Stella McCartney Resort 2017 Collection, designed with sustainability in mind. 

With the climate change movement in full force, retailers are taking note of consumers’ desire to pay a little more for their clothes in exchange for the assurance of doing their part for the planet. Stella McCartney, famously one of the first designers in the fashion business to embrace an eco-friendly mentality in production for her clothing, discusses designing “clothes that are meant to last” and an attitude of constant innovation in decreasing the environmental impact of each piece. H&M, as a larger retailer, has produced ad campaigns advertising its use of organic cotton with its “H&M Conscious” campaign to bring awareness to eco-friendly fashion. The retailer also runs a garment collecting initiative at each local store to recycle and donate old clothing.

Taking steps to reduce the toll on the planet couldn’t come at a more crucial time: according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12.8 million tons of textile waste was discarded in 2013. Because of the enormous carbon footprint associated with creating a single garment, the fashion industry is the world’s third most polluting industry and the second largest consumer of water. While the numbers are daunting, every method of eco-conscious production the industry employs helps reduce potential damage to the environment.

However, in spite of “green” production, labels like H&M don’t come entirely guilt-free. In 2013, the death of over 1,100 in the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh—where many of H&M’s supplier factories are located—brought heightened scrutiny to the fashion industry when the factory’s hazardous working conditions and wages of between 12 and 24 cents per hour were exposed to the world.

The 2013 collapse of the Savar building in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 and drawing global attention to worker conditions in the garment industry. Images courtesy of the New York Times.

Though the country had regulations for safe factories, the local government didn’t enforce them, allowing the factory owner to force the employees to work even when they noticed large cracks in the walls and shaking in the building. Sweatshop conditions like these are all too common in garment production. With consumers settling only for lower and lower prices, companies have to cut costs in order to deliver the cheapest product and still make a profit. Often, they do so by outsourcing production to the cheapest location possible. Because manufacturers there can deliver product for the low cost that companies want, Bangladesh is second to China in clothing exports. However, this is largely because Bangladesh allows extremely low wages, long hours, and poor factory conditions.

The dilemma is clear: when cutting costs to create inexpensive clothing, someone needs to bear the weight. More often than not, it falls on the most vulnerable. When there are no other options for someone living in an extremely poor region than to work in the local factory where regulations are unenforced, workers are essentially at the whims of the factory owner.

The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that up to 75 million people were employed in the textile, clothing, and footwear industry worldwide in 2015 and most garments produced in third-world countries. Considering this, ethical treatment of all workers is difficult to achieve unless the company demands that their factories treat their workers well. Unfortunately, it’s not just fast-fashion brands guilty of employing unethical labor standards to produce their clothes. Many luxury brands—such as Benetton and Hugo Boss—outsource production as well, often using the same factories as lower-end companies.

Ivanka Trump’s factories in Indonesia recently caused headlines with “impossibly high” production targets set for workers who are paid one of the world’s lowest minimum wages. Overall, these practices contribute to a general trend of harmful production, both for the planet and for workers.

If retailers don’t pledge to be both eco-friendly and ethical in production, can they really label themselves sustainable? An objective of the practice of sustainability is to allow the planet to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. With thousands of factory deaths every year and the norm that workers will be overworked and underpaid, labor in poor countries is treated as a resource to be exploited. By nature, an exploited resource is nonrenewable and unsustainable.

How well society treats its vulnerable workers at the lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum shows where society places the baseline standard of how human beings should be treated. When factory workers are treated poorly, that standard is lowered–which has the power to affect the world’s other vulnerable and minority groups. With the fact that about 75% of textile factory workers are women, the continued mistreatment of millions of women workers worldwide sets the bar low and poses a serious threat to women’s rights.

In this kind of market, buying power is what has the ability to make or break the cycle of worker exploitation—it’s up to the consumer what kind of practices they want to support. If there’s an overwhelming consumer demand for brands to support ethical practices, brands will face pressure to transition to paying a little more for production in order to support better treatment of workers. Until recently, ethical or “fair-trade” fashion has implied crunchy-granola, bohemian fashion made with dull colors and coarser hemp, linen, or cotton fabric than what’s found in mainstream stores. However, brands are starting to take note of the rising voices calling for worker justice, with companies like H&M and Zara pulling out of the Dhaka Apparel Summit in protest of common Bangladeshi labor practices. As technology improves alongside the green movement in fashion, other brands, like Reformation, are expanding womens’ options where they don’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability. Launched in 2009, Reformation is built on principles of eco-friendly production, good value for customers, and ethical treatment of workers.

A post shared by Reformation (@reformation) on

The brand emphasizes empowerment of women through collection names like “Don’t Call Me Cute” and “I’m Up Here” and style with bold silhouettes. Featuring vintage and sustainable fabrics and focusing on a reduction in waste, Reformation is able to conserve environmental resources through being eco-conscious in all stages of production. The website states that all offices and stores are built with sustainable and recycled materials, and items are either sold online or in-store to prevent markups by other retailers. Finally, over 75% of Reformation’s employees are women or other underrepresented groups, with many workers paid more than minimum wage—a key component in the brand’s mission to empower women. Joining brands like Zara, it has a stated goal of working towards living wage for all workers.

According to Project Just, Reformation also sources most of its raw materials from inside the U.S., ensuring both a reduced footprint for transporting materials and easier regulation of working conditions inside textile production. Producing clothing ethically implies producing sustainability: these safer work environments also necessitate less use and safer disposal of chemicals used in production. Founder Yael Aflalo expressed her vision for the future of sustainable fashion in an interview for Motto, saying, “I hope that, moving forward, sustainability isn’t seen as an added bonus for companies. It should just be the standard.”

Reformation’s Mattie Dress, which saves 29 gallons of water compared to industry standard according to the brand’s website. Courtesy of Reformation.

Although Reformation and other similar brands take an important step in designing clothing for shoppers that supports better treatment of workers, sustainable production, and respect for women, there are still improvements to be made. Reformation’s business model of clothing produced in small batches in the U.S. has high potential for more widespread use, but it isn’t easy for brand giants to implement.

Though Reformation and other brands like it say they try to ensure their textiles sourced outside the U.S. are produced in the most ethically responsible way possible, there’s no feasible and reliable way to ensure that each factory is treating each of its workers well. Finally, there’s no widely recognized authority that ensures companies are engaging in sustainable production—like a group like the FDA is responsible for food safety—so each brand’s advertisement of sustainable practices is extremely subjective.

But one thing’s for certain: consumers have the power to make a difference when they demand ethical production of the clothes that they wear, working towards a world that’s both greener and a better place for women.

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