It's time to start thinking about where your clothes REALLY come from

garment factory in Tanzania2
CC BY 2.0 BBC World Service

Fashion is always one of the last things to change when a consumer 'greens' or improves personal shopping habits.

Think about “fair trade” for a moment.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Most likely, you’re thinking about coffee or chocolate, or perhaps sugar, too, if you’re better informed than the average consumer. But have you ever stopped to think about fair fashion, and what it takes for clothes to be made ethically and sustainably by workers who are fairly compensated for their labour? If the answer is no, you’re not alone.

The sad reality is that ethical fashion has yet to become mainstream. It exists, but only within small, specialized circles of designers, retailers, and consumers who are aware of the importance of sourcing ethically made clothes. The rest of us are “stuck on coffee,” as they say, when it comes to fair trade.

While it’s excellent that so many people now seek out ethical coffee – it is the second most widely traded commodity in the world – it’s also a source of concern to those in the fashion world that consumers are content to get their ethical consumer fix from those easy commodities and take it no further.

“Fashion is one of the last things to gets addressed by consumers when ‘greening’ or improving their ethical shopping habits,” explained Kelly Drennan, the founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action (FTA), during a panel discussion earlier this week at the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (#WEAR2014) in Toronto. Food, cosmetics, skin care products, and household cleaners always come first, but an adjustment to clothes shopping habits usually doesn’t happen for years, if at all.

Many of the speakers and panel participants at WEAR agreed that education efforts are needed to inform consumers of the importance of ethical fashion. There are a number of interesting ongoing initiatives, such as the FTA’s education program called “My Clothes, My World” that delivers a full-day workshop to Toronto-area schools and teaches kids about labour rights, consumerism, and the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Its aim is to educate kids before they become consumers.

There is also Fashion Revolution Day, which takes place on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse. People who participated in the “Who Made Your Clothes?” campaign on April 24, 2014 were urged to wear their clothes inside out and promote on social media using the hashtag #InsideOut in order to start crucial discussions about where and how clothes are made.

Kemp Edwards, CEO and President at Vancouver-based Ethical Profiling, explained at WEAR that consumers are drawn toward a compelling story. He gave Ten Tree Apparel as an example, which has been highly successful with its promise to plant 10 trees for every item purchased. “People love that kind of stuff. It’s 95 percent education. When people know, that makes the sales happen.”

As a consumer who does not work within the fashion industry, however, I wish so much that these education efforts could somehow be tied into the final product. I care less about a dramatic story than I do about knowing truly what I'm buying. Imagine a hangtag on a new garment that outlined exactly how the item was made, in which factory, by whom, and with what chemicals; it could be similar to the cleaning directions already put in clothes, or the nutrition labels and ingredient lists printed on packaged food.

Deciding what to buy affects the fashion industry in both positive and negative ways, depending on where our dollars go. Until labels and certifications on garments become commonplace and easily recognizable, as they are in the food industry, clothes shoppers are very much on their own when it comes to educating themselves about what’s out there. But it’s important to know that ethical options do exist and are worth seeking out, even if it takes more effort.

(One great place to start is the FTA’s Eco Fashion online store, which can direct you to a number of designers selling beautiful, ethically made apparel.)

Tags: Clothing | Shopping

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