On the heels of my two part Philosopher Fridays installment on Jean Jacques Rousseau, I came across a few articles and posts about ethical problems (and attempted solutions) in the global fashion industry, including Darling Magazine’s interview with Greta Eagan, author of the book “How to Change the World with your Wardrobe”, Everlane’s Instagram campaign to raise awareness for efforts to raise money for the victims of last year’s Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, and lifestyle blog Hey Natalie Jean’s giveaway with MADE UK.
When it comes to it, wealthy consumer nations are completely dependent upon exploited factory workers for clothing and shoes, but we’re completely disconnected from the real human impact of that exploitation. The result is that we reward companies that take shortcuts and hide their tracks, and allow ourselves to think egocentrically, rather than considering how our choices and economic savings contribute negatively to another person’s life story.
But there is some truth to our rationalized complacency – it is really expensive to buy ethically made clothing, and often difficult to find sources that fit your body shape and size. For the most part, ethical consumption is a privilege available to those with the money and time to devote thought, research, and care to sartorial ethics. And there’s no simple way to fix it – we seem to be in one of Rousseau’s paradoxes, wherein we’re dependent upon a system of production that’s shrouded in secrecy.
While some may think they’re untouched by this paradox, if we follow Rousseau’s line of thinking, their detachment is only an illusion. When the paradox crashes in on itself, there will be no one left to make or buy clothing, and the economy, the very thing making it possible for the wealthy to fancy themselves independent of such a struggle, will collapse from beneath their feet.
But the articles I’ve linked above are just a small sampling of a much larger – and ever growing – movement. There are a lot of people who are trying to solve these issues by offering solutions steeped not in rationalization or enlightened self-interest, but in empathy. Here are just a few companies who are augmenting their business models with real human stories:
1) Everlane – This is a company that makes high quality, lasting clothes out of natural fabrics at prices that are, if not affordable, reasonable. They’re transparent about what they’re skimming off the top, where and under what conditions their clothes are made, and who is making it. You may or may not like what you see, but at a base level, it’s really something that they’re showing it at all. I think they can go even further, engaging third party documentation of their practices and revealing how much workers make compared to their cost of living, but I think this is a powerful first step.
Everlane is also helping to raise money for the victims of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. You can check our their efforts here, here, and here. I have no connection with the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, so I recommend you research everything thoroughly before deciding to donate to make sure you’re comfortable with how the money is being handled.
2) Accompany – While the goals of this company are similar to Everlane’s, the approach is different, more focused on fair trade with existing artists than on executing a centralized industrial vision. Their mission is to connect consumers directly to producers so that the exchange is mutual, emotional, and human. They also attempt to contextualize their efforts to remove barriers to the makers’ sovereign success by engaging in humanitarian and philanthropic projects outside of the consumer connection. While the prices are aspirational for most people, Accompany brings consumers to hand-crafters from across the world, which is an exciting way to use technology to build open connections, rather than hiding them in systemic red tape.
3) Cuyana – This is a company that focuses more on reducing consumption and incentivizing the redistribution and reuse of already purchased clothes. It encourages its customers to favor fewer, higher quality pieces, which is in itself antithetical to most marketing approaches. Also, when you purchase one of their items, you can elect to have them send you a reusable bag to fill with clothing and send back to Cuyana. They’ll donate the goods to people in need, and give you a $10 coupon in exchange. While I’m more of a “bag it up and drop it at Goodwill” kind of person, this could be a great way to win over people who prefer to sell their clothes, and Cuyana also helps provide guidance on thinning your wardrobe – so that even if you don’t donate through them, you’ll have more to give. While they do also engage in sustainable sourcing, they’re hitting the issue from a different angle than Everlane and Accompany.
4) Brilliant Earth – What I love about this company is that they don’t just sell conflict free diamonds, they also work to keep skilled tasks – the ones which pay the highest – in the same region where the diamonds are mined. They also use recycled gold and donate 5% of their profits to people who suffer from exploitative diamond mining. They’re expensive, but if you’re in the market for gold and diamonds, you’re already in the land of expensive, and Brilliant Earth attempts to be as transparent as possible.
5) Factory 45 – In an effort to go beyond bringing ethics to the industry, this company aims to make it easier for makers to break into production and bring the process of clothing production closer to home. Basically, this company aims to remove the secrecy and mystery around clothing production in consumer cultures where big companies go to great lengths to keep customers and competitors in the dark.
One fascinating thing that all of these companies have in common is how often they frame their goals and missions in terms of telling stories about their products and the people who make them. Its about shifting our focus from purely rational economics to the empathetic consideration of the narrative, physical human experience. I recommend you do your own research on the companies listed above, as I have no affiliation with any of them and therefore no authority with which to speak on the legitimacy of the their claims. But I think the approach is inspiring, and I’m excited to learn and do more.