If It’s Not Ethical: It’s Not Fashion
By Yasmin Jones-Henry
Words matter. What we choose to say, the phrases we apply to communicate our intentions are critical elements to the foundation, the basis and survival of any society or social construct.
So initially when I intended to write a piece on the current status of the luxury fashion industry and ethical fashion as a genre – I found myself unable to proceed. That the two sectors had ever been conceived in isolation is beyond a crime. As I’m sure you are aware – fashion is taken from the Latin ‘Facere’ meaning to do or to make, so to discuss the output of manufacture with no consideration for the conditions under which the labour market operates would be negligent. To discuss the concept of ‘luxury’ and premium goods, without questioning whether their production processes warrant such a label also brings the concept of ‘fraud’ into play.
‘Luxury fashion’ – should be ‘ethical fashion’. The scent, the aroma of wealth, comfort and prosperity that is emitted from most expensive department stores is immediately associated with the word ‘luxury’. Until now, when the word ‘Luxury’ is uttered it pulls up images of Harrods, Bond Street, Saks Fifth Avenue etc. However I would like to change this. When the word ‘luxury’ is used, I hope in the near future the images search engines, fashion editors, photographers and consumers draw for, will not simply depict the retail facade, but will immediately add the names, faces, hands and stories of the manufacturers on the other side of the world.
‘Luxury’ is categorised as ‘luxury’ because it is marketed to the consumer as being well made, to the highest standard. But how many ‘luxury’ brands, pay the cotton farmers, the sheep farmers, the mill workers and the pattern cutters – what their labour is actually worth? How many luxury brands are guilty of exploiting the current murky global supply chain that creates a huge discrepancy between salaries and retail price? Are these billions generated through entrepreneurial ingenuity or exploitation? Before fawning at the feet of these conglomerates, I urge other editors to ask these questions. Before you champion a brand for its cool campaign, question the conditions under which its products were produced.
Most luxury brands are now little more than a shop front. The atelier whose name is mounted above the door, in many instances, has been long dead. What is left, is an oligopoly market home to a few massive corporations who absorb, acquire, invest and manipulate the market forces for their own convenience. The entire infrastructure from globalisation, outsourcing labour, trade routes, market prices and industry advertising spend – is entirely orchestrated by them. The artisan, the labourer, the farmer – none of them – under the current conditions, receive even a fraction of the wealth their so called ‘luxury’ brand partners generate from their hard work.
This is not right. This is not ethical. This is not luxury. Repeatedly, case studies are emerging of so-called high-end brands, using outsourced sweatshop labour to manufacture their ‘luxury’ goods which they sell for an eye watering profit. Take for example earlier this year, the Bloomberg story about a Chinese owned factory in Ethiopia, that outsourced its contracts with the likes of Tommy Hilfiger to manufacturers in the region who paid their (mostly female workforce) less than $30 a month. How much does a pair of Hilfiger Jeans cost?
September is an important month for many reasons. It’s a new season, a fresh start. In the fashion calendar – it is the key moment, where new collections are unveiled. But before the carousel of Fashion Week commences, before the editors congregate, before the influencers line the front and second row, before the bloggers begin to post on social media, I would like them all to pause.
Few can ignore that ‘Sustainability’ and ‘ethical’ have been buzzwords this year. There has been serious momentum, with the CEOAgenda and Fashion Revolution’s ‘Who Made My Clothes’ campaign, that has forced even big players like Kering, to take a seat at the table and at the very least – put on the appearance of being ready to listen to the discussion. But, this is not enough. Nowhere near enough.
If editors, are still, the appointed gate keepers of the cultural narrative upheld in their respective publications, then they have an obligatory duty to fulfil. One token issue on sustainable fashion will not suffice. The time to mount the pressure and maintain momentum is now.
I propose a few changes: Let’s say – in the drive for more transparency in both working conditions and supply chains, firms who do not comply – should not be given a platform in the pages of respectable publications to sell their wares. Brands who remain unapologetic in their substandard labour regulations should not be given advertorial space. Brands who still, do not pay the farmers and manufacturers a wage – that is truly reflective of the value of the product they harvest/produce, should not be included in features or in shoots.
The decades of silence, means there is guilt. There is accountability, and in tragic cases like the Rana Plaza incident, there is also blood on their hands. You don’t have to be on the factory floor standing there with a whip in your hand. But if you are part of the infrastructure than enables this modern day slavery to thrive – then you have two choices. Repent and atone for being complicit in your silence and proactive promotion of this deceit, or, step down. Step away, and let others who have a genuine love for the aesthetic and human life take over.
The world will not wait. I have always maintained that outside of the glossy pages – fashion is a beacon in society, forecasting, projecting and revealing cultural trends, changes and influences. If the existing infrastructure does not reform at an accelerated rate, if the decision makers still shuffle their feet while they wait to be persuaded of the virtues of ‘ethics’, then we, the outside world, will simply build a new one. So, my message for the September edition is a simple one: Ethical fashion is here to stay. Those who do not meet the basic requirements, those who do not participate in the universal need for empowerment , and choose to remain on the side of exploitation, will soon find themselves obsolete. If it’s not ethical, it’s not luxury. If it’s not ethical – it’s not fashion.
Until next time…
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