Ethical fashion and sustainability are hot social media buzzwords. But what substance do they carry beyond the buzz? Fashion has been in the limelight for the impact it has (often adversely) on the environment and lives and health of the people who craft it. However, in the social media age, people care about what brand they are wearing and have an increased awareness of harsh labor conditions, manufacturing failures, the lack of regulations to improve workers' health, safety, and labor rights, and the challenging environmental impacts of apparel manufacturing. Fashion designers and brands that want to earn lasting popularity with today’s fashion customers must take the issue of ethical fashion manufacturing seriously and avoid applying the movement’s values and terminology loosely. This begins with educating themselves and continues by educating the customer. So, sit tight and as we delve into tips on what you should look for if you’re looking to find ethical manufacturing companies for your apparel, footwear, or accessories brand.
What Does Being Ethical Mean in Fashion?
The ethical standard in fashion manufacturing is often thought of too broadly. Different clothes manufacturers and apparel brands vary on their definition of this term, so your search should start with getting specific about what you mean when you say you’re looking for an “ethical manufacturer”.
Some manufacturers' version of ethical production is paying fair wages to workers without much of a focus on safety. Others focus on environmentally conscious production but do not care about the working conditions in the factories making their products. While there is no single fixed definition of what precisely ethical manufacturing means, the goal of achieving an ethical fashion industry must be supported in every area, from production, to materials, to supply chain, and labor standards. Some questions fashion designers can ask manufacturing candidates about these topics include:
- Do your workers receive what is regarded as a live-able wage?
Do they freely choose to work this job?
How long are their working hours?
Do they receive breaks and mealtimes?
Do they have access to medical care in case of on-the-job injuries?
Other information you may want to consider includes:
What About Manufacturer Certifications?
Every industry must follow certain guidelines and procedures to assure quality and safety for both employees and customers. The fashion industry is no different. After considering the above questions, decide whether you will require your manufacturing partner to possess third-party audited certifications. Some of these concentrate on classifications, geography, or a specialized sort of evaluation process in their production. You need to ask yourself which values are most important to the way you want to operate your fashion brand, and then research the fashion certifications available to support that.
Here are 5 quick tips on how to do that:
- Research each certification standard that aligns with your selected values.
- Specify the certifications you will require from manufacturers when connecting with them.
- Double-check what certification they currently hold and if the criteria you are requesting can be found on those certifications.
- Request proof of those certification documents and the grade that they received on them.
- After contacting the manufacturer for proof of the valid certification, assure compliance by contacting the certifying organization to verify the award.
Although many manufacturers have sustainability labels, some take a lazy approach and use ethical language in their marketing without the audits and certifications to back it up. These five steps will help you make sure that you align with a manufacturer that truly shares your commitment to ethical fashion, as you see it.
5 Popular and Impactful Manufacturing Certifications
Here is a list of well-respected and trustworthy organizations that can influence how manufacturers choose to work. These are the fundamental ethical certifications that every manufacturing company should have, depending on their ethical focus.
Use these certifications as your starting point to focus your search because it helps narrow it down. Having any one of these certifications here will usually result in higher-quality products and services, better customer service, and more up-to-date solutions to the myriad of issues consumers tend to feel uneasy about in the fashion industry. These accreditations show a supplier's dedication to quality and continual improvement with the industry's highest standards.
The World Fair Trade Organization for Those Who Value Fair Trade
The World Fair Trade Organization is a global association of 401 organizations committed to improving the livelihoods of economically marginalized producers. The WFTO has members in 76 countries. Members are primarily fair trade enterprises with a business model verified by an independent audit and peer review. To be a WFTO member, an enterprise or organization must demonstrate that they put people and the planet first in everything they do.
Bluesign for Brands Interested in Environmental Friendliness
Bluesign is a sustainability standard that assures consumers of the highest level of materials safety. It considers the chemical makeup of textile products, in particular, to ensure that materials are healthy and safe. It attests to the safety of textile products for the environment, workers, and customers. Chemicals, processes, materials, and products are all eligible for the Bluesign accreditation. This certification, in particular, aids firms in effectively managing their chemical use and encourages the substitution of safer alternatives for dangerous ones.
GOTS for Those Who Want to Use Organic Materials
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was developed by leading standard setters to define world-wide recognized requirements for organic textiles. From harvesting raw materials, to environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing to labeling, fabrics certified by GOTS provides a credible assurance to the consumer, which means that fashion designers can proudly showcase the brand as Global Organic Textile Standard qualified. It also helps to differentiate the customers' reliability of the brand as ethically produced rather than a brand that uses ethical production as marketing fluff.
The Ethical Trading Initiative for Those Who Prioritize Workers’ Civil Rights
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is a global collaboration of businesses, labor unions, and non-governmental organizations dedicated to bettering working conditions across the supply chain and workers' rights. They aim to cultivate a society where all workers are free of exploitation and discrimination and have access freedom, security, and equity. The ETI Base Code is a set of internationally recognized labor standards based on International Labor Organization (ILO) treaties. ETI members and others use this certification's guidelines to improve working conditions around the world.
The Fair Wear Foundation for Designers Concerned About Factory Working Conditions
The Fair Wear Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving working conditions in clothing factories across the globe. The foundation works with brands, factories, unions, non-profit organizations, and even governments to improve working conditions for garment industry employees. It assesses how well brands adhere to the Fair Work Foundation's Code of Labor Procedures, including scores on criteria purchasing practices, monitoring and remediation, and complaint management in the textile sector.
Now is the time to evaluate fashion as an ecosystem. As one interdependent part of an entire fashion industry ecosystem, no brand’s or designer’s move toward enhanced safety, sustainability, and ethical production is too big nor too small. Right here, right now, is the essential time to pursue more ethical solutions throughout the fashion ecosystem.
Big cooperation brands may have more power and impact but smaller fashion brands and emerging fashion designers have more ability to lead the way by being innovative with textile production, giving inspiration to society, and adding creativity in pursuit of a more holistic approach to fashion manufacturing. The future is in our hands, and we have the power to make a change.