By Jody McCutcheon
Why do we love our favourite fashion brands? Is it because we believe they look or feel good on us? Because various targets of our admiration wear them? Price point? Or simply because they’re all the rage?
It’s important that we contemplate the reasons we’re drawn to the garb we wear. Because clothing is more than just practical – we often like to think of the garments we wear as manifestoes of our individuality. Yet the impact of the brands we support with our dollar votes resonates beyond our personal lives. Perhaps the biggest impacts of our preferred outfits are felt by the environment and those who produce the clothes in company factories. In this light, then, it makes sense that our fashion choices should be about more than just us, the consumer.
There are many good, practical reasons beyond simple hipness for supporting a fashion brand, from the quality of its products to its treatment of employees and environment. The sad reality, though, is that when it comes to these attributes, many brands have sketchy records. In other words, many of your favourite brands are probably quite nasty, whether because they employ sweatshop labour or because they fail to sufficiently consider the environmental impact of their products and manufacturing processes.
But navigating fashion brands can be tough. How are we supposed to be able to tell which are the best and worst brands for sweatshop labour?
Well-considered fashion choices are increasingly crucial, as the clothing industry has become more prolific than ever. Between 2000 and 2014, global clothing production doubled due to brands’ operational and production efficiencies. Correspondingly, consumer-friendlier prices have helped clothes fly off the shelves. According to Greenpeace, despite more global acknowledgement of the human rights and environmental problems related to fast fashion, clothing sales rose 80% from 2002 to 2015, from $1 trillion to $1.8 trillion. So is the problem the fashion companies, or us?
More Is Less
Something else to consider is that developing-world fashion shoppers are gradually catching up to first-world fashion consumers. Whilst some may laud this as economic development in action, the fact is that greater demand for clothing means more demand for garment workers. Higher demand for workers should lead to them being able to demand higher prices, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
In general, increased demand for clothing means sweatshops continue to operate worldwide, and the sweatshop scandals of the 1990’s are far from behind us. From Bangladesh, site of the 2013 Rana Plaza fire that killed over 1,100 clothing workers, to Changshu, China; from Los Angeles to Istanbul, Turkey; from Honduras to Indonesia, clothing factories tend to have terrible human rights records. Clothing workers are at the mercy of ruthless employers who subject their employees to long working hours and low wages, while discouraging the creation of unions that protect workers from mistreatment.
How To Choose Wisely
Want to be a more ethical shopper? First, shop less. A LOT less. When we go crazy in the stores, like some YouTuber on a ‘haul video’ mission, it only increases demand for fast fashion; in effect, you’re endorsing fast fashion brands and the harm they do. So when you do shop, ensure your purchases are made by brands who are fully transparent with regards to their supply chain and how they treat their workers.
Here’s my list of suggestions on how to best do just that.
Use A Tool
MADE-BY is an award-winning, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable fashion, with a particular focus on matters of environmental and social importance. MADE-BY is currently working with over one hundred fashion brands—including Hugo Boss, G-Star, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Eileen Fisher—helping them to achieve sustainability transformation and supply-chain traceability.
In order to measure a brand’s efficacy in these areas, MADE-BY uses a tool called MODE Tracker, which allows independent verification of a brand’s sustainability efforts. Specifically, MODE Tracker measures and communicates year-over-year progress in several “cubes” or key impact areas, allowing fashion brands and retailers to see their own progress and compare their efforts against an “expert-reviewed roadmap.”
This roadmap engages the various, aforementioned cubes, all of which focus on various aspects of a brand’s products, people and transparency. Each cube is analyzed in three, ascending levels:
- building foundation and setting ambition
- making steady progress
- adopting best practice
A fourth level, called the “Pioneer” level, is reserved for brands that have received special commendation for demonstrating excellence in industry leadership. Essentially, these brands are treated as industry “Pioneers.”
In subjecting itself to MODE Tracker, a brand must seriously want to achieve definite, measurable sustainability progress. You can see a list of brands MADE-BY has partnered with here, and the most recent MODE Tracker brand results here.
Read A Report or Two
Baptist World Aid compiles an annual report that gives fashion brands a grade from A to F depending on the strength of companies’ labour rights management systems to mitigate the risk of exploitation in their supply chain. 78% of the companies assessed directly engaged in the research process.
Another great site comes from, unsurprisingly perhaps, Fashion Revolution. Their Transparency Tracker ranks 40 of the biggest global fashion companies according to their level of transparency based on a questionnaire and publicly available information about supply chain issues.
Avoid the Worst Offenders
- Victoria’s Secret
- La Senza
- Claire’s Accessories
- Monsoon Accessorize
- Michael Kors
- Abercrombie & Fitch
- Forever 21
- Coco Beach
- Joe Fresh
Follow The Leaders
Let’s look on the positive side: there are lots of brands working to achieve sustainability by using renewable energy in their factories; reducing water and chemical usage; developing and implementing new, input-reducing materials and manufacturing processes; improving the durability of their products, and by treating workers right. This means better wages, shorter working days, accessible skills training, and allowing the formation of unions to protect workers’ human rights. Anything less would be uncivilized.
Patagonia, makers of outdoor and hiking gear, encourages shoppers to not be wasteful and buy only items they need, while also offering to mend older items to make them last longer. While it may eat into the company’s bottom line, this is exactly the type of neo-commercial mindset the planet needs—not the wasteful, fast-food mentality behind fast-fashion.
Other brands working hard to make a difference include:
- People Tree
- Raven + Lily
- Mata Traders
- Bead & Reel
- Eileen Fisher
- Kowtow Clothing
Most of these above are far from perfect. Many of them are ‘fast fashion’ brands. But given their slice of market share, any difference they’re trying to make will have a huge impact, making ‘sustainability’ the new normal. It will also encourage others to follow suit. You can see more information about the high street brands mentioned above in this article here, but also remember that any brands that you see here in Eluxe Magazine’s Fashion section – there’s lots here you won’t find anywhere else!
It’s great to have favourite fashion brands, preferred clothing we can slip into that makes us look and feel good. But it’s time to really consider the reasons we love them, and to love them for solid reasons—preferably ones that don’t revolve around fashion zeitgeists or everyday low prices. The best reasons to love the clothes we wear are because they do less harm to our planet and fellow citizens.
All images: Matthew Spizeri for Eluxe