In recent years, the fashion industry has been rocked with one controversy after the other. Between having underage children work in sweatshops to being branded as "the dirtiest industry next to oil", fashion needed a huge brand makeover.
Enter ethical and sustainable fashion--the industry's blanket solution to all the mud hurled its way. It covers a range of issues such as good working conditions of labourers, zero-exploitation of people and environment, fair trade, sustainable production, and animal welfare.
While this step for positive change has been sweeping through fashion, it's not without misconceptions. There is still a huge percentage of players not fully buying into it, centuries of practice have to be unlearned, and consumers ultimately need to be educated before we fully shift 180-degrees.
We've identified five of the misconceptions through Clara Vuletich's Ted talk in Sydney--five myths that seem to cause a barrier against the progress of ethical fashion. Here's our break down:
Myth #1: Ethical fashion is a niche
One common misconception is getting access to ethically-made clothing nowadays is hard. Well, it used to be. The first to really adapt ethical fashion were small local shops by budding designers and social entrepreneurs who want to change the world one 100% organic cotton tee at a time. But it’s becoming mainstream.
Vuletich says big brands like H&M and Country Road are engaging with the ethical space already. Japanese fast-fashion giant Uniqlo has introduced a recycling drive for customers to return their secondhand clothes. Although it has "PR campaign" written all over it, Vuletich argues that it's a step in the right direction.
“The people who work in this space aren’t monsters... They aren’t all ego-driven. It’s much more nuanced than that.”
Myth #2: Ethical fashion is flawless
Marketing buzzwords such as natural, eco-friendly, or ethical, are usually not what they seem to be, warns Vuletich. Cotton, the most prolific fabric used in garments, almost always produces toxic after-products from pesticides and dyes, and relies on infamously exploitative farming environments, even the more ethically produced ones.
Polyester, a synthetic, cotton alternative derived from plastic is far more easily recycled and reused than any other natural material. But it can take up to 200 years to decompose.
In landfill, wool creates methane gas. So which is better for the environment? The complexity of textile production makes it impossible to rank fabrics on a hierarchy of environmental sustainability.
Myth #3: Ethical fashion has to be locally sourced
While it's nice to have every aspect of production be done within borders, thus improving the economic status of individuals in cities and towns, the fact is fashion is an international trade. One of the many environmentally-challenging parts of fashion is logistics. While cutting down transport emissions can really help our chances against the adverse effects of climate change, any type of garment is rarely 100% locally sourced or made.
International processes are not an unfortunate by-product—they are crucial to its existence. Fabric manufacturing is one of the quickest ways for communities and countries to rise out of poverty and the solution isn’t to pull the rug out from under them.
Myth #4: Ethical fashion has to be expensive
While it's logical to think that a piece of clothing that's made by well-paid workers will be expensive, that doesn't mean you don't have cheap and ethical clothing choices.
Vuletich is a big fan of secondhand shopping—think Salvos, Vinnies, U-Turn, Swop, Red Cross, Gumtree… Secondhand goods they may be, but that’s not a codeword for cheap, shoddy, or badly made. Instead of a fast fashion giant, your purchase funds a local charity, business, or market stall owner.
No extra resources were extracted for anyone to get that piece of clothing to you, nor was anyone enslaved to sew your new threads. It’s likely a local near the shop donated it, so transport emissions are low, and you’re also keeping something out of landfill.
Myth #5: Ethical fashion will change the world
Vuletich is wary of making huge claims. The effectiveness of campaigns like the 1-for-1 business model have been thoroughly debunked, and it’s doubtful buying a pair of fair trade sandals will do as much good as a country changing their labour laws. But will it have some impact? She says yes.
For an ordinary consumer, trying to track the supply chain of a dress is a hump not many people would want to get over. Fashion is personal. People gravitate towards brands they're loyal to. Just mindlessly buying clothes anywhere might be easy, it could also be very careless. The growing social, political and environmental consciousness around fashion is ramping up and it's difficult to stay unaware.
The good think about a free market is consumers have a lot of power to dictate how the market is going to be based on choices. Maybe a couple of hundred people choosing to shop ethical fashion won’t change the world, but they could add up.