Fair trade fashion is leading the way in terms of ethical consumerism, but it is not always sustainable. This article explains 7 reasons why:
1. Ethical Fashion Doesn’t Have to Be Eco-Friendly
Fair Trade Fashion is usually associated with the Ethical side of sustainability. This does not mean, by default that ethical fashion or Fair Trade Fashion has to be eco-friendly. Most of the time, consumers may overlook this and simply buy something because they associate ethical with “good” or Eco-Friendly with “good.” But simply “good” or “better ” than fast fashion doesn’t make it automatically sustainable. Calling something sustainable when it does not desensitizes us to its importance.
2. Sustainable Fashion is Fair Trade, but Fair Trade Fashion Doesn’t Have to Be Sustainable
In order for a product to truly be sustainable, it needs to incorporate three important factors:
- Ethics – Rights of workers and the community
- Environment – The planet and ecosystem that we rely on
- Economy – affordability for consumers and profitability for industry
The past century has been weighted heavily on the profitability side of the spectrum. The industry itself is not going to automatically switch over to being sustainable out of the goodness of their hearts. It will happen gradually, over time when consumers start demanding the triple bottom line. We will use up resources that make the old way of doing things unaffordable.
Whether or not you are going to profit from this transition is up to you. It’s going to happen regardless. Simply focusing on demanding an only fair trade is looking at the problem from a very narrow point of view.
3. Fair Trade Fashion Isn’t Always Affordable
Fair trade fashion and fair trade as a whole have been associated with the affluent and liberal elite. The only people who seem interested in purchasing a fair trade garment from 10,000 villages are the same kinds of people who can afford $20 for a slice of quiche. When the median household income in 2016 was $56,000, spending $70 on a dress doesn’t seem practical.
Sustainable Fashion will happen when it will be mainstream and affordable to buy an eco-friendly garment produced by a person earning a living wage. This future is not too far off. It just takes time, incentives, and innovation.
4. Fair Trade Fashion Isn’t Always Accessible
Going to a fast fashion chain at a local mall or quickly finding the cheapest garment on Amazon is super easy, but looking for affordable, eco-friendly, ethical clothing is hard. Accessibility will happen once big-name companies with the systems have the right incentives to supply more fair-trade products.
H&M, for all their labor wage disputes and contributions to climate change, have been at least trying to recycle old garments through their exchange program. You may laugh, thinking that a company so unsustainable as H&M as eeking by on the eco-friendly scale by simply trading in and recycling old clothing. The fact that they are at least trying is a very good sign for sustainability in general because accessibility is linked to being mainstream.
5. Fair Trade Fashion Is Not Yet Mainstream
See, we need large companies like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 to make sustainable shifts in their products. These mega companies aren’t going anywhere. They all have established a huge network of trust and accessibility among consumers. Their minor shifts towards being more eco-friendly and ethical are enormous compared to similar steps that can be taken by smaller companies.
What little initiatives like the trade in program at H&M do is test the market to see if we are willing to spend slightly more for sustainable clothing. It’s called Incrementalism, and it is what shapes the future of fashion and sustainability. Fair Trade Fashion will be mainstream some day when the market (us) demands it. It will happen when workers inevitably rise up and demand a higher wage. Fast Fashion companies will have to scramble to find new ways to market their fashion, even if that means marketing slower style at a slightly higher price.
6. The Fair Trade Certification may cover the Supplies, but not the Labor
An old conundrum: What exactly about the product is fair trade? Is it how the fabric was produced or how the garment was made? Usually, it is difficult to tell the difference. Most of the time, companies can get away with charging more for a fair-trade sourced shirt, but it was still made by a worker earning below a living wage. If a customer is not careful in the labels to see that it was also organically sourced, fair trade, and something about how it’s carbon neutral, the customer is not getting a “sustainable” product.
But let’s be clear, it is difficult for customers, in general, to know how sustainable a product is. While there are steps you can take to be a more responsible consumer, the real change will happen on a much larger scale.
7. The World Fair Trade is Used Interchangeably with “Ethical” and “Sustainable”
Lazy marketing is to blame here. When someone without a sustainability degree talks about how to be more sustainable, it turns into a mess of buzzwords. Most marketers don’t know what they’re talking about in terms of ethical and eco-friendly. We basically just let them get away with it because there are no regulations on using the word sustainable. If a marketer said that their gluten free pants are LEED certified, there would be a lawsuit in false advertising.
The words sustainable and ethical are very hard to certify because they are used so ubiquitously. Instead, consumers are going to have to rely on third party certifications in order to understand even what is going on. Though relying on third party certification is difficult, and too much to ask from consumers. Just understand that over time, these things will change. The only things you can do are basically trying to feel better and maybe call your elected officials.
What we Can Actually Do
It sucks to feel like things are out of your control, especially when you care so much. The most rewarding thing I have done is start my own fashion sustainable company to address these issues on a smaller local scale. The future is medium because it will be lead by small to medium sized companies. There is a great opportunity for business owners and fashion designers to shape the industry, but only through education and understanding.
I put together this e-learning course on how to start a sustainable fashion company for anyone else wanting to make their mark in the industry. The free sustainable business resource is something I wish I had when I was starting out over a year ago. There are a ton of sustainable niches to fill in the fashion industry, and I can’t fix everything myself. If becoming a fashion influencer even with no experience in the industry excites you, check out the free resource guide to get started. We can do this together.