With a touch of care and curiosity, Meagan Cann has moved away from mass production and into ethical fashion both personally and professionally. Working for Songa Designs was her first step, as she continues to be involved and find ways to break ground in the industry.
Looks like our neighbors are a few steps ahead of us in the ethical fashion movement. Google Trends shows that “eco-friendly fashion”, “ethical fashion”, “sustainable fashion”, and “fair-trade fashion” has caught the attention, admiration and cult following next door in Canada, across the pond in the United Kingdom and even down under in Australia. The United States? Not so much.
Leading ethical fashion brands have also noticed these countries carrying the weight of their sales. “They clearly don’t care about international shipping fees–I have customers in Australia paying $30 for shipping on a pair of $150 shoes” says Francisca Pineda, founder of Bhava Shoes. She says that as long as the product is on trend, with a superior aesthetic appeal and quality construction, the overseas customer will buy.
Why don’t U.S. consumers seem to be as enthusiastic? I wanted to do some digging of my own and figure it out.
The Reasons Behind the Lag
It could be cash-money. Australia’s GDP has continuously grown at rates that dwarf the US in comparison, so Australian consumers’ willingness to pay premium for products supporting a good cause could be based on more disposable income. But when you look at Britain’s GDP growth, it is paltry compared to the U.S. Why do they continue to show more interest in a supposedly more expensive fashion niche?
Let’s try another tact and look at education. Approximately 126 million, or 42% of Americans have achieved tertiary education. Pretty impressive, until you compare that number to Canada, where 51% of the population obtain a Bachelor’s Degree. After the Bangladesh factory fire back in April, a very revealing poll was taken where 42% of Canadian participants said they’re actively boycotting a brand of some kind. Am I suggesting that the more educated a population is, the more likely they will make ethical decisions? I may possibly be leaning that way … but again, Britain trips us up, with only 31% of the population holding a college degree. Australia also ranks below the U.S., with 34% holding a college degree. It might have to do with the quality of education. Come to think of it, I never really knew too much about sustainable fashion until a little over a year ago–even though I studied fashion in college and spent my formative career years at Macy’s Inc.
Perhaps it’s industry support. In the United Kingdom, services such as Agent For Change and the Ethical Fashion Forum provide wholesale sales and marketing services, information and resources to designers who use organic and sustainable materials and who ensure their garments and accessories are produced in factories that employ fair working conditions. Here in the US, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has only in the past year thrown its weight behind sustainable fashion and the NYC garment district. In an announcement last month, the CFDA said financial grants will be disbursed to help clothing factories upgrade their equipment, recruit and retain skilled workers, and expand their services. It’s a step in the right direction, if a little late.
Finally, let’s consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (Yes, I was a fashion major but did minor in psychology–let’s make use of it!) Once a person has met the four basic needs–Physiological, Safety, Love, and Esteem–they can turn to the next and final level: the self-actualization phase. Translated into consumerism, it’s only when consumers have stopped worrying about feeding themselves, will they make purchase decisions based on how it will affect others and their environment. Americans are on average more concerned about meeting their everyday basic needs because we don’t have a strong social safety net.
Could a better health care system actually give a boost to ethical purchasing?
What About You?
The economy, education and industry support all seem to play a role. But what can you do to guide Americans to better shopping choices? A starting point could be to follow some bloggers like Spades + siLK, Ecouterre, My Fair Vanity, Past Fashion Future and The Distillerist. Read into the loads of info that they provide such as what brands to shop and what brands to avoid. You can share all this information with your friends (gently, non-judgmentally) next time you go shopping. Also, get involved in any way you can via petitions, or emails and calls to brands and your representatives. And listen to what the industry professionals have to say, because this issue is more complex than you might think.
Let’s spread the good word and talk about the fashion industry now, and what it could be.