I recently took a poll amongst a few of my friends. It was incredibly scientific.
The question: When you hear that an item of clothing is "ethically made," does that make you more or less likely to buy it?
Maybe your friends are like mine. They fall all along the spectrum in terms of awareness of, and dedication to, ethical fashion. Can you relate to any of these responses?
"Well, I usually think of more neutral, earthy tones, made in the developing world... and yes, if I have a choice I'd rather shop ethically. Oh, and a little inaccessible, I don't like buying clothes online because I'm terrible about returns, so if I saw ethical lines in stores that would be even better." - Ashley Drew
"That's funny you should ask, because I just had this conversation with my students. Their responses showed me that the words "ethical fashion" made them feel guilty but not necessarily inclined to behave better as shoppers. In total honesty, I love to be able to support ethical fashion brands BUT the actual words "ethical fashion" give me an initial assumption that the thing will likely not be my style" - Amanda Biles
"I wish there was a Macy's full of just ethically made clothing. Someone should really get on that." - Beth Hacker
If you've never heard the term ethical fashion before, let's break it down. According to the Ethical Fashion Forum, "ethical fashion represents an approach to the design, sourcing, and manufacturing of clothing which maximizes benefits to people and communities while minimizing impact on the environment. If you describe something as ethical, you mean that it is morally right or morally acceptable."
Having been introduced to ethical fashion in 2013, following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, I've spent the past few years getting to know the industry. A hugely popular marketing trend has been one of story-telling. Brands will often describe the opportunity that your purchasing power can provide their artisan groups, as an easy alternative to the fast fashion train wreck. (An example of this is Noonday Collection. They sell gorgeous accessories and have done a fantastic job of building relationships between their ambassadors and artisans, allowing stories of families rising out of poverty to be seen first-hand and retold in spheres of influence in living rooms around the United States. They do not currently sell in retail stores because they want the story of each piece to be told as it's passed on to the buyer). But there are some incredible brands out there right now who are on their way to big success via both online and retail sales, mostly just because their products are gorgeous. Take the Isla blouse, for example. (You may remember it from our Holiday Handbook!) I would be tempted to buy it whether it was handmade by women in Oaxaca, Mexico or not.
I personally go out of my way to support brands like these with my purchases (this blouse is actually hanging in my closet, along with a couple of other pieces from Paloma el Paso) because I know that their success is measured, at least in part, by the opportunity they provide the artisans who make their products and/or by the safety that's guaranteed to their factory/co-op workers. These brands are killing it in their spheres, but the unfortunate truth is that the majority of mainstream America doesn't yet know they exist.
Marketing 101: customers' habits are hard to break. Instead of asking customers to change their habits, what if we snuck ethically produced clothing onto the racks in their favorite stores and consumers bought the items because they loved the style, not necessarily because of how they were made or the story behind them? Sounds like a foolproof plan, right? The biggest obvious hurdle is getting those smaller brands into department stores and boutiques alongside the big brands we already know and love. But more on that later.
Of course, the SHE Changes Everything team would argue that education is key and ultimately we want to turn those buyers into informed consumers, but in the short term, let's take a cue from Patagonia.
Venture with me down memory lane back to college. Does the term "fratagonia" ring a bell? Almost everyone on campus at my university had a Patagonia Re-Tool Snap T Pullover. In fact, I still have one and wear it all the time, which is quite a testament to how well their clothing is made. (But if yours is wearing out, don't throw it away! Check out Patagonia's Worn Wear program, which employs more than 45 repair technicians in Reno, NV and wants to fix your old clothing instead of putting it in a landfill!)
If you ever have a chance to read through the history of Patagonia as a company, you'll be impressed by its commitment to sustainability, environmental responsibility, and quality from its start in the early 1970s. We were all walking around college campuses in recycled fabrics and organic cotton and didn't have a clue. In the past few years, Patagonia has also released a fair trade line, but I would guess that those pieces sell right alongside the rest of their products for the lifestyle and brand recognition, not the story behind each item of clothing. Patagonia quietly tricked us all into supporting ethical clothing options by eliminating the "ethical" label completely, which, if you remember from my scientific poll above, can create questions about a product's style or even create feelings of guilt.
So how can smaller, newer, ethically made brands go beyond story telling and sneak onto department store shelves and into our shopping bags?
It starts with us. Ask for ethical brands at your local boutiques! Raise their awareness for the companies creating beautiful, fair products. Bring ethical companies to their attention because you want the clothes, not just because the clothes are ethically made!
My friend Emily Stringer is taking that conversation one step further.
In November of 2015, just as SHE Changes Everything was in its infancy, I traveled with Emily, founder of Pamoja Brands, to Rwanda and Uganda. At the time, Pamoja was an abstract idea - actually, it was the name of our safari tour guide company, and means "togetherness" - but during our two weeks spent visiting co-ops and workshops where women were working hard at a trade but sales were slim, the vision of Pamoja as we know it today became increasingly clear.
Everywhere we went, these two realities kept presenting themselves: the first reality, that women are working so hard to support their families through technical training that hopefully leads to dignified work, was overwhelmingly overshadowed by the second reality, that there wasn't enough business to sustain them. There weren't enough stores to buy the products. But can you blame a store for not carrying a product it doesn't know about?
Emily's solution: Create a brand representative company that leads with quality and style, on a mission to get smaller, ethically produced brands into American boutiques and department stores at wholesale rates. You and I might ask our local boutique for a brand or product sporadically, but Emily has made it her job so you and I can easily find and support ethical brands where we shop in mainstream America. Genius.
Pamoja currently represents 5 brands: The Root Collective, Tribe Alive, Asha + Grace, Oh! Fox, and Symbology. Emily hopes to represent more (so reach out to her and say "Hi" if you're a company looking to expand)! Companies like hers can "move up the timeline" for when we all can more easily shop for ethical clothes in brick-and-mortar stores around the world.
Ethical companies themselves are rebranding to join in Pategonia's "trickery" as well. Bethany Tran is the founder of The Root Collective, an ethically produced shoe and accessories brand providing employment to former gang members in the slums of Guatemala. Her company is one that Emily represents. I had a chance to talk with Bethany about her rebranding this year.
It's a big challenge to move from "ethical" to "sexy," but guess what? It's happening. We are seeing more celebrities find ethical fashion "cool" enough to wear, regardless of its value as something "ethically made." It's a start. From there, with the help of consumers like you who are eager to learn and then, in turn, pass on your knowledge, ethical fashion will soon be a household term.
Again, education is the end goal, but in the meantime, keep asking stores for your favorite brands. I hope more companies take Patagonia's lead and "sneak" their brands onto shelves from Nordstrom to the main street boutique. Buyers, invest in the little guys. Allow us as consumers to unknowingly walk out of stores carrying gorgeous sustainable, organic fabrics made ethically. If it means fair wages are going into the hands that made the clothing we wear and the environment is cared for responsibly, by all means, trick us.
Have a favorite ethical clothing brand you think we would love? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lindsey Raymond, DPT is a physical therapist, Air Force wife, mom to 6-month old Edie, ethical fashion and clean beauty advocate.