Melissa Cantor is the cofounder with her sister Carolina of ShopEthica.com, an online boutique stocking sustainable, ethical and fashion-forward and big city-appropriate designer clothing from labels like A Peace Treaty, Daniel Silverstein, Samantha Pleet, and Valentine Gauthier. She lives in Long Island City.
Years ago, I took an ethical fashion course at FIT. In one class, our teacher (the passionate and inspiring Carmen Artigas) showed us a mock clothing tag the length of a pant leg–which is about the amount of space you’d need to truly communicate where a garment was made, what it’s made of, and provide even a hint of context within which to interpret both of those facts.
I can’t remember the precise details printed on that mock tag, but let’s imagine it was a minutely detailed version of this: Made in the U.S.A.; from cotton farmed and ginned in India; transported to and milled in Pakistan; transported to and dyed in China; and so on.
When I have to make an on-the-spot purchase, I use tags as shorthand. I understand it’s not foolproof or comprehensive, but it’s better than making a choice based on no information at all. I try to seek out options that are made in countries with labor laws designed to protect garment workers, and I look for eco-friendly materials like organic cotton and tencel over synthetic fibers.
What that giant, pant-length clothing tag makes clear, however, is that the material composition of a garment and the country where it was manufactured are just a fraction of the story. Fashion companies have remarkably long supply chains, and often there’s no simple answer as to what’s ethical (a subjective term by definition) or sustainable. It takes a good amount of research and reflection to decide what practices you want to support, and sometimes it means prioritizing one concern over another.
As an ethical fashion advocate, I really hate saying that. It’s challenging enough to persuade people to resist mass-manufactured options that are, for the most part, less expensive and more accessible. On top of that, we’re asking shoppers to do their research and pile on some serious thinking about what issues matter most to them. And here you were, just looking for a new pair of shorts. I know.
On the flip side, no one likes to be misled into purchases that don’t live up to their billing, and I imagine that’s particularly true of people who’ve made an effort to shop more consciously. And whether it stems from deliberate attempts to “greenwash” certain products, or from well-intended oversimplifications, I meet a lot of earnest people who are confused about what precisely the words “ethical and sustainable fashion” mean. We’re all seeing and using these terms with increasing frequency, without first taking the time to collectively define them.
The way that I, and many people that I’ve encountered in this field, use these terms is in overarching reference to labor and environmentalism respectively. I’ll say an item was ethically made if workers were treated and paid fairly, and I’ll say something is sustainable if significant steps have been taken to reduce an item’s environmental impact. Very often, ethically minded companies use sustainable practices and vice-versa – but it’s not always the case. Sometimes priorities can compete, and a small company may only be able to address one of these aspects. Sometimes a brand was founded with a focus that is solely on social good or environmentalism, and it may choose to have a narrower mission. In the rapidly evolving space of ethical and sustainable fashion, the goal shouldn’t be to punish companies that aren’t “doing it all,” but to understand what a product stands for so we can support those brands whose values align with our own.
One of the biggest reasons that we’re more confused than ever about what ethical and sustainable fashion means is that the umbrella is getting bigger by the day, from the industry side and from the consumer side. There are more people looking both to produce and to shop more consciously. When discussing the choices that we face, many of us have started to conflate terms for simplicity’s sake (“ethical and sustainable fashion” is a mouthful, no question about it). By treating a group of words like synonyms, though, what we’re inadvertently suggesting is that issues like fair labor, sustainability, animal cruelty, philanthropy and others are not just related – which they can be – but that they’re interchangeable.
The example that comes to mind instantly is a “shop for good” segment on the evening news, featuring one item that’s Fair Trade and one with a portion of proceeds allocated to a charity. If both products were ethically made, then both stand for ethical fashion, with the latter item having the additional quality of raising funds for a given cause. But if that for-charity item was manufactured by workers in sweatshop-like conditions, someone seeking to accomplish “good” is better off donating to the charity directly instead of purchasing something that was made by exploited workers. A philanthropic tie on its own does not mean an item was ethically made, just as a Fair Trade, for-profit company is not a philanthropic fund.
Shoppers may also see, as I often do, items like, for example, a vinyl bag and a polyester top branded as “eco-chic.” Said bag might be labeled this way because it’s vegan, and said top might have been placed in the category because it’s made in the U.S.A. But vinyl and polyester are both petroleum-derived materials that are by no means planet-friendly (unless they’re recycled). If you’re looking to support animal rights or local manufacturing, these might be worthy choices, but if you thought you were buying a sustainable fashion choice, you spent your money on the wrong thing.
My Dream World
The solution to the problem seems fairly straightforward: a certification system that encompasses global standards for fair labor, sustainability, animal rights, the preservation of artisanal crafts and–potentially–other categories. Unfortunately, it’s much easier said than done. Certifications are complex, and often expensive and political, endeavors that become even more so when undertaken on a worldwide scale. (That said, keep an eye on companies like Made By and others that are doing an amazing job of laying the groundwork.)
A labeling system, on the other hand, is a more accessible short-term goal through which ethical and sustainable fashion companies could develop a common set of standards and vocabulary. Without the need for a pant-length clothing tag, members could use a method as simple as a checkmark-style system to denote the various ethical criteria a product meets.
No, a pledge isn’t the same as a third-party audit–but pledges and little else are often what “bind” global corporations’ claims to uphold labor rights, rid their clothing of toxic chemicals, and the like.
While not a final solution, a common labeling system could go a long way toward improving consumer awareness and building trust. Not to mention the value it would offer on-the-go shoppers by empowering us to gauge the impact of a purchase by doing something as simple as checking a tag.