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    The International Value Chain of Ethical Fashion


    International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2009

    © Kuyichi Courtesy of Made-By

     "Ethical" and "sustainable" have made it onto the agenda of the luxury fashion industry. This growing awareness among high-profile designers and the media in developed countries is setting trends that will reverberate from the catwalks to workers in emerging markets. While there is still progress to be made, increasing consumer awareness and demand are making the long-term gains for sustainable fashion optimistic.

    Fashion designer Tom Ford has heralded it. Julie Gilhart, senior vice president of Barneys department stores, is buying it. And from fashion critic Suzy Menkes to the editor of Vogue Italia, Franca Sozzani, the powerbrokers of the international fashion media are endorsing it. Ethical and sustainable fashion is style. The challenge now is to bring it into the mainstream and onto the streets.

    Textile exports are worth £132 billion (US$ 222 billion) annually to developing and transition countries, most of which are dependent on these exports for their economy. For example, textile exports represent 53 per cent of Sri Lanka's economy, 80 per cent of Cambodia's and 73 per cent of Bangladesh's. But an understanding of the social and environmental conditions under which these garments are produced is still far from transparent. This will inevitably change as consumers begin to demand more knowledge about who made their garments and how.

    Ms Sozzani says, "I think that in the future, approaching fashion in an ethically responsible manner will be the way to behave. The problem is not only for the designers but also for consumers because it will take time to teach them how to recognize and choose sustainable items."

    The media are already taking a role. This increased sensitivity towards ethical practices within the fashion industry is in large part due to media reportage and the exposé of child labour issues and unfair working practices within supply chains, such as those revealed in the BBC's Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts documentary series.

    "Sustainable luxury" has made it onto to the agenda of several high-profile events including the International Herald Tribune's Luxury Conference and Ms Gilhart's Future Fashion Project which featured sustainable designs from over 30 well-known luxury brands including YSL, Proenza Schouler and Donna Karan.

    Engaging high fashion in the debate for the ethical fashion movement is crucial to its impact. According to the curators of the current Cittadellarte Fashion: Bio Ethical Sustainable Trend exhibition, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Franca Sozzani, the impact of the luxury market's influence on mainstream brands, the media and consumer behaviour is all too evident. Put simply, the high end of the fashion market sets the agenda for the trends that subsequently distil into mainstream fashion.

    "If a big name in the fashion world launches eco-friendly as the way to be in fashion today, then success in sustainability will be much quicker," says Ms Sozzani.

    WWF supports Ms Sozzani's statement. According to Anthony Kleanthous and Jules Peck, policy advisers to WWF, high-end luxury labels are well positioned to integrate ethical into their collections. "Consumers are not usually prepared to pay more or put themselves out to buy green or ethical but they do value these attributes as part of the brand package," says Mr Kleanthous.

    An October 2008 study by the consumer behaviour research company TNS Worldpanel reported that 72 per cent of British consumers thought that ethical production of the clothes they buy is important, up from 59 per cent in 2007. Furthermore, market researchers Mintel estimate that the UK market for ethical clothing has more than quadrupled over the last four to five years to £175 million (US$ 294 million). Moreover, the sustained focus of social issues resulted in fair trade cotton product sales reaching £34.8 million (US$ 58.5 million) in 2007.

    However, eco or organic clothing is still an area that is heavily underdeveloped and one which retailers remain cautious of. One prominent retailer in the Mintel survey said, "Eco is important but ethical is of greater importance because it is emotional and therefore higher up people's agendas." Mintel's research concurred that organic sells if it adds to the overall package but is not necessarily the key element. The majority of retailers interviewed by Mintel said that eco and organic ranges only sell if they have great design. The exception was in the homeware and children's clothing categories where organic was more highly valued.

    The market for ethical fashion is growing but it should be put into context. It currently constitutes just 0.4 per cent of the UK market. In order for the sector to have sustained growth, larger brands and retailers need to become more involved and committed. On the positive side, there is evidence to indicate that if these retailers don't integrate ethical products and address problem areas within their supply chains, their businesses will suffer in the longer term. Mintel's research shows that 48 per cent of survey respondents stated that clothing retailers should make it clear whether garments have been produced to a recognized ethical standard that safeguards working conditions in emerging countries.
    It will also take time and awareness for many of the larger brands and retailers to move away from stand-alone corporate social responsibility projects, such as carbon offsetting and a few lines of fair trade T-shirts, to a more integrated strategy that addresses the whole supply chain. The brands that take the lead in providing transparency to consumers, combined with innovative design and inspiration, will ensure their place among the "big names" of the fashion world in the future.