#02 Business
Laura Cwiertnia

Ethical Fashion – The “Moral Economy” of the 21st Century?

Whether it is socially just, organic or fair trade – catchwords like these stimulate interest in buyers and promote a clear conscience in consumers. Sustainability is trendy and this extends to fashion as well. The cosmopolitan middle classes of industrialised nations know how immoral current production methods are for the clothes they wear and are increasingly looking for good alternatives. The industry is reacting to this rise in demand: Ethical fashion is strutting its way across the catwalks of the world's style capitals and established brands use it to attract attention to special collections. A growing number of young companies are taking morally irreproachable products as a basis. "Ethical" fashion is in the process of bursting out of its current economic niche status, but will consumers' pricks of conscience prove able to alter the foundations of global production chains?

The term ethical fashion is as new as the phenomenon it describes: Fashionable clothes manufactured under environmentally friendly and socially just conditions. Environmentally friendly in this case means that all materials are grown organically, that no chemicals and pollutants are used in processing, and that natural resources like water are used as sparingly as possible. Social criteria apply to the working conditions in production plants. Reasonable wages and working hours, a ban on child labour and sufficient health protection are the principals behind the "fairly-made clothing" ethical label, as the Clean Clothes Campaign had been demanding for years. This association of over 300 unions and non-governmental organisations from 15 European countries criticises the hazardous conditions under which clothes are made for the Western market. The reasons behind these shortcomings are widely known: globalisation and technical progress have changed production chains by making global networking easier and cheaper.

Industry has made use of these advantages and has increasingly been shifting whole stages of production to developing and emerging nations since the beginning of the 80s. Their goal: cheaper and faster production. Today 95% of the textiles sold on the German market are made in low-wage countries and, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a pair of jeans often travels more than 19,000 kilometres on its way to the shelves. But how is it possible that a t-shirt that has been designed, woven, dyed, cut, sewn and transported across the globe costs less than 5 euros? Workers and the environment pay the price for cheap mass-produced goods. More and more firms are producing their products in countries like India and Bangladesh because they want to take advantage of the lack of social and environmental standards which make production there so incomparably cheap.

Issue #02

Ethical is “in”

The demand for ecological and social justice in the clothing sector is certainly nothing new. Since the beginning of the 70s so-called One World stores have sold fair trade textiles. There are also well-known fashion brands that have been marketing environmentally friendly products for some time. The Hessnatur Company, for example, has carried only natural and untreated textiles in its range since its founding in 1976.

What is new and unique about the current movement in fashion is that the ethical fashion collections are compatible with mass consumption, since they look no different than the immoral competition. Ecological fashion has shaken off its wool-sock and linen-trouser image and is moving in the opposite direction: Sustainability seals are chic. This is the power behind the current boom in “clean” fashion. Customers do not need to sacrifice a thing to behave ethically. This is particularly important in the textile and clothing sector, for few consumers are willing to compromise when it comes to their appearance. “Change the world with style” is the motto of the Cologne Portocolonia label that has based its fashion lines on sustainability since opening its doors in 2007. “We want to promote new values – but with design” explains Sandra Weingart, founder and managing director of Portocolonia. “Our customers want one thing above all: to look good. If they can also do something good for the environment, then that is the icing on the cake.”

The fact that ethical fashion has reached the break-out point now is due in large to a special clientele that has developed in recent years. The specialist term for these consumers is LOHAS (lifestyle of health and sustainability), an educated middle class that consumes consciously, but doesn’t want to make concessions.

In his “Megatrend Sustainability” study, environmental economist Werner F. Schulz estimates that there are around 8 million LOHAS in Germany with a combined buying power of at least 200 billion euros a year. The money aspect acts as another fulcrum for the current ethical fashion movement, whose buyers are especially financially fit. After all, a clean conscience comes at a price. An average t-shirt from a conventional fashion company costs between 5 to 15 euros, while the US label American Apparel offers a fairly produced alternative for 30 euros.

Higher prices have not limited growth in the branch to date. Quite the opposite in fact: fair and green fashion is better represented at established fashion trade fairs than ever before. Paris celebrates the Ethical Fashion Week, and London offers conscious consumers the Ethical Fashion Source Expo. Large manufacturers from Armani to C&A have incorporated whole collections of “clean fashion” into their ranges. But small firms in particular are increasingly marketing ecologically and socially sound fashion. Since, with their limited budgets, they cannot compete with the giants in retail, they hawk their wares primarily via the internet. New communication technologies are another element powering the current heyday in ethical fashion. Virtual sales in online shops allow small fashion companies to offer their products without risking high overhead costs.

Kim Poldner is the founder of the www.ecofashionworld.com homepage. The website offers users an overview of the range of ethically produced fashion. “Most visitors come to the website to have a look at our guide, which comprises over 200 eco fashion brands from around the world“. This cross-border network is viewed by many small firms as an opportunity for access to the market.

Consuming for a better world

But will the concept of ethical fashion truly be able to establish itself in a market well-known for its focus on efficiency rather then morals? Kim Polder is confident: “More and more people demand fair products, so the market interest is also shifting. And as technologies are developing, efficiency and moral consciousness will be able to come closer together.” This is the guiding principle behind ethical fashion: changing production chains through strategic consumption. After all customer demand is a crucial deciding factor in determining the future of the market.

Yet increasing criticism levelled at the ethical fashion branch is proof that consumer conscience alone cannot change global injustice. In the “Social-ecological Fashion on the Test Stand” study, the Südwind Institute determined that standards of many of the companies tested are neither monitored nor met as promised. The largest problem facing the branch is a lack of transparency. There are no unified certifications or binding standards for ethical fashion. Instead a plethora of eco-labels, fair-trade stamps and sustainability symbols are flooding the market, making it hard for consumers to figure out which seals of approval they can truly trust. One particular danger inherent in this maze of stamps and seals is that it offers companies a range of ways to “greenwash” themselves. Firms can improve their image through targeted advertising with the ethical fashion label without actually implementing the necessary standards. The certification confusion is also creating problems even for the truly dedicated moralists among the fashion companies, since often the complexity of production chains and higher costs make it difficult for fashion companies to assess the extent to which labour and environmental standards are upheld in the production of their goods.

This criticism sheds light on the flipside of ethical fashion with one main goal: mass compatibility. In creating products for buyers who consume consciously, but don’t want to compromise on their look, more emphasis is often placed on fashionable design than on upholding ecological and social standards. This is why initiatives and associations like the Clean Clothes Campaign are demanding unified and binding standards for certification in the fashion sector. Legal guidelines are needed, here critics agree, as are clear and enforceable sanctions. National governments and supranational confederations need to create the foundation for control and transparency. This is the only way the claim that the content of each and every shopping cart determines whether moral concepts can become principals of economic cooperation will actually bear fruit. Only then can the objective of conscious consumption as a means of shaking the foundations of existing production mechanisms become a prospect to be taken seriously.