The fashion industry is a huge one. It is a $3 trillion industry; so big that if it were a country, it would be the 7th largest economy in the world. This industry is comprised of millions of brands scrambling to cater to the needs of billions of customers. To meet this demand, the industry employs over 300 million workers.
All these come at a great cost to the environment. The fashion industry is one of the worst polluting industries in the world today (ranked fourth or fifth depending on the data set used). According to a recent sustainable fashion report, 350,000 km2 of land – roughly the size of Germany – is dedicated to cotton production alone. An estimated 93 billion m3 of water – enough for 5 million people to survive – is used by the industry every year. Around half a million ton of microfiber or the equivalent of three million barrels of oil is dumped in the ocean every year, nearly the same amount as the Deepwater Horizon spill. The fashion industry is responsible for a whopping 10 percent of all carbon emissions in the environment. In the industry, millions of people are involved in child labor and forced labor.
This is where the ethical and sustainable fashion movement comes in. There are many definitions of sustainable fashion but mine, can be summed up as: “Don’t harm the environment, don’t harm animals and treat your workers fairly”. The sustainable and ethical fashion movement aims to correct the shortcomings of the mainstream and fast fashion brands, amongst other things. This means using better, environmentally-friendly fabrics, paying workers better and in all, doing better. But sometimes, doing better also comes at a cost.'Sustainable fashion can be summed up as: Don’t harm the environment, don’t harm animals and treat your workers fairly.'Click To Tweet
One of the biggest hurdles faced by sustainable fashion brands is the high production costs due to increased input costs. Eco-friendly fabrics cost more, artisanal production costs more and the workers are paid higher. The resultant effect is the higher costs of responsibly-made fashion items in comparison to fast fashion brands.
The following are ways in which I believe these brands can reduce their production costs. While these are by no means the perfect solutions to this challenge, they have been put together from my direct interaction with some founders and an in-depth study of their pain points.
1. Pick your ethical fight.
There are a number of factors that make a fashion brand more ethical and sustainable. These include economic empowerment, fair wages for its workers, use of organic and eco-friendly materials, ethical and fair-trade certifications among others.
As a fashion brand, you don’t have to meet all these criteria. In my opinion, a label that seeks to correct all the wrongdoings of fast fashion might find itself taking on a bit too much from the outset. You can select a few areas of concern to better narrow down your brand’s focus.
For instance, a brand’s primary focus could be its employees; to ensure that all its workers are treated fairly and paid good living wages. Another brand may elect to produce clothes with only natural fabrics.
These choices do not in any way make these brands any less ethical or sustainable than the brand who has chosen to be ‘a jack of all trades’ of the sustainable fashion world. All these ‘roads’ still lead to good ethics in fashion, which remains the bottom line doesn’t it?
It is alright to start with a criterion at a time, so long as you keep moving.
2. Ditch artisanal production.
The sustainable fashion movement argues favorably on the issue of artisanal production. The logic goes something like this:
“When we buy handcrafted items made by skilled artisans, they are more special; the stuff lasts longer because we take special care of it; it’s produced slower and thus reduces less waste, supports workers out of poverty as well as surrounding local community and promotes transparent supply chains.”
This is well and fine.
Now my personal views don’t align with this position because it sets up many a brand for failure unless of course, it involves a high-end luxury brand. In most cases, ethical brands are competing in the mass market. Utilizing artisanal production to compete in a mass market is simply economically unwise. This is one area in which the ethical brands should borrow from their fast fashion counterparts.
Artisanal production will never catch up to mass production; the difference in numbers is an ever-widening chasm. A good compromise is small batches of ‘mass’ or fast production. There is no reason for the quality of your clothing, even if quickly manufactured, cannot remain high if produced in small batches.
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3. Producing in developing nations.
Production costs in developing nations are almost always less than what is found in the developed countries that comprise the ‘West’. An obvious reason for this is that labour is generally cheaper, a fact that often leads to the conclusion that producing in these countries is generally “unethical”. Thus, most ethical fashion startups choose to produce in the more developed nations, countries such as the United States and Australia, or those in Europe where labor laws are stricter and wage labor costs higher.
I currently live in Nigeria and I run a fashion startup. This is how I know that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, it is possible to get good labor in developing countries, at good prices without breaking any moral or ethical codes. Indeed, you would actually be doing a world of good for your laborers. Moving your production to a developing nation in Asia or Africa will not only significantly lower your production costs, it will also enable you to make a direct impact in the lives of those at the lower ends of the fashion industry pyramid.
According to the Mamoq Sustainability Fashion Blueprint Report 2018, price is the second highest factor for consideration by consumers when deciding what fashion items to buy. Indeed, price is second only to fit. While the higher price tags on ethically-made clothes are understandable, I don’t believe that they are excusable.
Harsh as it may sound, the customer doesn’t want to know the difficulties of production. It rests on the entrepreneurs to figure out ways of reducing the costs of production without a corresponding reduction in the quality of the products. That is the reality of business.
Lower production costs for ethical wears equals lower prices for the consumer. Making ethical fashion less expensive and thus more affordable and attractive, will go a long way in encouraging more ‘mainstream’ consumers to shop more ethical.
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