There has been a lot written about ethical fashion and there is a growing industry devoted to inform and manufacture ethically produced clothing and accessories, but when I talk to people my age, near where I live (California), most of which have a college education and a moderate interest in fashion, nobody seems to have heard about ethical fashion; I mentioned it to my waxing lady today and it was news to her. I'm not even going to address the situation in my land of Costa Rica, where price is still pretty much all people care about when it comes to fashion: If they kind of like it and can afford it, they buy it.
Why is it that the message has not permeated the masses and remains a very closed niche? Why don't "regular people," even if interested in humanitarian and environmental causes seem to be more open to wear and support the ethical fashion cause?
Here are my 3 reasons:
1. Money, money, money, money. Making things outside of the system or generalized paradigm (usually optimized for efficiency) is expensive. When the supply networks, industry standards and consumer demand have been molded according to fast fashion principles, making slow fashion is simply more expensive. "Made in the USA" has become a trend in the ethical fashion spectrum, but just as an example, the average hourly compensation of manufacturing workers in the US was nearly ten times that of Chinese workers for the period of 2002-2009.
Part of that phenomenon can be explained by the existence of externalities: when making clothes cheaply, the real economic costs are not paid by the end consumer, but by different parties involved directly or indirectly in the production process. Scale is another issue; established brands with a solid supply chain can make things significantly faster and cheaper than an independent designer with limited capital.
2. A marketing failure. Ethical fashion doesn't mean ugly hemp hippie clothes or African prints. I think some designers and founders of the movement have associated the expressions "ethical" and "sustainable" with certain things that don't have a lot to do with the core of what those words stand for, often including an "ethnic" look to their pieces, instead of making nice, versatile and stylish clothes that people want to wear.
The average consumer is not going to buy something just because is eco-friendly, especially if it's more expensive than the alternatives; the challenge is make clothes just as appealing as the cheaper mass produced alternatives but to differentiate on quality, customer service and uniqueness.
3. The cost of information. Being informed of what is being done in terms of supply chain transparency, ecological business practices and appropriate working conditions by your favorite brands is time consuming and sometimes not very easy at all. A lot of money is spent on hiding the injustices of big fashion makers and trying to present certain brands as if they were "sustainable" with poor data in what I consider a shameless PR move (more information on what I'm talking about soon).
There are some resources out there but even then, I have found it hard to rely on one source for my research. Through the process explained in a recent post, I try to get as much information as I can and make an educated decision, but until there is an international auditing body devoted to bring these facts to the general public, it does take time and effort to figure out if that peplum top is really ethically produced, or not. Bloggers, writers and fashion executives are becoming more interested in the matter and the information is becoming easier to obtain. As we demand more complete details about the production process, companies will have to disclose more information in order to remain competitive.
I believe a few years from now, we are going to question how reckless we once were when it came to outsourcing and corporate responsibility transparency–not only in the fashion industry, but in most goods produced for the American market. If we are talking about "ethical" fashion now it is because it's still rare it needs its own category and to be marketed accordingly. It is in the hands of the developed world to take action and realize we really don't need 100 dresses in our closet, but rather a couple LBD's that fit great and make us feel great.
About The Author
Yarina Valverde is an Economist born and raised in Costa Rica. An eternal fashionista, cook apprentice, eclectic writer and tech junkie, she has a passion for innovation and sustainability. Her most recent project, Fashionhedge, is an effort to create consciousness about ethical fashion and how to be a more humanitarian consumer. Now living in California with her husband and her border collie, she spends her days blogging, hiking and working on launching her own ethical fashion store.