brands increasingly get better at the ethical stuff they are faced with the dilemma remains of how best to talk about it. Ethically conscious consumers have long been able to head to People Tree or Nomads for organic cotton and fair trade clothing, but you might have noticed high street players creeping up The Good Shopping Guide’s ethical company index. Whistles and Fat Face are right up there in the 80 percentiles, and even H&M and New Look sit side-by-side with the adventurer lover’s favourite Patagonia. But are these brands shouting about it? Not really.
The Rana Plaza factory disaster of 2013 created a fundamental shift in the fashion industry. Not only did it lead to the creation of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to keep factory workers safe, but it forced retailers to finally take a genuinely proactive rather than reactive stance to ethical and environmental concerns in their supply chains. Fairly quietly, retailers like New Look and River Island have been working to clean up their act. This isn’t an easy task when the vast majority of large retailers don’t own their own factories. Instead they have to rely on careful auditing and the support of organisations like the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) to promote workers’ rights. What these brands are less sure about is how to talk to customers about what they’ve been doing.
Leading the way on high street communications has been H&M and M&S. H&M put their ‘Conscious Collection’ centre stage in shop windows across the world, installed garment collection boxes in-store for easy clothing recycling, and involved themselves with high-profile big issues such as tackling water scarcity in Turkey with WWF. H&M poses a problem for many ethically conscious consumers because whilst they are clearly doing great things, they are still shifting a whole lot of fast fashion. And therein lies the great oxymoron, can fast fashion ever be sustainable?
At the other end of the fashion spectrum Vivienne Westwood is a further example of a brand able to talk about ethics. The secret to this success is because the message isn’t coming from the brand as such; it comes from the person. Vivienne Westwood is an established British fashion designer who rose to her post by popularizing punk in the 1970s. Her rebellious aesthetic was built on contempt for the social inequalities underscored by Thatcher’s Britain. She is also a long time campaigner for social and environmental issues. Vivienne Westwood is the brand. She has therefore been able to seamlessly shift her personal rhetoric to her brand values. Westwood’s ‘Made with Love in Nairobi’ collection is a key example of using a fashion line used to tell a story. Consumers know, from the title of this collection, where the items are made and that they are made with ‘love’. In magazine spreads, Westwood took centre stage alongside the Nairobi workers in a local ‘slum’ landscape. Although Westwood has been criticised for fetishizing poverty, the imaginary attached to the campaign does force consumers to link the producers to the products.
As ethical becomes the new normal, retailers will become increasingly concerned with how to pitch this to consumers. The first step is in ensuring that the next generation of fashion industry professionals are confident in deciphering the supply chain themselves, aware of the social and environmental impacts of a mammoth industry. Universities are, by and large, taking this incredibly seriously, with CSR, ethics and sustainability modules offered to students studying everything from Engineering to English. Within Fashion education I think ethics must be incorporated from day one, but this rarely happens.
There are however, an increasing number of students choosing to specialise in sustainability and ethics. For those wishing to pursue further study Heriot Watt University offer MSc in Ethics in Fashion and there is a pioneering research community at London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion.
There’s a fine line between greenwashing and taking a genuine responsibility for social and environmental ethics. Every time we make a purchase we make a vote. For those consumers who really want to know exactly where there money is going, there is a great range of resources to support their research, from The Good Shopping Guide to retailer’s own codes of conduct (often available on their website).
Brands now have to decide whether they want to leave it that way or publically push themselves forward as a more ‘ethical’ brand. The danger of course is simultaneously turning consumers off, as well as opening brands up to increased scrutiny. Most are testing the waters with small campaigns and sustainable collections. They have established ethical/responsible trade departments. They’re working with rather than against the NGOs. The high street is the place to watch for ethical fashion.
 Mintel (2017) British Lifestyles: Preparing for Change – UK – May