Wearing Your Values is for Everyone, a glimpse into the Fashion Supply Chain

Author: Bettina Hobson

A Warning about Overconsumption

50 years ago, and again in the 90s of what was at first seen as a quirky idea, our planet has finite resources. To quote Donatella Meadows from her riveting 1972 book The Limits to Growth,

“People don’t need enormous cars; they need admiration and respect. They don’t need a constant stream of new clothes, the need to feel that others consider them to be attractive, and they need excitement and variety of beauty…A society that allows itself to admit and articulate its non-material human needs, find non material ways to satisfy them would require much lower material and energy throughputs and would provide much higher levels of human fulfillment…”  

Yet so many of us derive value and relaxation from acquiring more material things and ideas disappear quickly amongst the multiple sources of content. We are in an age of information overload so the message has been lost.

Bad Behavior in Sustainable Efforts, A Global ProblemThe founder of Amazon is quoted as saying that he wants Amazon to lead the way with sustainability and climate change, but for a company named after one of planet’s most precious yet dwindling resources it is unclear how that goal can be realized.

Speaking of the Amazon, the current president of Brazil is stepping up deforestation efforts by knocking down trees amounting to a clearing of areas the size the city of Paris away from the gaze of the global watchdog groups who are currently unable to police crimes against the eco system.

We see bad behavior around the globe, another example is the massive investments that China has made into many African countries which is adding to the massive debt crippling economies across the continent all the while the climate emergency takes a back seat. In Ethiopia, the monthly wage for garment workers is $30, a garment industry low, while many workers live in cramped quarters and cannot support their families. In April of 2013 squalid working conditions at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh killed and injured thousands when the building collapsed- many fashion brands denied using the factory but the list of labels from all types of apparel companies that were found in the ruble was shocking.

The Action Plan

So how can a consumer challenge the status quo if titans of business and government are not actively working toward actionable change? The plan is simple…vote with your dollars and collectively assemble to hold brands accountable, the fashion industry is reportedly valued at $2 trillion dollars.  Disruptions to this industry or slumps in demand could be the push needed to change the landscape of environmental damage and human rights abuses.

What does buy a better-quality t-shirt have to do with supply chain?

Fashion is no longer about going to the store to get your favorite outfit. The omnichannel of options are endless- rather shopping online or socially via Instagram or driving to your favorite stores- the fashion industry touches us all.  

From the Amazon Forest to South Africa fashion week to bustling streets of Mumbai – most of us wear clothes (that we do not make) and many of us have too many in our closet. Hopefully sooner rather than later the moniker sustainable fashion will not be needed, and we can just refer to it as simply fashion. Universally brands will adopt better ways to source organic textiles, reign in the overproduction that is responsible for stockpiles of inventory, and human rights atrocities is garment factories will be eradicated. 

Until that day arrives, we as consumers need to challenge our consumerism, the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of more things, by each taking meaningful steps toward lessening the impact of the simple need to get dressed.

Is Sustainable Fashion for Everyone?

There is a red line drawn around sustainability or conscious fashion today.  Sustainable fashion is too often thought of as boring: grey basics that are the sartorial choices of  gentrified neighborhoods with perfect lawns. This is a stark contrast from the garment workers who cannot afford the very items that they make instead opting to wear basic clothing that is often donated or discarded or the disenfranchised communities are disproportionately impacted by Western pollution and wastefulness.

Brands will also need to learn to create fashion beyond an adult women’s US size 10, collaborate with diverse talent at both the creative and executive levels, and explain their contributions to improve the planet in meaningful way so as to elevate the brand story and mission.

Sustainable/ethical brands should also step their game up in the area of customer experience. CNBC reports that a “customer-centric, problem-solving business models are making the business so much a part of the customer’s life that they come back ” which means the brand message and engagement should be welcoming, not overbearing and still champion a cause.

Many think that the mantra of “wear your values” is a concept for a select few.

The current state of sustainable fashion is a choice to pay more for a garment. This is a luxury which means affordability will exclude many from eco-fashion, add to that limited sizing options, limited consumer education, and lack of transparency.

Sustainability should not just be for a select group. Beyond using buzzwords to attract new converts to the sustainable fashion movement, wearing clothing that reflects respect for the environment and those who made it can help elevate ethical/ sustainable brands to a position of truly being for all people. Most people just want something that looks nice for a cheap price that they will wear a few times and either pitch in trash (*gasp) or donate to their local charity shop.

Yet survey after survey tells that the consumers would prefer to wear brands that embrace ethical & sustainable fashion but when it comes time to check out the receipts show a different picture.

“Garments, like words, are a powerful means of expressing ourselves. We use them to stand up to tyranny.”  (Human Rights Foundation)

The Human Rights Foundation reports that fashion as a tool with which to draw attention to human rights concerns in closed societies and aims to bridge the gap between the respective communities.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provides a wonderful roadmap to what a world that leaves no one behind and addresses global challenges and inequalities with a target goal of the year 2030 to hit key metrics. Many of these goals can be achieved by shifting use of finite resources to be fairer and more equitable. Fashion Revolution and Global Fashion agenda are other  powerful humanitarian initiatives that are bringing light to the collective fashion industry missteps such as traceability and paying workers a living wage.

A governmental response here in the US comes from The United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) the who regulates sourcing and trade and offers education at trade shows and other fashion events but so much more could be done. Yet while many are working to attack the eco-impact the ethical one should be just as important along with mapping out an improved fashion supply chain. It should be noted that there is no universal governing body or enforcement agency when it comes to the regulation of the fashion industries dirty practices.

The Fashion Supply Chain

So, what is the fashion supply chain and what makes shopping ethical/sustainable a better buy?

The path from fiber to store shelf involves many steps. A farmer plants cotton, fabric is woven into textile and dyed then a pattern is made to create shapes, and so on. Simply put the fashion supply chain are the steps of sourcing of raw materials, tracing the factories where those materials are made into garments; and the distribution network by which the clothes are delivered to consumers. The concept of garment production involves more than just making production at lowest cost or in massive quantities and just pushing out for retailers to sell. Choosing clothes made with a respect of people a planet shows compassion and understanding that the world is a shared resource for all of us.

A better fashion supply chain would use eco-friendly farming practices, pay garment workers a fair wage, use non-toxic chemicals in production and packaging, and use a demand driven pull system to avoid over production of product.

The best fashion supply chain would invest careful thought into what happens with scraps and waste from garment production, be transparent about business policies, and account for a way to minimize impacts of the reverse logistics (returns) process and find ways to repurpose discarded items. This concept of circularity would be a welcome change. Most of us will not stop shopping we just understand ways in which to do it better.

What does the process of voting with your dollar or wearing your values look like?Below is a check list of habits that will embrace diversity and inclusion and give the consumer a way to use the power that they have always had to shift policies and be the change they wish to see in the world.Ways to wear your values, because we cannot correct the massive amounts of clothes in circulation without action- beyond buying less, here is what you can do more of>>>

  1. Shop local- support local consignment shops, bespoke artisans/seamstresses
  2. Repair items or have them tailored, upcycle. Learn to sew – even just fixing a button increases the likelihood that a garment will not be tossed in trash…
  3. Investigate the story of the brand that you plan to purchase or already own. You can use tools like the Good on You app (https://goodonyou.eco/app/) to learn about your favorite brand.
  4. Even if you buy a brand that is not listed as ethical, buy the best quality that you can afford
  5. Actually wear the garment purchased, repeat x 100- extended garment lifecycle
  6. About those repeats->>let’s cancel the outfit shaming and double standards that women cannot repeat their outfits- many male public figures are rocking grey t shirts & khakis at their Ted Talks so why must women have a glam squad for every public appearance or have a new outfit for every occasion
  7. Avoid fast fashion- garment workers are often paid by the piece. If you buy a shirt for $5, how much could the worker who made your clothes have been paid? also avoid shaming those who do shop these stores- try empowering your friends and family about better options without being as toxic as the dye used in their 10$ pants
  8. Avoid Counterfeit products- these items are often low quality and fuel human trafficking or other criminal activity from the proceeds raised from sales (Note this includes purchasing high quality copies of rare items on street corners or the dark web)
  9. If you have a public platform or social media, use it! Share the latest ethical designer must-have. Look for creatives that have a stake in the clothes they create- this is ethical trade and it is a beautiful thing 😊
  10. Personalize your items, even top designers like Gucci or Marc Jacobs offer monogram services for many of their bags & garments both instore and online- what does this do? Well when something is made for you, the personal value and attachment to the item increase. So, it is likely that you will not through the item in the landfill…
  11. Buy Pre-owned items- they are not just trendy; they are big business- this is a great way to participate in circular economy and save money
  12. Look for brands that are inclusive- this means size ranges beyond a US size 10, abled vs disabled, or gender neutral
  13. Think before you return, many returned items end up in landfill and cannot be resold. Reverse logistics accounts for a ton of waste and is the dirty little secret of the fashion industry. Consider regifting or getting item altered to fit
  14. Reconsider rental and/or subscription services. The offer to rent luxury runway looks or have a curated style box is alluring but if the logistics of shipping, returning, and dry-cleaning cause more harm than the promise of extending a garment’s life cycle it may not be the best option.
  15. Finally, strive to buy less. Just buying biodegradable or organic cotton or other fabrics does not help the planet when the items are manufactured in excess.

What did I miss???

 Please like, share, comment ways in which we can invite everyone to wear their values…

  • What a thoughtful and thorough article about sustainable fashion! I especially appreciate your description of what a better fashion supply chain would look like and your actionable list for wearing our values. I’ve heard entrepreneurs within the sustainable fashion space struggle with how to successfully upcycle returned materials. It seems that these materials deteriorate over time and these sustainable fashion brands usually end up having to just keep returned materials as inventory. Have you seen any companies who have successfully been able to up-cycle their clothes? What do you think would have to happen in order to scale upcycled clothing? Will it be possible to scale this kind of model?

    • Hi Kelsey,
      Great question, I think at this moment upcycling in niche market and more DIY or very avante-garde fashion. I think that can certainly be improved.
      I have a few companies in mind that do this but let’s connect offline and discuss 🙂

  • Insightful piece into the fashion supply chain. I see myself “Actually wear the garment purchased, repeat x 100- extended garment lifecycle”. Striving to buy less is really important as we have become consumed by consumerism. I will share one of the tricks i use, i always give out my clothes to people, once i get new ones. Nothing ever goes to trash. That way, i have just the right number of clothes i need. I would suggest they give the clothes out to people that need them instead of discarding in landfills, such a waste.

  • Bettina, this is an amazing and comprehensive piece. I wonder what the world would look like if our values reflected what we wore and what we eat. Thank you for sharing!

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