The "Myth of the Ethical Shopper", published by Highline last week, painted a disturbing and all too accurate picture of the human rights and environmental abuses that occur in fast fashion supply chains. The author followed this article with an additional piece, "So You Say You're An Ethical Shopper" in The Huffington Post on Thursday.
The first article correctly details how the practice of subcontracting to meet the unrelenting demands of fast fashion leads to lack of transparency and allows for human rights abuses. Manufacturers are typically required to report and monitor but those requirements are trumped by incentives to meet deadlines and lower costs in order to keep contracts. The problem is both massive and alarming...
Yet, in both pieces, the author also explicitly denies the role that industry and the shopper can play in addressing these problems, implying our hands are tied and going so far in the second article to say that to buy ethically, "is impossible" and "you do not have the power or the information to implement your values." On the contrary, we believe that not only is it possible to find options that align with your values, but also that by continuing to support these alternatives, we can grow those supply chains and industries which are effectively and transparently making sustainable improvements in their supply chain.
The author argues that government must play a leading role in addressing these abuses both in countries where production occurs and in countries who benefit from this production. As an example of success, he presents a case in Brazil where government policy and audits have successfully prevented abuses in the pig iron industry. The first piece acknowledges some of the limitations that many of these governments face to implement reform. Governments in countries where fast fashion production occurs often lack infrastructure and resources to monitor and implement reforms and are also often incentivized to look the other way by industry promises of economic growth and threats to take business elsewhere. Director Andrew Morgan's "True Cost" documentary, available on Netflix, presents examples of government valuing apparel manufacturers' economic contributions over citizens' rights. We can not expect policy and government leaders to solve the issue on their own initiative when powerful industry bodies strongly oppose reform.
Fixing the problem requires a multi-stakeholder solution: cultivating and supporting those suppliers and brands who are operating sustainably and ethically at scale now, realigning incentives for manufacturers away from lowest cost and fastest production, actively involving government through policy, monitoring and enforcement in partnership with brands and civil society, and even empowering the shopper, who, when informed, can purchase responsibly and support the growth of these sustainable and ethical brands and suppliers.
Alternatives to fast fashion supply chains currently exist. At my company, JUST, we collaborate with dozens of producers and manufacturers in a variety of apparel supply chains to help explain their work transparently through data, design, and storytelling to shoppers. The ability to gather, transmit and authenticate data as never before does make it possible to track the truth of pledges. In one such supply chain, I have personally worked alongside the farmers and manufacturers, who are producing organic cotton textiles, positively changing lives.
Okumu George William, a farmer in the Nwoya Region of Northern Uganda, just bought a red Jeep with the earnings he has from growing and selling organic cotton. He is the only person in his family to own a car. He and his community have benefited enormously from cotton sales through Gulu Agricultural Development Company's (GADC) organic and fair trade program, where farmers are paid a premium for their efforts and where no use of pesticides or expensive chemicals is required. GADC sells the cotton up a fully traceable supply chain to Cotonea, a German company which makes apparel and home goods from Okumu's cotton. They know exactly where the cotton comes from and have visited the operations in Uganda multiple times. Cotonea has transitioned its business to majority organic cotton. They see a growing demand from consumers for this type of product. This is the kind of supply chain from which we could and should be sourcing.
We know that this small supply chain may seem insignificant in comparison to the problematic thousands of fast fashion supply chains the article describes. But in fact, the fashion industry has made progress. There are large well-known consumer apparel companies sourcing at a large scale from sustainable supply chains right now. How can we not acknowledge the work of companies to trace and improve their supply chains, like Patagonia ($600 million in revenue in 2013), Eileen Fisher or even Nike to a certain extent, which shows a map of all the contracted factories it works with on its website.
Our client, Loomstate and their sustainable buyers club, called Chetco, has a traceable, authenticated organic cotton supply chain down to the villages in India from which they source enough organic cotton to make approximately 350,000 t-shirts a year for clients like Chipotle. This is traceable, authentic, and sustainable production at scale. We are currently developing a platform for Loomstate which allows the shopper to digest and interact with the story and authenticated data from the supply chain. These brands are making an effort to monitor, improve and demonstrate to their shopper what happens in their supply chain. Their suppliers, incentivized to measure and improve their practices, are operating sustainably and growing.
By writing that ethical options like "Those small-batch, hemp-woven Daisy Dukes you bought in Dumbo are far more likely to be made in a sweatshop than your $7 H&M gym shorts", with no proof or evidence referenced in the article, it gives all of us a free pass to think: there's nothing we can do, I have no alternative. In fact, alternatives do exist. Whether intended or not, the title, the "Myth of the ethical shopper" ridicules those of us who try to shop and source mindfully and discredits those brands both big and small who are trying and progressing.
While there is certainly work to be done, on a myriad of levels, and these brands are the first to admit it -- (Patagonia, in an excellent example of transparency acknowledged earlier this year in an article in The Atlantic they had found human trafficking in their second tier suppliers) -- shoppers can certainly have a more proactive role by choosing to purchase from brands like Patagonia and Loomstate, rather than throw up their hands and believe that a letter to your senator is more effective. Would you rather support those making an effort to change or write them off in their imperfection and buy those H&M shorts? Why not support those making an effort and write a letter to your senator?
People like Okumu George WIlliam, companies like GADC, brands like Cotonea and Loomstate and the consumers who choose to buy from these supply chains are a growing and essential part of fixing the problems of fast fashion. The author's argument for government policy and enforcement as the solution neglects to realize the potential of supply chains like GADC/Cotonea and the power of consumer demand to grow positive supply chains and consequently increase consumer alternatives to fast fashion. It fails to see the power that lies in the accumulation of all the choices we make everyday.
Finally, as shoppers, we also have the ultimate power to decrease the demand for fast fashion by buying less and wearing more. Fast fashion operates at an unsustainable, problematic scale because of our consumption habits. Subcontracting abuses and nightmares at places like the Tazreen factory happen when there is pressure from brands to produce more and faster at a lower price. By buying less and seeing the long term value in a more expensive but higher quality piece, we have the power to reduce this demand. Affordability of an item isn't only a low price but also about long-term quality.
The abuses in fast fashion supply chains must stop and the author correctly identifies the factors which have created this mess. These articles raise issues we can't ignore and for that we are appreciative. However, government can not solve this alone. Writing a letter to your senator or giving money to an NGO are both good things. Do this, too. But shoppers and the supply chains from which we purchase have a responsibility to be engaged in the process of change alongside government. It is currently many of those brands and supply chains and the shoppers who support them who are leading this change. Let's grow this movement. With every purchase, you are voting with your wallet. You, the shopper, do have power. You are not a myth.
Natalie Grillon is the co-founder of JUST, a social enterprise start-up based in NYC. JUST empowers through stories, using data, design and transparent storytelling to engage the shopper through an online platform.