After the first Fashion Revolution day, a movement commemorating the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, it seems an appropriate time to consider the effectiveness of the actions for change and efforts to improve the ethics of the fashion industry. Designer Johanna Riplinger has begun hosting value-centric discussions about the fashion industry, and best practices regarding ethical and sustainable fashion. As a platform for discovery, the reunions aim to be a connector for different players in the community sharing the same concerns and desire to make a difference. I will be documenting this dialogue with resumes of the sessions, although, by force, editing a dynamic conversation into as succinct an article a possible. At each one we will be expanding on the discussion, informing each other, and learning how to widen the sphere of influence through actionable information. I hope that by sharing the topics we discuss more of you can be empowered to join the conversation and even begin your own groups.
*The views in this article are my own, based on the conclusions drawn during our discussion.
Whatever the approach has been thus far, conscious fashion remains a subculture. Finding the right vocabulary and new ways to communicate about the issue has been one of the greatest challenges in the effort to mainstream. Eco, green, sustainable, ethical, each word associated with the movement carries stigma and can be alienating to a wider audience. The responsible fashion crowd appears to be self-selecting, and easy to identify based on their habits of consumption and their lifestyle. This community tends to be one of affluence, as most other segments of the population remain unwilling to spend more for longevity and prefer to buy cheap, thinking of their needs in terms of immediacy.
Aside from rhetoric, the greatest obstacle is the wiring of consumerism. We’re so accustomed to being encouraged to look for deals, pay less but buy more and buy more often, that it is confusing to hear messages in favor of buying less and paying more. Who can afford to spend 80% more on a purchase for an everyday item? How can you trust that it will last 80% longer than the cheaper version? How do you sell longevity when you’ve been selling planned obsolescence for so long?
Democratizing the discussion is an uphill battle at the moment. Because the changes need to come from the supply end, rather than the demand end, the movement will have to trickle down from the top. The point to focus on now is that systems are being built by those who can invest in the change, and in the meantime progress can be made to adjust the mentality of shoppers so that by the time these technologies are accessible to a mass market, the consumer is ready to buy in to it. While luxury conferences like 1.618 held in Paris in early April present projects that are accessible only to a community of elite, it is important that the research and development happen where the money is to be spent on it. As capabilities become adaptable on mass-market scale, suppliers moving down the chain will be responsible for making this decision for the end consumer. In moments of massive change, there will always be a small few who move mountains to clear a path that’s easily traveled by many.
The cultural shift is not going to happen overnight, and it will never happen unless we find a way to spin the story. Javier Flaim of Recyclebank suggests we focus on “more good” rather than “less bad.” Positive orientation can generally have a positive effect rather than focusing on the current rhetoric of fear, doom and gloom.
Our conversation shifted at this point to the question of gender-bias in the dialogue on sustainability. It seems that, for example, the conversation on Fashion Revolution Day was led by females:
Around the same time, I read an article arguing that supporting the sustainable fashion movement is a feminist act. My first thought, personally, was don’t we already have enough stigma around this issue? Do we need to alienate men altogether? If 80% of garment workers in Bangladesh are women, are we inadvertently advocating for them and not the men who sit in danger beside them?
The gender split, it turns out, has many dimensions in the conversation for conscious fashion. During our discussion we called to mind several male designers, menswear and womenswear, who occupy the sustainable space without that being their only qualifier (Honest By, Christopher Raeburn, John Patrick Organic, etc.). So what separates men and women in this conversation? The epiphany: men already shop the way we hope everyone will shop. Men already buy less and pay more. Women are the ones who want to buy lots of things while spending little. This is a vast generalization, but it stands up. I compare my own shopping habits to that of men these days, although I never drew this parallel between consumerism and gender proclivities. Is there a way for us to translate this mentality into something that transcends gender, age, and class?
Finally, we discussed the Fashion Revolution initiative, whose first major call to action was this April 24. My personal involvement was through twitter, telling the community who produces starkweather's outerwear and re-tweeting tons of good stuff from fellow conscious fashion denizens. I think I can speak for all of us when I say none of us felt the #insideout selfie initiative in sync with our personal way of communicating, and the local organizers were not responsive to outreach from our group. I encourage you all to take a look at their suggestions for how to get involved, and if none of them work for you, come up with your own ways (and feel free to share your ideas here!).
That said, Fashion Revolution Day accomplished impressive international branding and outreach, but has progress to make in its versatility and its responsiveness. Time will tell if its impact resonates with shoppers at that decisive moment, choosing between quality and price. I do hope so. As it stands today, whatever our angle, the problematic issue of making awareness actionable still eludes us.
In conclusion, here’s my Fashion Revolution Fantasy:
We will all be able to bring our old, poorly made clothes that don’t survive a single wash to a massive repository and transform them, like straw to gold, into a commodity which we can return to the workers who sacrificed their health and quality of life to have them made. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?