Yesterday, we attended a talk about sustainable and ethical fashion at the Fashion Culture Design UnConference—and we wish we could say we left feeling hopeful.



Industry Experts On 5 Things You Need to Know About Fast Fashion

Ethical work practices and sustainability are topics that continually come up in the fashion industry—and with good reason. After the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan in 1911, the curtain had been lifted, exposing the senseless and horrific conditions that riddle garment factories around the world. One would think—one would hope—that, over a century later, things have changed and improved, and yet to say that is even a stretch. The only thing that’s changed is that people have become better at hiding these problems. Thankfully, however, there are people like Julie Zerbo—founder of The Fashion Law and all around G—who’s devoted her career to combatting these problems. And who, as a result of her say-it-like-it-is approach to fashion law, was perhaps the most divisive panelist at one of the talks yesterday at the much-anticipated Fashion Culture Design UnConference. The talk was titled, “Is There a Responsible Way to Produce and Consume Fast Fashion?” and, in addition to Zerbo, there was The Guardian’s Dominic Rushe, fashion consultant Julie Gilhart, and Sustainability Manger of H&M’s UK and Ireland departments Catarina Midby leading the panel.

Below, we’ve compiled some of the highlights.

Rana Plaza Tragedy Was Horrific, But Also One of Many

The Rana Plaza tragedy refers to the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh—a building that housed clothing factories—that collapsed in 2013 and resulted in over 1100 deaths. When discussing ethical work practices in factories, people often (and rightfully) refer to this particular event. But Zerbo made a good point yesterday at the talk: “There have been a number of other tragedies since Rana Plaza in factories, including ones that supply H&M, unfortunately. There have been fires—just last week there were two fires.” In fact, a study was recently released that reported innumerable unethical working conditions for workers making H&M clothes, such as “low wages, fixed-term contracts, forced overtime and loss of job if pregnant.” Yesterday, Zerbo was neither afraid to address this report directly to Midby, nor to express her deep “disappointment” with it. And yeah, tbh, it was kind of awkward.


Why Aren’t Their Laws Set in Place?

Fashion consultant Julie Gilhart asked this question. As a consumer, she said, she wants to know that there are laws set in place, and that, if people break these laws, there will be consequences. According to Rushe, we do indeed have laws—just not at the local level. “I think what’s important to remember is we don’t own any factories,” Midby added. “And we work with very many factories that also produce for other brands [that are] far more expensive [and at a totally] different level than we are. So you can’t really change anything [by yourself].” To her credit, she said she is doing everything she can, and has a “very strict code of conduct.” But ultimately, to make real changes, H&M’s values must align with those of the other brands that work with H&M’s suppliers.

Some Fast Fashion Companies are Better Than Others

While it’s true that fast fashion doesn’t exactly have the best rap when it comes ethical work practices, some companies are more ethical than others. In addition to the “strict codes” she’s helped set in place, Midby spoke of H&M’s Fair Living Wage program, which works to make sure that, by 2018, H&M’s “strategic suppliers” are all paying their employees a fair wage.

A shot from Vivienne Westwood’s 2011 Ethical Fashion Africa campaign, in which she enlisted women in Nairobi to make bags out of sustainable materials, in highly ethical working conditions. In other words, Queen.

To Make a Difference, Start Small

“The stigma isn’t there anymore,” Zerbo said of shopping fast fashion. And it’s true. It’s almost as if buying fast fashion has become the new, coveted steal you found on sale. The pride you’d usually reserve for waiting in a four-hour line to get into a sample sale, and emerging with a 90% off full Prada look, is now totally applicable to finding something cute at your neighborhood Zara or H&M. And this, despite the fact that these are no “finds” or “steals” at all, but rather a garment that’s only cheap because it’s mass produced and unethically made. Gilhart confirmed this when she said that now, in the industry, tons of women shop fast fashion. “I mean I’m very tuned into a Barney’s customer, and she’s okay to buy something that’s really nicely made at H&M. It’s totally okay—and in some circles, it’s kinda cool.”

Unfortunately, it’s almost an accepted truth now that there’s no hope in fully eradicating fast fashion. “We’re not looking to change the world,” Zerbo said. “I don’t think we could fix fast fashion today, tomorrow, in a year from now. There’s always going to be a demand for low cost clothing.” What we can fix, however, are the flaws that are smaller-scale and much more basic but still tremendously essential to these workers’ livelihoods. Zerbo brought this up and cited “basic inadequacies, like fire extinguishers or fire exits or first aid kits.” She added, “I think that we can’t get lost and overlook these small changes that need to be made, by focusing on this, ‘let’s transform fast fashion customers into high fashion customers.’ That’s just dumb.”

I smell a boss.

Time to Call These Companies Out—and to Fact Check

Ultimately, if you want to improve the livelihood of these workers, then you have to actively call out these big retailers. When covering sustainable and ethical fashion companies and brands, publications tend to focus on the ones that are making headways—that are doing good. But the moderators at yesterday’s talk urged us to focus on the companies that aren’t doing good as well. “Push companies to tell the truth; if they won’t tell you anything, they’re hiding something. If they’ll tell you everything, then you have the right, and the obligation, to explore what they say, and check with them and get them to give you examples of that,” he said.

At one point, Midby mentioned that she’d be proud to wear something that was made in Bangladesh. To which Zerbo cut her off with “Ooooh no. Not me!” “You should come; I was there two months ago and the factories we work with are amazing,” Midby said. To which Zerbo replied, “But to be fair, they’re not going to take [you] to one that’s going to fall down or have a fire or where they’re being abused.” And that, my friend, is how you professionally burn.

Stay tuned to Milk fore more on ethical and sustainable fashion. 

Images via Catalogue and Fashionista.

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