For more than a decade we have described our brand as an ethical fashion label. Even our name is derived from the Greek word, ethiko, from which the English word, ethical, is derived. Ethics have been our motivator from the beginning, providing surety in tough times we were fighting the good fight. Etiko is ethical. Right?
Lately, we have started to have second thoughts. Not about our own company’s mission and values, but about describing our brand as ethical.
What is ethical fashion?
The term ethical fashion, as it is currently being used by the fashion industry, should be defined as bare-minimum fashion. It describes the brands who are operating on a barely acceptable level, but not a great level, and certainly not a harm-free level.
The ethical fashion movement originated in the 1980s when allegations of sweatshop labour first broke news headlines across the world. But since the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh which killed more than 1,100 garment workers, the movement has gained significant momentum as more consumers demanded to know who made their clothes.
Slowly but surely, fast fashion became a derogatory term, for both social and environmental reasons. Big brands have at worst, responded by greenwashing their marketing and spinning their PR. At best, they have pledged to pay their garment workers a minimum wage within a number of years.
But the future isn’t coming fast enough for textile workers in Bangladesh, who endured a week of violent protests earlier this year when seeking improved wages. Protesters were hurt, at least one was killed, and all were threatened with the loss of their livelihoods if they did not return to their jobs.
Because of the protests, garment manufacturers did agree to an increase in worker wages across six of the seven pay grades, but the minimum wage remained unchanged at 8,000 takas ($132) a month. And the minimum wage is all many fashion brands pay, or aspire to pay in the future.
What is the difference between a minimum wage and a living wage?
From a distance, one might argue a government-sanctioned minimum wage is fine, even fair, but in a country like Bangladesh, the difference between a minimum wage and a living wage can be up to 200%.
Like Australia, international governments set a legal minimum wage to baseline employee rates as a way of avoiding exploitation. They take into account the cost of living and then establish a standard. A living wage is less of an economical term and more about the amount required to live outside of poverty. Living wages are the amount needed to pay for healthcare, children’s education, transportation and to even save money. It’s about living, not just surviving.
While politics plays an undeniable role in calculating minimum wages, consumers of fashion have the capability to drive change. So why aren’t they?
Consumer confusion is delaying change
In my opinion, fashion consumers want to create positive change but they are confused by ethical marketing jargon. If a global brand producing new items on a weekly basis can use eco-ethical language, how do we determine the good guys from the bad?
Acting as a moral compass for consumers, and nagging conscience for big brands, not-for-profits have attempted to act as adjudicators, auditing and rating companies based on their ethics. Like a fatigued but hopeful parent, they offer public praise for benign efforts when multinationals agree to lessen the extent of their exploitation.
The optimist in me takes some solace in the fashion industry’s improvements. This is a good and essential thing. But the critic in me feels frustrated that fast-fashion brands with incriminating track records are being rewarded for doing the bare minimum.
Fast-fashion is not socially or environmentally responsible. And even some of the smaller fashion labels, who pay their workers properly, only have a grasp on one or two levels of their supply chains. Most have no idea who grows their cotton, how it is farmed, what those workers were paid or whether the nimble fingers of a child were involved.
Supply chains are long and can be murky. Touting the term ethical as an accountability branding, without understanding every level of your own business is false and misleading.
In my experience, the best way to eliminate supply chain confusion, to ensure social justice for all workers, and for consumers to navigate ethical greenwashing, is to stick to a certification scheme with a truly ethical foundation.
Fairtrade was founded to be ethical
Fairtrade certified fashion is the most robust and reliable certification scheme around because the Fairtrade Standards are regularly monitored on all supply chain levels by an independent auditor.
Where ethical fashion attempts to address injustice, by avoiding activities that typically harm producers or factory workers, the Fairtrade Standard goes on step further and seeks social, environmental and economic stability. What’s more, Fairtrade focuses on relationships at all supply chain levels, not just those stitching garments in factories.
When commodities like cotton are purchased through Fairtrade, farmers can expect to receive their agreed Fairtrade Minimum Price, or, if the current market level is higher, they are paid the greater amount.
In addition to the Minimum Price which seeks to safeguard producers from fluctuating markets, a Fairtrade Premium is also paid into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use – as they see fit - to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions.
Producers democratically determine what is most important to them; whether this is education or healthcare for their children, improving their businesses or building vital community infrastructure. No fashion brand paying a minimum wage comes close to offering that kind of stability driven support.
The reality is that another incident like the Rana Plaza tragedy will occur, because change is not happening fast enough, and the misuse of ethical fashion terminology and branding is partly responsible.
To all fashion consumers, I encourage you to first stop buying so much clothing. The planet and the people who make your garments cannot cope with the level of consumption the western world partakes in. Instead, shop second hand, repair what you have, and borrow items for special occasions.
When the time comes to buy new items, and it will, look for Fairtrade certification and vote for social, environmental and economical justice with your hard-earned dollars. In between time, write to your favourite fashion labels and ask them to be accountable throughout their supply chains. Demand transparency, and encourage them to slow down the rate of their manufacturing.
Only by living truly ethically can we expect profit-driven companies to see value in moral purchasing power.