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Yesterday’s myths: 6 not quite so ‘unchangeable’ fashion industry truths

There exist basic assumptions that are commonly, but wrongly, accepted as universal truths. For example: “Computers have replaced hand-writing”, or “higher price necessarily implies better quality”.
Such myths are widely accepted as being true, although few or no hard facts support their validity. They are the underlying reason for the inertia that inhibits, even countervails, innovative and forward looking change. Unfortunately, myths tend to appear in our conversations as wolves in a sheep’s clothing – or more precisely, as rational arguments, ‘common sense’, or [subjective] long standing experiences. But myths they are.

As is the case for many an industry struggling to come to terms with the sustainability demands of the 21st century, common myths are widely spread among fashion industry professionals and fashion fans alike. Myths, evidently, are a convenient means, right from the start, to opt out of all participation and collaboration, specifically given how complex and demanding it is to try and turn the whole of the fashion business into an industry led and guided not only by profits, but by ethical principles and responsibility for humanity and the planet as a whole.

Note: In this article, I deliberately consider the term “ethical fashion” and “sustainable fashion” to be synonyms. The underlying assumption being that what is truly ethical – under consideration of environmental, human-rights, economical and financial aspects – will also be sustainable on the long-run.

To begin, let’s have a look at what Merriam Webster defines as `ethical`:

  1. of or relating to ethics
  2. involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval
  3. conforming to accepted standards of conduct
    The meaning of its synonym moral results in a slightly more concise definition

  1. of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behaviour : ethical
  2. expressing or teaching a conception of right behaviour
  3. conforming to a standard of right behaviour
  4. sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgement
  5. capable of right and wrong action

Given these rather fuzzy definitions it is easily understandable why the term “ethical fashion” immediately raises zillions of often diverse ideas about what it encompasses, and even a larger number of supposedly rational arguments as to why a truly ethical/sustainable fashion industry cannot, and importantly: will not, become reality.

As a matter of fact, ‘just doing’ ethical fashion, never mind the lack of a proper definition, is a bit like doing the Full Monty in front of a fundamentalist religious congregation: It’s against everything that is commonly accepted as ‘how things are being and have been done’. It’s radical, it’s distinct, a transparent declaration of a value system different from that of the main stream. It embodies an ongoing, inherent questioning of the basic, partially unvoiced, general, ‘unchangeable’ truths about the inner workings of the order of St. Textile Apparel (i.e. the fashion industry as a whole, encompassed by all processes and participants from field to pit via the consumer).

For this reason, I have cherry-picked 6 “universal truths”, or myths, that are often led into the field of discussion against sustainable fashion, and will examine them close up and outside in.

Myth 1: The main street shops and brand labels are two completely different worlds.

In reality, both are just one aspect of a much larger picture – a picture that increasingly lacks clear delimitation between ‘main street retail’ and ‘designer brand label’.

To start with, over the past 6 years, a number of well-known luxury brand designers have undertaken high profile collaborations with inexpensive retail outlet chains. Hence, the exclusivity of clear cut, distinguishable design is no longer the sole property of the high-price niche:

Second, the average main street shopper actually does own brand label goods. Coco Channel purses, Louis Vuitton bags and Armani jeans have – beyond doubt – become a once-per-season-accessory-purchase, rather than a once-in-a-life-time investment.
Why? True, not everyone can or wants to own a wardrobe full of exaggeratedly priced clothing. But fashion is personalisation, and the occasional treat – read: the emotional satisfaction to ‘own something special and longed for’ – is a repeating feature on the shopping agenda. A survey of Louis Vuitton customers for instance, revealed that “the primary reason customers buy again at Louis Vuitton is not the service. Customers buy again so they can experience the exclusive feeling they get from wearing and owning Louis Vuitton products.”

In short: the emotions of exclusivity and feeling attractive is what we’re after when we shop for clothing, whether it is the Oxfam Charity Shop, or the outlet of a known brand with at least three Zeros in the price tag.

Myth 2: Designers are the last member of the production chain, and don’t really have an influence on how their primary material is being produced.

Again, let’s start by looking at a fashion designer’s role and definition. A designer, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is:

    “one that designs: as

  1. one who creates and often executes plans for a project or structure
  2. one that creates and manufactures a new product style or design; especially : one who designs and manufactures high-fashion clothing”

A designer, therefore, is someone that is at the beginning of the production/supply chain. True, the accountants also have their role as far as the budget is concerned, but other than that, it is all down to the designer: cuts, shapes, materials, accessories.
The key issue here is, whether a designer cares – when choosing materials, and defining the cuts and shapes –about where and how the primary material is grown or sourced, whether there will be large amount of off cuts (hint: ‘sharp’ cuts usually imply substantial amount of fabric waste), and what the working conditions at their suppliers are.
Just imagine a certain Mr. Lagerfeld suddenly manifesting a public interest in Human-Rights conditions of the Chinese manufacturers that produce the fabrics for his next spring collection …
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, or so the saying goes, and fashion design is no exception. That there indeed are ways of how to influence the production chain, or at least to source ethically, has been proven by numerous labels and /or collections:

Admittedly, consumers do lack to a large extent the awareness, the knowledge and skills to make an informed decision on what they buy. Lack of traceability of goods across their entire supply chain is one problem, the lack of proper labelling is another (e.g. what does ‘cotton rich’ mean?; ‘made in china’ doesn’t mean much either given how vast the country is …).

This said, it is the designers – of main street brands as much as luxury labels – that create the designs that ultimately will be bought. Good design sells, bad doesn’t – even if it’s ethical, sustainable, organic, biodegradable. If from the Tescos, Primarks, Guccis and Pradas of this world, down to tiny 1-store-only labels, all fashion producers would take a leap and ensure that their supplying factories don’t pollute the environment unduly, adhered to basic human-rights, and that their materials won’t become a worrisome legacy to our children and grand-children – Imagine! How different the world would already look today!

Myth 3: To consumers, price is the only thing that matters [, more than quality or ethics].

[Conclusion: Consumerism causes cheap prices and lousy quality, and leaves no margins for ethics.]

If price were the only fact to go by, we’d be all dressed in potato bags: They’re cheap; they’re sturdy and can be made to fit anyone of any shape and size. Worn in layers they keep warm, and for convenience, they’re easily washable. Sure, the fabric isn’t terribly comfortable – but hey, price is all that matters, right?
Ok, fine, I’m being cynical.
Yet, if price were the sole decisive factor whether to buy or not, why would Levis still be in business, even though main street jeans cost a fraction? Why are charity shops not more popular with us penny pinchers? And why do we fork out this extra 10£ to have a personal motto well legibly printed on the front of our new, newly favourite T-shirt?
The reality is, it’s not merely about price. People wear clothes, not only to cover their nudity, but importantly! also to satisfy their need for personalisation, for grooming, for being themselves – in brief, for a vast range of emotional needs and expectations. Price is but one variable in the equation – although possibly the only hard-numbered one. ‘Feeling good’, ‘be fashionable’, ‘cool’, ‘cute’, ‘comfortable’ are all aspects that resist being expressed in clear cut statistics.
The amount of cash we are willing to spend on any given item, be it clothing or a car, is closely linked to our [= the consumer's] perception of expected value for money, which is in short, the answer to the question “how long will I feel good/special/cool if I buy this?”

Not surprisingly, physical product qualities are not the first attributes that come to mind. More important is our expectation of how good, and for how long, it will feel to possess said item. Let’s take an example:

  • A wallet of brand C costs me 300£. Despite the fact that I could get a similar one for less than 10% of its price, I still buy the exaggeratedly expensive version. It is the pride that its possession will fill me with, the way I will feel great about owning such a purse every time I take it out when shopping for groceries, the shades of envy I spot in other people eyes when they get to see the purse, and importantly, the fact that this all will continue for a many years to come.
    Possibly some day I will be required to exchange it for a new version, yet – all these memories attached to it, the old pride from the days when it was new … the wallet remains stored in the drawer of “undiscardable memories”.
  • Let’s assume I’d have bought the 15£ version instead. The novelty will have worn off in less than a week, by which time it is a mere piece of convenience to store cash in. By the end of month 3 it may start falling to pieces, so I will be looking around for the next one. By end of month 6 I’m already in possession of a new version of a similarly cheap wallet, and the old one has been mercilessly discarded without further considerations of how well it has have served me. In another six months time I won’t even remember what its exact colour was.

What can we learn from this?

  1. Exclusivity sells, even at extraordinarily high prices. So – no, price is NOT everything. Low price is a sign for low buy in, and fundamentally a sign of low initial consumer interest.
  2. Design – and therewith emotional buy in – is the key factors for consumers to be willing and spend the big buck.
  3. The principle aim is to know which of the consumers’ basic emotional needs we want to satisfy with our designs, and cater to it.
  4. If the design is outstanding, all goes. But: If two goods are equivalent in price, quality, and design, consumers will consistently decide for the ethical one. No one wants consciously to be the bad guy after all, and remaining not only guilt-less but actually doing good, feels great!

Myth 4: It’s all about speed, i.e. time-to-market.

[Meaning: Only as long sustainability efforts don’t impact the speed of delivery/production can they be accommodated.]

The iPhone was announced on January 9th 2007, at which time it was expected to be shipped by June of the same year, i.e. a full 6 months after its initial public announcement. 6 months in the extremely fast moving world of electronics, and the even faster changing market of mobile phones, is a really, really, long time. And yet – the iPhone was, and 3 years on keeps being, a best-seller on the mobile phone market, with each new model substantially adding to Apple’s financial bottom line. Time to market, interestingly enough, wasn’t the decisive factor in the success of its launch, despite an extremely fast moving and competitive market place.

In fact, time to market is only key if you are:

  1. Offering goods that decay within a short time span such as food or flowers;
  2. Riding the wave of an already existing fashion trend approaching its peak (e.g. maxi dresses – already around for a couple of seasons – but the style for summer 2010)
  3. Copying someone else’s design in order to compete
  4. Offering a fairly generic, standardised product with only a slightly seasonal twing, which could easily be available somewhere else (such as the semi-transparent flowery cotton mini-dress length t-shirts for 5£ this 2010 summer season)

If it’s either truly original, or classic, or standard fair – black t-shirts anyone? – time-to-market is not quite as important. The market will still buy it, as demand is fairly steady and does fluctuate less than with “in fashion” and “out of fashion” pieces.
The right timing to hit the market is, however, still of importance no doubt.
For fashion, time-to-market is specifically a life or death issue if you’re a copy cat. Imitation brands depend on catching up with those that mark the pace. And that is precisely the reason why even the main street retailers try to mark territory as designers rather than just taking the copy/paste road. When being ahead of the pack in originality, production speed and reaction times are less of a spoiler.

This is good news for designers as well as consumers with stakes in ethical fashion.
For designers, this means that their uniqueness in craft, skills and inventiveness are one of a few key factors, possibly the most important one. It means that consumers invest in originality. It also means that rather than taking the ‘quick and dirty’ approach, designers are in their right to aim at classics as opposed to McFashion, and take the time to mature their ideas.
Metaphorically, it means that the guests are ready to wait for some time to get a first class dinner in a good restaurant, for a fair price. Speed is for fast food: An unhealthy, pretty awful, chemicals prone, repetitive and fairly bland diet. Yes, here price matters – because it’s not very appealing to start with.

Myth 5: It’s all about going, being and remaining trendy, and being part of the latest fad in the [brand] main stream.

Yet, one of the most famous of all designs – only slightly adapted over the decades – was created in the 1950s: the Chanel Suit. Made out of two or three pieces: a cardigan-style jacket, weighted with gilt chain stitched around the inside hem, a simple easy-to-wear skirt, worn with a blouse (with blouse fabric coordinated with the jacket lining) it remains perennial popular. Slightly changed designs are created but at the bottom line, it is the same as ever.
Other examples of the same type – long standing, essentially unchanged and to-date classics – are the Louis Vuitton Papillon (a cylindrical bag) created in 1966, Hermes’ classical Kelly bag designed in the 1930s, and the equally famous Jean Birkin bag of the same brand launched in 1989.

Some designers, such as Alabama Chanin, the high end label EIEN, or the recycle fashion label Junky Styling – the two last ones both based in London – are “just different”, and sufficiently so to be unique and not entirely part of short lived fashion fads. They are not part of any specific, short-lived seasonal trend, but rather follow their own brand mark timeless style – just as the Papillon and the Chanel suit.

When pondering about the reason why this would be possible, the discussion continues seamlessly where left off: The meaning of brand names and price tag beyond its monetary value.
It’s all about being distinguishable original – and to remain so. There is certain air of timelessness to all we grow attached to, or spend chunks of money on. Cheap one-seasoned items in reality don’t measure up to the standard – which is why they are cheap and/or quickly out of fashion, but usually both.
My favourite T-shirt already lasted 10 years, and is still going strong, despite it looking a wee bit battered and worn – it’s unique not only in its design, but notably through the memories attached to it. So is that one 2-piece suit that (while a no-name brand) wasn’t cheap, but hey, just wearing it feels good.

Myth 6: Being ethical necessarily means to produce, and hence sell, at exaggeratedly high prices.

During the Indian independence movement, Mahatma Ghandi described the short comings of the cotton trade of his time as follows:

  • English people buy Indian cotton in the field, picked by Indian labour at seven cents a day, through an optional monopoly.
  • This cotton is shipped on British ships, a three-week journey across the Indian Ocean, down the Red Sea, across the Mediterranean, through Gibraltar, across the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean to London. One hundred per cent profit on this freight is regarded as small.
  • The cotton is turned into cloth in Lancashire. You pay shilling wages instead of Indian pennies to your workers. The English worker not only has the advantage of better wages, but the steel companies of England get the profit of building the factories and machines. Wages; profits; all these are spent in England.
  • The finished product is sent back to India at European shipping rates, once again on British ships. The captains, officers, sailors of these ships, whose wages must be paid, are English. The only Indians who profit are a few lascars who do the dirty work on the boats for a few cents a day.
  • The cloth is finally sold back to the kings and landlords of India who got the money to buy this expensive cloth out of the poor peasants of India who worked at seven cents a day.

In fact, in 2009, the 5 leading exporters of cotton were: (1) the United States, (2) India, (3) Uzbekistan, (4) Brazil, and (5) Pakistan (side note: these countries, without exception, are at the forefront when it comes to experiencing the human cost of Climate Change impacts).
What can be inferred from this by way of example is, that the majority of the costs incurred in ‘cheap’ fashion, – at least as far as the western hemisphere is concerned – no matter whether it’s retailer or labelled brand, is incurred through transport, distribution, as well as local (e.g. UK) rents and salaries. The clothes at Primark for instance, come virtually for free – the price tag just about covers UK real estate costs and salaries.
Producing hence without negative ecological impact, allowing for decent working conditions and living wages does in reality change the price of the final product only marginally. It’s more, the reduction of toxic waste on the one hand, and the elimination of the risk of potential litigation or brand value diminution due to bad press on the other, actually means producing clothes ethically is overall cheaper and less risk prone on the long run.

To sum it all up:

Of 6 “unchangeable” truths of the fashion industry – arguments that times and over again are taken into the field to counter the need and feasibility of ethical supply chains in fashion – not a single one holds strong.
These myths are only the description of the status quo of a main stream attitude that resists both, change as well as the mere motivation to change. An attitude very different from “where there is a will there is a way”. And as such, this attitude has no right of existence in a forward looking, innovative industry such as the fashion business should be.

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