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Myth busting: 6 reasons in favour of the ‘ethical fashion’ business case (Part 2 of 3)

Note: This is the second of a series of 3 articles aiming at busting 6 of the most common myths brought to the table against sustainability in the fashion industry. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

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!

Note: This is the second of a series of 3 articles aiming at busting 6 of the most common myths brought to the table against sustainability in the fashion industry. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

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