Published in Forbes.com
Globalization has made it easier than ever to ignore where our clothes come from. Are the workers paid equitably? Are their working conditions safe? Are their communities healthy? Many consumers may find it difficult to answer these questions, in part because most retail clothing makers don’t disclose adequate information about production.
Here’s the truth: When a garment is made in the developing world, the average percentage of the final retail cost that goes to the garment worker ranges from 0.5 – 4 percent. Most of us accept this status quo as the norm. Even the U.S. government, one of the largest consumers on the planet, orders clothing from the kind of factories that have killed so many people in Bangladesh.
For a long time, men have opened doors for each other in business. I believe that if we are to solve this issue, then we need more women to rise to leadership positions in the fashion industry. Women like Joey Adler from Industrial Revolution II (a client of mine at Uncommon Union) – and even celebrities like Olivia Wilde – are already opening doors and putting more ethical plans into action. As more women take on more authority as leaders in the fashion industry, they are poised to challenge the long-standing assumption that our ethics are limited by market forces.
The world is ready for women to remake the fashion of fashion — to bring into vogue putting people first. Here are a few ways we can get started:
Brand Ethical Fashion as Cool
Begin to educate consumers about the importance of ethical fashion. Social entrepreneurs on the sourcing side of the equation know that, in order to change how we think about commerce and how we conduct business as entrepreneurs, leaders and consumers, the industry needs to work hard to develop customers who will make ethical choices.
Start by identifying public figures and entertainment stars — e.g., trendsetters like Donna Karan (Urban Zen) and Hugh Jackman (Laughing Man) — who care about developing an ethical framework for capitalism. Leverage their authority and influence to bring ethical fashion into the forefront of public attention. Rather than trying to appeal to people’s conscience, begin to make the ethical choice the fashionable one.
Consider the Product
Develop a product with a clearly defined ethical pedigree. To do so, you need to be able to document the life cycle of the product from inception to the store shelf. Who designed the product? Who made it? What is it made from? To what extent was the welfare of the people involved in the process taken into account?
The answers to all these questions need to serve the purpose of marketing the product. Some stages of a product’s lifecycle (especially in the developing world) can be difficult to verify and control, so be careful. You need to offer proof.
Lastly, use both the quality and appeal of the product and its pedigree as a marketing tool. Many if not most people want to make the ethical choice — they just need help getting there. Educate consumers about the long chain of events starting with textile production and ending with the store purchase. Whenever possible, show public figures wearing the product or discussing the product.
Make it personal: Use photographs and story to creative a narrative about the product so that consumers feel that they are not just buying an object but becoming part of a story.
If consumers then begin to ask questions and demand accountability — if humanitarian, health, and environmental concerns start to drive the fashion industry — ethically sourced fashion will become the norm. The status quo will change. In the end, change depends on the willingness of workers, consumers, and entrepreneurs to step into the unknown. Let us be some of the first to insist on a better world.