Wearing Our Values
Re/Make-ing Fashion Week
By Anne Whiting
During the first week of September, most of Manhattan’s fashion enthusiasts flocked in frenzies to NYFW runways, launch parties, and live Instagram feeds in a mad dash to consume the hype. Despite the glorified new trends set to inspire am overhaul of mass-produced, fast fashion storefronts, some of us spent a day of Fashion Week at Athleta’s 5th Avenue flagship for a series of discussions calling for a kinder and cleaner fashion industry.
Titled “Wear Your Values” by the Human Rights Foundation, the day featured keynote speakers, pop-up shops, and FLOW Natural Alkaline Water (bottled in recyclable, biodegradable Tetra Paks), and was hosted in part by Remake—a nonprofit organization focused on making fashion a force for good through advocating for garment workers’ rights, and educating consumers about conscious clothing choices. Remake emphasizes mindfulness in contemplating the meaning of fashion trends, and thinking about those who might be suffering behind the scenes of our shopping addictions.
“What would it really look like if you were to actively wear your values?” urged Camille Hautefort, founder of the ethical-impact jewelry company Article 22. She handed me a custom aluminum bangle made out of shrapnel from bombshells in Laos. I took a picture for social media. It was a powerful question.
On that Friday afternoon, for me, wearing my values looked like the pricey, sustainably-dyed, block-printed dress I was wearing. Sure, we were in the basement of a mass-market athleisure wear company—but one that has taken strides to seriously incorporate sustainability and the empowerment of women into their supply chain and business practices. Actually, Athleta recently became a B Corp, and is poised to be an example of positive change in the larger fashion industry—thus, making it the perfect backdrop for the discussions ahead.
First Panel: Wear Your Values Workshop
I headed downstairs to the first Wear Your Values Workshop—essentially, a panel on how (as we at SUSTAIN like to say) it’s time to give a damn. Remake Ambassador, Ruby Veridiano, presented striking videos and pictures (noting visual tools as important for storytelling, and thus, for change) to guide guests through the basics of sustainable fashion—adding how a push for a more ethical garment industry is also an urgent feminist cause. She handed out sticky notes and had us write down what came to mind when we learned that girls on the other side of the world were spending the entirety of their days pulling out tiny extraneous pieces of thread from jeans. My Post-It read: “[Workers’] thoughts while making the clothes, stitch by stitch, hour by hour, trapped in a giant factory facility.”
In the current garment assembly line model, one pair of jeans costing less than $20 can pass through 100 pairs of human hands. So, how much do you think each of these people are getting paid? You do the math.
80% of workers in the garment industry are women in their early twenties.
Second Panel: Promoting Women’s Rights in Fashion
Next, we sat down with amazing women for a discussion titled “Promoting Women’s Rights in Fashion”—a.k.a. a confirmation of Veridiano’s case that ethical, sustainable fashion is also a feminist movement. 80% of the people who make our clothes around the world are women between the ages of 18 to 34. There are a number of companies starting to put women’s rights on corporate agendas. We heard from the Gap Foundation (holding company of Athleta) about Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement) initiative for female garment workers. Aditi Mohapatra of HERproject, Smita Paul of Indigo Handloom, and Aissata Camara of the There Is No Limit Foundation all chimed in about about how keeping women’s rights in mind is imperative to revolutionizing this beautiful, but dirty fashion industry.
Women working in factories are often providing for a family. Therefore, safe working conditions, fair wages, and compassionate treatment are vital to the empowerment of families and communities as a whole.
Slow fashion is better for job creation: the handloom employs nine times as many people as machine-made fabrics. Small-batch making can take place in smaller, more diverse areas, which allows industry to foster rural areas so that people don’t have to leave their families in order to find work. (This is especially true as large factories in cities begin to favor automation instead of human hands.)
When shopping, do a little research: check to see if a company is taking the betterment of women’s conditions into consideration. With both internal and external initiatives such as the guidance of organizations like HERproject, it’s pretty easy for big companies to give back. In fact, it’s becoming the new standard.
Third Panel: The Power of Fashion as a Tool for Sustainable Change
I’d rename this “Brands That Make a Difference, But Struggle to be Profitable While Caught in the Catch-22 that is Having to Advocate Less While Still Needing to Sell”. The enlightening entrepreneurs we heard from included ethical jewelry brand founder Gwen Floyd of Soko, Hautefort of Article 22, Joyce Lannigan of Raw Spirit Fragrances, and Johan Stahl of the provocative eyewear brand, Dear Leader. They spoke of the importance of scaling businesses that do good in order to do more good, but how it can be hard to ensure that fair, sustainable practices are maintained throughout a larger supply chain. Lannigan, for example, has a partnership with Walmart, and Floyd also sells Soko through Amazon. Keeping an eye on the ethical standards of larger companies continues to be of importance, and all stakeholders (from people to the environment) need to be taken into account.
On top of competing with bigger brands with established brand recognition, ethical brands are often times more expensive to sustain. Barenblat called the discussion “a niche conversation versus a three trillion dollar industry”—highlighting the challenge for smaller companies to grow and create a positive impact, and the importance of showing support through purchase.
Growing a small-batch, ethical supply chain into a large, highly-productive supply chain can be tricky, when working with big retailers that want to squeeze margins. But a willingness to partner with big business is paramount to taking advantage of revenue-generating opportunities that allow companies with good missions to carry out their goals.
Fourth Panel: The Power of Informed Consumption
Next was “The Power of Informed Consumption,” in which sustainable fashion’s beloved Patrick Duffy (founder of the Global Fashion Exchange) brought joyful energy to this second-to-last hour, speaking with Remake’s founder Ayesha Barenblat, Renee Peters of Model4GreenLiving, and Carmen Gama, a designer at the sustainably-minded brand Eileen Fisher. The common thread weaved through all their thoughts? A necessary ingredient for all change is mindful consumption habits. Of course, there’s a lot to keep in mind: “the intersection of human rights and the environment—not just fair wage but also waste, carbon, and water…” said Barenblat of mindful (headache inducing?) shopping.
I liked Peters’ advice: When buying clothes, think a little harder about the questions: What do we really enjoy? What do we feel confident wearing? Is it a sweatshirt we know we won’t like next week, or is it a piece we know looks amazing, and which we’ll wear again and again, and love to tell its story?
“I haven’t bought new clothes in four years,” said Duffy with a smile.
Informed consumption also means mindful consumption.
If you can’t buy clothes to last, consider renting. This may effectively lessen the need for fashion companies to produce in excess.
The power of informed consumption? It’s your vote with your wallet.
I never can help wondering about the irony between the third and fourth panels: the need to scale an ethical business, versus the painfully obvious math that concludes that change also comes from consuming (and thus making) less. How do we reconcile promoting our products and encouraging people to buy new things that provide jobs and empower women, when constantly making new things is the root cause of the clutter we’re contending with?
Fifth Panel: Technology in Promoting Human Rights & Transparency in Supply Chains
Last, but certainly not least, the role of Technology in Promoting Human Rights & Transparency in Supply Chains. In other words, is blockchain the answer? Can AI technology (rather than robotic machines) help to create supply chain transparency and secure the human rights of fashion workers? Ben Siegel of ConsenSys moderated while listeners heard from fashion-and-tech pioneers Martine Jarlgaard, SourceMap’s Leonardo Bonanni, Fashion 4 Freedom founder LanVy Nguyen, and Mounir Ibrahim of True Pic. According to them, blockchain tech’s ability to reveal the origins of components of clothes is a bit like nutrition facts on food (and should, I’d argue, be required). That could be the key to ensuring a more positive future. Some new designers, like Gabriella Fernandes-DaSilva, of the sustainable, ethical brand Consists Of, are already eager to try and incorporate the tech into their budding companies.
Total transparency? That’s a lot of pressure. Would more brands like Athleta be willing to reveal everything about their supply chain? Perhaps not yet, but the fact that a staple American brand that fled to offshore production with the rest of the fashion industry in the ‘90s is recognizing its own impact and entertaining a vulnerable conversation about change is another sign of change. More and more companies like Apple are actually becoming more resilient by making sure their supply chains hold the same values as the companies do themselves, noted Bonnani. This is perhaps because transparency and good ethics are slowly becoming the new standard in global business. It’s good to hear that smaller, ethical companies are having an impact on the mindsets of larger establishments like Athleta.
But when it comes to opting for clothing alternatives, would Fortune 500 companies like Gap Inc. be that thrilled if we all did start heavily swapping, renting, thrifting, and buying things to last a lot longer than their upcoming shipments? If we buy less, their numbers go down. And with it, their stock value, and thus their company power.
“Fast fashion is like Tinder,” Barenblat noted with a laugh. “When it comes to your clothes, look for marriage material!”
And if you’re a millennial afraid of commitment? Feeling out options? Maybe, if you can’t buy less, do try to buy better.
Photographs Courtesy of Remake, by Ankur Maniar