Fashion with a conscience

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What product you buy can determine the quality of life the maker leads. Fairtrade-certified clothes ensure that those associated with the garment are given what they rightly deserve.

Ever looked at a stylish, sequined maxi dress draped on a mannequin at the mall, glanced at the price tag and thought it was a suspiciously low price? You were probably right. Behind the rock-bottom rates of fast fashion, there are often unregulated supply chains that make no efforts to pay a living wage, and also ignore the basic rights of the people who make these clothes. Price is not the only indicator, though — several luxury brands are as guilty as their lower-priced counterparts. From child labour to unsafe working conditions and low wages, the multi-billion-dollar profits of many large apparel brands often come at a human cost.

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness and demand for ethically produced clothing, fuelled by consumers. The week leading up to April 24 every year has been declared Fashion Revolution Week, in memory of the Rana Plaza tragedy and to keep the spotlight on the issue.

“Brands need to commit to ethical fashion”, says Devina Singh, Campaigns and Outreach Manager of Fairtrade India. “Fashion revolution is about celebrating ethical practices in fashion and asking more brands to give the consumer an option of fashion that is fair. When brands opt for the Fairtrade certification, you can be sure that the people behind your clothing and style statement were treated fairly throughout the supply chain. This includes the people who grew and made your clothes. I’ve seen transparent supply chains – it’s possible and it’s easy; all it takes is a commitment from the brand.” Devina elaborates that the Fairtrade certification is given to organisations that follow Fairtrade guidelines. Behind Fairtrade clothing lies a fair price for cotton, fair wages for the garment factory workers, empowerment of women farmers, respect for the environment and the commitment to invest Fairtrade premiums into the community that made the clothing.

“It’s fashionable to be non-exploitative. Our clothes are the skin that we put on and reflect who we are,” she says. She speaks of the resounding success of the Show Your Label week that Fairtrade India organises to support the international Fashion Revolution movement, which raises awareness about the workers who made the clothes and farmers who grew the cotton. All over India, everyone from students to celebrities wore their clothes inside out, took a picture of their favourite labels and uploaded it on social media, asking their brands — “Who made my clothes? Who grew my clothes?”

As awareness surges, so does the market for ethical brands that are rising to the occasion with designs that are both beautiful and durable. Safia Minney, founder and director of U.K.-based fair trade clothing brand People Tree, and author of the critically acclaimed book Slow Fashion – Aesthetics Meets Ethics, is a staunch advocate of the Slow Fashion movement. “Fast fashion needs to slow down,” she says. “If it slows down, true responsibility is possible through better trading practices. Make it your business to shop in line with your values. Consumers want to know the real story behind who made what they wear and they don’t want to continue to be part of the problem. Many ethical brands are coming into the market and People Tree is innovating with designer and retailer collaborations and further strengthening its clothing offer. The ethical fashion market is an exciting space to watch!”

Technology, too, is propelling this movement forward. The app Shop Ethical! (available on android and iPhones) is a handy list (that’s regularly updated) of companies and their practices, relating to both raw material sourcing as well as worker rights. With a single click, you can find out how ethical their supply chain is, and support the brands with good ratings by opting for their products.

While consumers are increasingly asking questions before they buy their clothes, there is also a growing movement against the trend of high consumption. “Buy less fast fashion, clean up your wardrobe, re-style, swap clothes, re-make your clothes and buy second-hand.  If you need to buy new, buy fair trade, ethical and organic-certified clothing,” says Safia.

Joshua Fields Millburn, bestselling author and co-founder of, believes that consumers have the power to look past the sale sign and make a deeper, more conscious decision. “We all need some stuff. Many of us have taken it too far, though. Consumption isn’t the problem; compulsory consumption is. The solution is to consume deliberately — to ignore the inane advertisements so we can determine what we need based on our lives, not on what we’ve been told.”

Devina signs off with the reminder that clothing isn’t a trivial purchase, but one that impacts the lives of many: “Every time you buy a product, you’re voting for the kind of world you want to live in.”

 *This first appeared on The Hindu

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