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

Note: This is the third and last 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 2.

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 Carmina Campus, 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.


Note: This is the third and last 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 2.

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Discussion

One comment for “Myth busting: 6 reasons in favour of the ‘ethical fashion’ business case (Part 3 of 3)”

  1. Excellent written article. If all bloggers offer the same level of content as you , Internet would be a much better place.

    Posted by Online Fashion Jewelry | August 13, 2012, 11:14 am

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