Don’t know a thing about sustainability in fashion? You probably should. As each generation becomes more globally conscious, fair-trade and “eco-friendly” practices are becoming commonplace for retailers – and mostly by consumer demand. Here is the quick and dirty (the organic variety mind you) on what you should know about sustainability and fair trade practices.
The composition of the garment is important, not only because it touches the wearer’s skin (the body’s largest organ!) but producing the fabric itself can have an affect on the environment. While many fibers can claim to be “all-natural”, sustainable fabrics, meaning one’s that won’t deplete resources, and organic fibers are the trusted favorites in the industry. So important in fact that there are strict regulations around certification. Global Organic Textile Standard and Oeko Tex Standard are just a few that let you know it is the real deal.
Eileen Fisher is one of the foremost companies making strides in this space. As a company they have pledged to use only sustainable fabrics by 2020, including only organic cotton, linen, and wool from humanely-raised sheep. Stella McCartney is another leader in the field who uses forest-friendly fabrics, organic cotton, and vegetarian leather (in other words, no animal products!). Other brands within this space are not only looking at new materials, but also incorporating recycled materials into their goods. Threads for Thought creates polyester from recycled water bottles which is a key fabric in their activewear collection.
It’s not only what is being used to make the garments, but where and by who. Factory disasters, such as recent ones in Bangladesh and Pakistan, have raised concerns over working conditions in which many top labels are being produced. Fire safety, training, and fare wages, are all pieces of fair trade practices that retailers and consumers alike are paying closer attention to.
UK brand People Tree is a pioneer in fair trade practices, working globally to create a supply chain that empowers, trains, and gives back to the communities in which the products are trained in. One of these programs specifically works with physically disabled workers in Kenya to provide training, health, and social support beyond just fair wages.
Sustainability and fair trade practices look at the entire journey of the product – not just the point at which you hand over your credit card. For many, it is the part after the transaction that has the most impact. Shopping local ensures that the money put into the purchase gets put back into the local community and not a larger corporation.
One example of this is wedged right between Black Friday and Cyber Monday: Small Business Saturday. During the busiest retail season of the year, customers are encouraged to divert some of that shopping energy away from big-box retailers and into the mom-and-pop store on your corner. Shopping local not only ensures that small business stay running year-after-year, but that the community benefits from the local economy boost as well. Small Businesses = sustainable communities.
Another component to responsible retailing is the life after the purchase – where does my money go? For some, shopping local solves this quandary. Other companies take their profits and reinvest into specific charities or causes that give customers a greater purpose in buying the goods. Shopping for a cause allows customers to feel good about the purchase they are making. They have the immediate benefit of the goods at hand, but also with the knowledge that that money is going back to a greater purpose.
One of the first brands that entered this field is the shoe brand Tom’s. Tom’s business model of “One for One” provides a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair of shoes purchased. American-made French-inspired brand Amour Vert has a similar model in which they plant a tree for every one of their classic tee’s sold. Alternatively, brands have also offered services as opposed to the one-for-one model which also contribute to community development. Jewelery brand 31Bits uses proceeds from the sale of their pieces to put back into their programs that provide business and financial training, health services, and education for their workers in Uganda.
Being eco-friendly doesn’t mean you have to tackle all of these areas at once. But responsible retailers and conscious consumers are paying more and more attention to these facets of the industry. Knowing a garment doesn’t stop with a credit-card transaction but has a life before and after is the first step in making a difference. As the market grows, so will the ways in which this life-cycle can be thought of and which customers can affect change with their purchase. So, feeling guilty about that dress you bought? Don’t. You might have just helped a whole community.