I love clothes. I love clothing so much, I am currently getting my MFA in Women’s Fashion. However, I don’t really like the clothing industry. As a potential designer, the unethical and downright horrible aspects of the clothing industry make me think twice about getting a job. I mean, it’s one thing as a consumer – my personal impact is relatively low, but as a designer I feel as though I have a huge level of social responsibility. Yet also as a designer, I have almost no contact with what is really going on in factories and production.
My school, for some reason, almost entirely leaves out ethical and sustainable production of clothing. In fact, they don’t really seem to want to talk about production at all. Maybe as an undergraduate, with a bit more freedom to schedule extra classes, I could take a few courses in sustainability, but as a graduate student, it just doesn’t happen. And when I try to bring ethical questions into the ‘classroom,’ usually the teacher changes the subject as soon as possible. So what do I do now? Well, try to educate myself of course!
I had the good luck and connections to get a few interviews with people working within the field of factory auditing. Basically, these are companies that go to factories around the world to check out that standards are maintained and Codes of Conduct (COC) upheld. The first person I visited told me a lot about the industry, and mostly how it’s just not working. There is a standard that most companies want upheld – SA8000 – but the reality is most factories don’t uphold it. And there isn’t much incentive or help to change.
The current system works like this: Fashion Company A (FC A) goes to Factory 1 (F1). They place an order, on rush of course, because everything in this industry, supposedly, has to be fast. During F1’s production of FC A’s order, an audit company comes in to check that they are maintaining SA8000’s mandates. They aren’t. FC A then withdraws the rest of their potential business and moves on to F2 (Factory 2). FC B (Fashion Company B), then replaces FC A at F1, and the whole circle starts again. This is not a sustainable model. Instead of actually investing time and energy into factories, and helping them raise to the level of upholding standards, right now companies just factory hop.
But large companies don’t really care that much. Why? Well because the current system means that first, they are not legally responsible for the factories that produce their merchandise, and second, by quickly moving around factories, they create a system of underbidding that makes their products cheap to produce. Of course, this underbidding and rush ordering means that the quality suffers, and, most importantly, there is no way to uphold the SA8000 standards and still make money. My contact at the auditing firm, a firm who has quite a few large businesses employing them, said that currently not a single one of her clients is doing it right. She thinks that instead of the ‘punishment’ model currently in place, companies should stay committed to the factories they are currently working in and help them improve.
So, are there currently any other models out there? Well, there are a few.
Another woman I talked to owns a small fashion/accessories/yoga business called Cheppu Himal. She operates on a whole different system, but says it is really only possible because she is a smaller business. She started and owns her own factory in Nepal, and works directly with the people in the village she employs. This way she ensures that her workers are treated fairly, standards of living and health are maintained, and she can even benefit the community by putting together scholarships, etc. for the families she works with. This is possible because she has a personal relationship with the people there, and it is small enough for her to oversee everything. Not only was she kind enough to tell me about how her business is run, she also really encouraged me to look into how to run an ethical business and to be inquisitive about alternatives. For instance, how far back into the production line do I want to control? Do I want to look at the farmers growing the cotton? The silk worm industry? How the rayon is produced?
After talking with both these women, it seemed to me that the most important aspect of maintaining ethical production is to have some sort of relationship with the factories. Change can happen through financial rewards and will probably happen more effectively and efficiently than through any type of punishment.
What if I don’t have the capital to build my own company up from the ground (I don’t)? Or what if I don’t have the time, or am already an existing company? I think that Fair Trade USA is doing a pretty good job addressing these issues. They really encourage a relationship between the buyer and the producer, and even require a certain level of commitment on both halves before considering them for their program. Instead of ditching factories that aren’t meeting their requirements (which are great), they work together to get them up to par. Of course, they are currently working with factories that are already doing pretty well for themselves, but who knows, hopefully it will spread. They also partner with other auditing companies to cut down the cost for both the factories and the buyers. Awesome. In addition, when visiting their office, I got to see a lot of cool new stuff produced under the Fair Trade USA requirements, and even got some swag. Double awesome.
So what does this mean for me, or you, as a consumer? Well, right now it is hard. Often the companies working with Fair Trade are producing clothing that, for lack of a better word, are super hippie or yogi. Not necessarily my style. However, if we keep watch, and reward companies that try something new (I always check to see if Fair Trade companies come up with anything a bit more to my taste and then purchase it) perhaps we will start seeing more interesting, mainstream clothing produced in ethical, meaningful ways. Not just t-shirts.
Well, that’s it for now. I’ll try to check back in on this subject periodically and share any cool companies I find that might be better to purchase from than others!