When talking about my ethical and sustainable fashion business, I always focus on what I am doing to contribute to create positive change industry. I talk about the kinds of people I hope to employ one day. People who are somehow disadvantaged or isolated in their community. People who need to develop new skills or even just young people who need to get some experience. This is my vision for my business and my passion.
But when I first told people these things- when my idea was still just in my head, typed up in Google docs and scribbled across various mind maps- the very first question I was often asked the same question: ‘But how are you going to make money?’ A couple of people even ranted to me about how money is the only thing you should think about in business; it is number one and nothing else is as important.
Seriously? I tbelieve it was this paradigm of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. This mess of fast fashion and unsustainable and unethical clothing production. Is it actually acceptable to put value on money above human lives and the future of our planet?
I’m thinking NO!
So, to convince all the nay-sayers and disbelievers out there, here they are…
The five benefits to running an ethical and sustainable fashion business:
# 1: Emerging consumer group- the ‘Conscious Consumer’
Ten years ago, when I studied fashion design, sustainable and ethical fashion was practically unheard of. It definitely wasn’t mainstream and certainly wasn’t being taught in schools. But, in the last few years the movement towards creating a more ecologically aware and fair fashion industry has exploded.
New eco-friendly fashion labels are popping up all the time. Thanks largely to social media, the atrocious environmental destruction of the fast fashion industry has been capturing headlines. Films and documentaries, such as The True Cost are being released to highlight these issues. Events and awareness campaigns, such as Fashion Revolution Week, are increasing every year.
There is still a long way to go, but these efforts have resulted in a new, emerging group of consumers: The Conscious Consumer! The conscious consumer doesn’t even consider buying a product without doing their homework first. They want to know who made their clothes, where they were made, how they were made, and who or what was harmed in the process.
These conscious consumers are the future of the fashion industry. Once you have built their trust, they are loyal and supportive. They are the ones who are pushing for the revolution of the fashion industry and their following is increasing all the time. You’d be very wise to tap into this group and the endless opportunities they present. Or it is highly likely that you’ll find your business probably won’t be around in decades to come.
#2: Marketing- Speak nothing but the truth, the whole truth…
It seems that in almost every market these days, there is a growing trend for ‘green’ products. But the thing is, without doing extensive research, consumers can’t be totally sure that what they are buying is as eco-friendly as the brand claims.
Greenwashing is a new marketing trend, which basically means that a brand will claim it is eco-friendly and sustainable and spend a lot on marketing campaigns to convince customers, when really they just need to divert attention away from their environmentally destructive business practices.
For example, last April, infamous worldwide fast fashion brand H&M launched their ‘World Recycle Week’ campaign. During this campaign, customers were encouraged to return their old clothes to H&M where they would receive a voucher in exchange (which obviously leads to an increased consumption of H&M garments).
Their aim was to collect 1000 tonnes of fashion waste and recycle the fibres to create new garments. But a flaw in their plan was discovered by fashion journalist Lucy Siegle, who pointed out that because of limitations in technology and recycling fibres on a commercial scale, “it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1000 tonnes of fashion waste.”
Considering that H&M churns out hundreds of millions of garments each year, Siegel also points out that if H&M did manage to recycle 1000 tonnes of fashion waste, then this “roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a brand this size pumps out into the world in 48 hours.”
Suddenly their fashion ‘recycling’ scheme doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it is damn hard to take their ‘efforts’ seriously.
But what if you really did care about the environment and the impact your business had on it? Then when you marketed your clothing as sustainable or ethical, you’d actually be telling the truth. Crazy thought, I know! There’d be no need to hide behind a greenwashing campaign, no risk of be accused of having double standards, as well as absolutely no risk of any boycotts or lawsuits against your brand for deceiving customers or false advertising.
You would have nothing to hide! In fact, you would gain a competitive advantage over other fashion brands whose efforts in the realm of sustainability are minimal or non-existent.
#3: Brand reputation- because it matters what people think of you.
As previously mentioned, the conscious consumer is a loyal one. Once you have showed that you have nothing dodgy to hide in your supply chain, you’ve made a friend for life.
The thing with building your brand’s reputation is that it takes a very long time to establish. And all of this hard work can be all undone instantly by one mistake. If your clothing production is causing suffering to other people or the planet, that is not going to fly with a lot of potential or current consumers.
This was the case for The Just Group in Australia, who own well-known fashion brands such as Just Jeans and Peter Alexander.
After the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013, The Just Group refused to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord. This Accord was designed by unions, non-profits and industry to ensure a safe and healthy ready-made garment industry.
Following this refusal, activists such as Oxfam and Change.org launched campaigns to target The Just Group and increase pressure from consumers to get them to sign the Accord. Not all publicity is good publicity!
Surely most people have heard the saying, if a customer is happy, they’ll tell one person, if they are angry or disappointed, they’ll tell ten. And in the age of social media, you have nowhere to hide.
Big or small, brand reputation matters, it can literally make or break your company. So why risk it with unsafe and unethical business practices?
#4: Financials- yes, you can have your cake and eat it too.
As discussed above, the fact that there is an expanding ‘conscious consumer’ group shows that there is money to be made in producing ethical and sustainable garments. These people have a need and your job is to fill it. People vote with their wallets and these consumers are willing to spend good money on clothing produced by brands that have respect for the environment and the people within their supply chain.
According to an Oxfam survey conducted last year, 89 per cent of Australians surveyed would be happy to pay more for their clothing if the brand provided their supply chain workers with safe working conditions.
In fact, 21 per cent of people surveyed would pay more than $10 for their garments. 30 per cent of people would pay and extra $5-$10 and 48 percent would pay between two and five dollars more.
Pretty astounding figures, considering the generic business mindset is that customers only care about paying the lowest amount possible.
Perhaps the best example of a successful and profitable ethical and sustainable fashion business is U.K. label, People Tree. They have been around for over 25 years and are still going strong.
People Tree have experienced many ‘firsts’ in the fashion industry, such as being the world’s first clothing brand to receive the WFTO Fair Trade label, the first to receive the GOTS organic certification and the first company to develop a fully organic cotton supply chain.
People Tree take advantage of the growing awareness of consumers in regards to social and environmental issues. According to a report by The Social Stock Exchange, in 2014 the sale of ethical products grew by over 12%, although the U.K.’s entire economy grew by only 0.2%. Valued at over AU$100 million, the ethical market in the U.K. is now worth more than the tobacco and alcohol market.
In 2014, People Tree’s revenue was almost AU$15.5 million.
I think these numbers speak for themselves. Little doubt remains that there is real money to be made in ethical and sustainable business practices.
#5: Guilt free conscience!
If the other four benefits to running an ethical and sustainable fashion business weren’t quite enough to convince you, I sure this one will be the icing on the cake- A good night’s sleep!
You won’t have a guilty conscience knowing that your employees are working in a safe and clean environment, free from the constant risk of serious injury or even death. Or knowing that your output is not polluting waterways or the air people breathe.
No one wants to be responsible for causing death and destruction in the name of fashion. You’ll be able to sleep easy knowing you are doing your bit to protect the lives of your workers, as well as our precious finite resources.
There is no such thing as a perfectly ethical and sustainable fashion business. Mistakes will be made. You might not be 100% aware of every little detail at every point in time. But the difference lies in if you own up to the mistakes and are continuously improving your efforts. This is how we will establish a safer, friendlier and cleaner fashion industry, for the people and the planet.