This week is Fashion Revolution Week where fashion brands and consumers alike come together on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 – the fourth largest industrial disaster in history — to advocate for a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. It is a big mission and there are many ways to get involved as a brand and as a consumer. Today I want to talk about five things you can do as a fashion brand to become a more ethical manufacturer and be part of that better fashion future.
Respect the work
Before you can produce ethically, you need to respect the work that’s being done. Clothing is not sewn by mindless robots; each machine is operated by a real human who is skilled at their trade. It takes time, thoughtful planning, and specialized tools to produce apparel. Don’t minimize the work that goes into it.
When you appreciate the work that goes into making your garments, you understand why it costs money. A big part of ethical production is being willing to pay fair living wages to the people who make your clothes. There is nothing wrong with wanting to minimize costs, but when your goal is to manufacture ethically, you want to make sure that cheaper cost is not coming at the expense of workers. Have respect for the work they do and be willing to pay fairly for it.
Manufacturing ethically will change your approach to pricing and negotiations. Chasing the lowest price and asking a factory if they can lower their price by X amount doesn’t show respect for the work. It is essentially communicating that you think the work they do isn’t worth their asking price. Instead, approach negotiations willing to give and take. If you approach the factory and ask if there is any design or other changes that they would recommend to reduce the cost by X, you are showing that while you do need a lower cost, you are willing to change the scope of work to accomplish that instead of asking them to do the same work for less money. It also shows that you respect their expertise and value their recommendations.
I think another big part of respecting the work is charging fairly for the end product. Not only does charging fairly cover your costs of producing fairly, but it shows the customer the true value of the clothing. Participating in our culture’s obsession with more, cheaper, faster, just further diminishes the work that goes into making clothing.
Recognize the connections
Another part of manufacturing ethically is recognizing connections between your brand, yourself, and others. How does what you do in your job affect the jobs of others before or after you in the production process? Do you make it easier or harder on others? Our actions both as businesses and individuals have an impact on other people and our planet. Manufacturing ethically involves recognizing how we’re all connected and then making choices with the good of all in mind.
Even more so in our global world, our supply chains are a web of connected dots. As we’ve seen all too well through the Covid pandemic, what happens on one side of the world affects us all in some way or another. To manufacture ethically in this globally connected industry, you’ll need to be aware of where your materials and products are being made and how local, national, and global events affect and are affected by your production and the people involved.
Challenge your assumptions
I’ve been giving thought recently to how our assumptions can hinder our ethics even when our intentions are good. And, I’ve come to the conclusion that challenging assumptions is a necessity for ethical manufacturing. Assumptions can create biases and misunderstandings that can prevent us from making the best choice in a situation.
I encourage you to take a second look at the assumptions you might have. Some common ones that I see come up are “made in the USA means its ethically produced and workers are paid fair wages”, “clothing made in China is poor quality”, “things made overseas cost less”, or “if the factory does have certain certifications to prove it, then it isn’t actually sustainable”. Are these really true? What causes you to make the assumption? Considering these things will help you uncover more accurate information and lead you to more ethical decisions for your business.
Share the responsibility
I see the relationship between brand and factory often turn into an us versus them scenario where the brand has all the power and the factory is left with all the responsibility to meet demands, become more sustainable, or bear the financial burden of cancelled orders already in progress. This is unfair. In an ethical reality, the factory and brand are partners and work together on equal standing for the benefit of both parties.
The C-suite and design team are not more important than the sewers and warehouse staff. They all need each other to continue doing their work. The responsibility and risks should fall more equally on both brand and factory to take care of each other, pay workers, split profits and losses fairly, and maintain good working conditions for all involved. Be willing to take responsibility instead of turning a blind eye to concerns.
Ethical manufacturing boils down to valuing humanity and putting people first in your business. Many different hands are involved in producing one garment, each bringing different challenges, skills, and strengths to the process. A successful ethical business is built on relationships of trust and mutual understanding.
Visiting your suppliers and factories goes a long way to grow those relationships. Not only does it give you time to connect with your production partners, but being in the factory and meeting the people will help you better understand their point of view and appreciate their concerns.
Manufacturing ethically is a collaborative process that starts with respect and empathy and then takes responsible action for a better fashion industry future.