Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ethical Fashion - Who cares ?

Today I lectured to 4th and final year Design students at the Fashion Design faculty of the prestigious Shenkar Design College in Tel Aviv. My objective was to create awareness of the important impact of fashion designers on social responsibility and sustainability, and to encourage these young budding designers to exercise social and environmental responsibility as they start to practise their new profession. Some of these students will be individualists, creating and selling their own innovative designs. Many will go on to work as designers in Companies who retail their fashion in Israel and perhaps world-wide. Some may even become world famous designers to the celebs, attaining a position of influence far greater than a modest, well, sort of modest, consultant like myself can do.  This was the only exposure of students to sustainability thinking as part of their four year course, something I am hoping will change as the importance of fashion design with a sustainability mindset becomes more compelling. My presentation, entitled Ethical Fashion, Who cares? I regret, is only in Hebrew at present, so I will take you through a  brief summary of my key points here:  

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?
There are many positive examples in all three categories of fashion industry stakeholders such as these, though, overall, the fashion industry is still a perpetuation of unsustainability, especially in Israel where 90% of fashion is imported and little is disclosed about supply chain processes by almost all the leading retailers.

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.
I then  I ran through a reasonably exhaustive list of issues for consideration by designers including  fabric traceability, organics, garment life-cycle, labelling,  issues related to body image, use of pesticides, models and modelling practices, technology developments which facilitate use of environmentally friendlier fabrics such as hemp, and more.

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!:

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 


Lavinia said...

Happy New Year, Elaine.

elaine said...

Thank you Lavinia. I hope you are enjoying the Holiday Season, and wish you a great start to 2010.

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