The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing over a million people and touching the llives of each and everyone of us on the planet, at all stages and phases of our development. Who cares about sustainability, CSR and ethics in the fashion industry? No-one declares that they want to destroy the planet's natural resources, wear sweatshop shirts at the expense of the most basic human rights of children in the Far East, or make the hole in the ozone layer bigger. No-one says they want to impoverish communities through exploitation or perpetuate a fast fashion consumer culture which results in tons of unwanted clothes sent to landfill each day. So maybe everyone cares. But caring is not enough. We know that people care only when we see them take action in line with what they care about. In the fashion industry, we can start with three core groups who influence fashion, and ask ourselves what they really care about:
- Designers - to what extent do ethical, social and environmental considerations form an early part of the design phase?
- Retailers - to what extent do similar considerations dictate retail policies and practices ?
- Consumers - to what extent do consumers vote with their feet, or more accurately, their purchasing choices?
The result of everything that designers and retailers do ends up somewhere as a consumer choice. So I then took the students through a brief review of the things that impact consumer choice, beyond the pure design elements of a specific garment. I focused on three broad areas:
- Materials - fabrics, yarns, adhesives, dyes, and all forms of accessories - what environmentally friendly and ethically favourable choices are available to the fashion designer ?
- Production processess and supply chain - sourcing, outsourcing, transportation, sales, fair trade - what influence does the designer have on manufacturing complexity and waste levels, for example ?
- Garment care - what the consumer does after purchasing a garment, which makes up a significant element of the garment's total life-cycle impact, often greater than the impact of producing the garment.
Finally I looked at the question of transparency and yes, you guessed it, my favourite subject, reporting, and talked about the leading reporters in the fashion industry, including the only private fashion house in Israel to have produced a CSR report, my client, comme il faut. I mentioned the Global Compact, and our efforts to drive the Israeli fashion industry to accept and promote the UNGC Principles, though only the comme il faut Company has done so to date, and one more en route, whose first Communication on Progress we are currently working on.
To sum up, I stitched it all together (don't you just love puns?) and suggested that if they care, they should take responsibility, as designers, and consider social and environmental issues at the start of the design process. Perhaps if I ever become a celeb, one of them might design an eco-celeb-outfit for me. Chunky Monkey colours, please.
I also referred those who are keen to learn more to my list of wonderful books, all of which I have read, enjoyed , learnt from and been inspired by, on the subject of ethical and sustainable fashion, textiles and apparel. Here's my list, in no particular order, they are all great!:
- Eco-chic: The Fashion Paradox, by Sandy Black
- Sustainable Fashion and Textiles : Design Journeys , by Kate Fletcher
- The China Price: The True Cost of Competitive Advantage, by Alexandra Harney
- Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist examines the markets, power and politics of world trade, by Pietra Rivoli
- Social Responsibility in the Global Apparel Industry by Dickson, Loker and Eckman
- Eco Chic: How to be ethical and easy on the eye, by Matilda Lee
I waited as some rushed to copy down the titles. Good sign!
Later, as I pondered over questions the students asked, and the real impact of their work, I tried to recall to what extent designers are given air-time in CSR reports. I recalled the wonderful 2005-2006 report by Gap Inc where they state : In our business, everything begins with design.And later in the report, there is a quote from the Director of Textile Development:
Quick look at one more: Next plc, whose 2009 report I just came accross a day or so ago. It's an interesting report, doesn't really touch on the role of the designer, thoough there is evidence that designers are bound by social and environmental commitments such as the development of traceable sustainable cotton products and more.
I hope that this new generation of designers will be a generation of sustainable designers. And I hope that consumers will both demand and applaud this direction. That is, if anyone cares.
elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm . Visit our website at: www.b-yond.biz/en