While prepping for my last article on ethical fashion, I conducted a search for “ethical menswear” on Google. There were 5.3 million results in 0.43 seconds. I then made a second search for “menswear” and the results were 83.4 million in 0.35 seconds. When I clicked on some of the top results, I made three observations.
The first was that the result for “menswear” was over 1500% higher than “ethical menswear”. The second was that the shirts that had appeared under ‘ethical menswear’ were nowhere to be seen under ‘menswear’.
My final observation was that there weren’t many differences between the results; they were all male shirts with similar designs and styles. It only seemed as though by being dubbed ‘ethical’, these clothes had been lifted from the status of ‘ordinary’ to a higher calling – clothes made for men who care little for good looks and a lot about saving the planet.
All these bring me to the question; is the “ethically-made” label alienating consumers? And must we label them as ethical clothing?
I eschew labels; they are almost always artificially created to put people and things into boxes. I believe one thing or person can be many things at the same time. Label a class “Professional Bloggers’ Class” and amateurs won’t show up. Call it a “Beginners’ Class” and the professionals won’t show up. As soon as a jar of jam is termed “sugar-free”, millennials will run far away from it, never mind that it tastes just like regular jam.
Ethical fashion, I believe, is no different.
Labelling fashion items as ethical items sends this message; “these are different goods made especially for a different class of people, it is not yours if you won’t show that you care about people and environment”. In my opinion, this is hardly the right message for a movement that spans across the world as one global village, inviting everyone to be a part of a more sustainable industry.
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According to a recent sustainable fashion report, 67% of consumers are unwilling to sacrifice any characteristic of apparel in order to buy a more sustainable product. (I sincerely believe that if Africa had been included in this survey, the number would have been a lot higher). I believe this sends a not-so-subtle message that consumers aren’t very concerned with buying sustainable apparels.
The goal of ethical fashion is not to create a different genre or species of fashion. It is not to cater to a distinct set of eco-people. Rather, it is to serve as a replacement, to become the new fashion, the new choice of consumers around the world.
Now I believe that this need to label items ‘ethical’ is more of an issue of marketing than the issue of actual sustainability. I think it is conceivably easier for a startup conscious fashion brand to gain customers in a “niche market” by appealing to the small market segment of sustainability lovers. Without this ‘ethical’ backing, the startup might find itself suddenly faced with the uphill task of competing with fast fashion; a task many would invariably lose. Thus, we remain in the relative safety of “ethical wears”.
Sadly, this ethical safety net is but an illusion. It all comes down to the consumers and so far, they have proven repeatedly to love fast fashion. This competition for ethical fashion does not lie with sustainability; rather, it lies in fast fashion. The goal should be to make ethical fashion as proliferated, all-encompassing and readily available as fast fashion. I don’t think we can achieve this through this near-fanatical belief in distinguishing ethical fashion and setting it apart.'The goal of ethical fashion is not to create a different genre or species of fashion. It is not to cater to a distinct set of eco-people. Rather, it is to serve as a replacement, to become the new fashion, the new choice of consumers around the world.'Click To Tweet
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This current approach tries to persuade consumers to change their fashion and buying habits. It urges them to be more eco-conscious, more thoughtful regarding the choices they make. This mostly goes against the whimsical spirit of fashion. Fashion is often a thing of pleasure, not thought. Asking consumers to take all these into consideration in their fashion choices quite frankly, is too demanding.
A better approach would be to make ethical products as readily available as possible. The customer need not even know they are made ethically as a great many of them would buy it so long as it ‘fits’. In other words, do we really need to label them “ethically-made t-shirts?” Why can’t they just be t-shirts?
Fashion like most businesses is a game of numbers. Right now, ethical fashion does not have those numbers on its side. For a more sustainable future, we need to get those numbers. I believe we can get those numbers by giving the consumers what they know rather than serving an exclusive “save the earth club”.
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