To address concerns of sustainability and eco-friendliness, the Architecture/Engineering/Construction industry (A/E/C) can turn to a variety of rating systems to measure a building’s environmental impact. The biggest of these is the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) rating system, which both certifies building along various standards (silver, gold, and platinum) and accredits professionals. An alternative focused specifically on schools is the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), which is dedicated to healthy and safe environments that are also sensitive to the environment. Relatively new on the block is the Society for Environmental Responsible Facilities (SERF), which strives to be a more affordable, flexible, and streamlined than the costly and unwieldy LEED™ system. All the details differ, all three of these generally aim to achieve the same goal: provide an objective third-party certification of a building’s sensitivity to the environment.
I often think about these because it’s an extension of my (day) job, but lately I’ve been thinking about these rating systems in the context of fashion. For example, when the DSW eNewsletter arrived in my inbox, I moseyed on over to the website to browse their men’s sandal selection. I found this absolutely gorgeous Mercanti Fiorentini Men's Lace Up Gladiator Sandal, available for $99.95 from a regular price of $245. (The discount doesn’t impress me because, obviously, the shoe must cost less than $99.95 or no one would sell it for that price.)
|Image copyright DSW, borrowed under fair use.|
After the dazzle effect passed, the rational mind assered itself:
Where was the shoe made?
What materials were used?
Who makes the shoes, and is the labour ethical?
As it turns out, the partial answers are: Italy, “fine Italian leather,” and “who knows?” Hence the problem: how do we get to know how our fashion is made? There are certainly rules of thumb. For example, fashion from Asian countries more likely than not (I don’t want to generalize unconditionally) means sweatshop labour and similarly exploitative work conditions. But even countries like Australia can have sweatshop labour in their garment industries. Leather is bad for animals and also environmentally harmful because of high water and energy use as well as the use of chemicals such as arsenic sulfide, sulphuric acid, and sodium hydroxide in the hair removal process. Of course, human-made materials aren’t necessarily better either, depending on the material.
How about a rating system for clothes equivalent to SERF or LEED? It would certainly make it easier to make an informed choice about the clothes we buy, and from whom we buy them. It would also create market pressure to move companies towards eco/ethical production and distribution.
As it happens, there are some companies that have developed their own rating and labeling solutions. UK apparel company Rapanui, for example, uses a simple A to G rating system based on European Union energy labeling. Their idea is to offer a quick visual reference to consumers, who can understand how their clothes are made and make informed choices. The ratings themselves suffer from a bit of vagueness – for example, D is “not bad, not good either” while E is “needs improving” – but overall has the kind of accessibility needed to make the rating perform as intended.
The European Union itself has an Ecolabelling initiative as well, one that takes into account the confusion of voluntary self-labelling and the potential for greenwashing. Developed with the input of scientists, NGOs, and other groups, the initiative aims to provide independent evaluation of various product types throughout their entire lifecycle to measure their environmental impact . There’s even a searchable catalogue of Ecolabeled products.
But what about North America?
Searching the Ecolabel Index for the US, there are a few relevant entries such Cotton Made in Africa, a fair-trade and social business initiative, Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits, FairTrade, the Global Organic Textile Standard (certification for products containing a minimum 70% organic fibres), and a few others. But in the dizzying list of ecolabels, none strikes me as providing a big picture snapshot of fashion products.
An opportunity, perhaps?
In a different segment of the fashion awareness spectrum are organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, who work towards improving labour conditions and empowering garment workers around the world. The Clean Clothes Campaign in particular is an association of organizations, including trade unions, in 15 European countries. Among their campaigns: put an end to sandblasting jeans, stop wage theft, and achieve fairness for migrant workers. Their FAQ is worthwhile reading.
In other countries, Australia has FairWear. The Fair Labor Association is based in the US, but also has international locations. The Clean Clothes Campaign has links to other similarly worker-oriented organizations.
Between ecolabels to help consumers understand their clothes and activist groups seeking to empower workers in the garment industry, the challenge for being a responsible fashionista is significant. To some extent, I find myself rather paralyzed when it comes to shopping. Part of it is simply the fact that I don't have unlimited funds. But a larger part is that I don't really want to buy products if the cost to make them involves the suffering of other living beings. There are useful strategies, of course. Becky, who is the rock 'n roll mistress of thrift store discoveries, regularly demonstrates the merits of reusing clothes instead of buying new ones. And through events like Unique LA, it's possible to connect with thoughtful and talented artisans who methods and materials one can know. But the question is: is that enough to start a revolution in fashion? Or are we just doomed to be saddled with consumerism?