Ethical Evolution

Sustainability, social responsibility, corporate ethics. What do all these things have in common? They’re increasingly becoming essential forces that drive consumers’ choices when it comes to buying clothing. For many, shopping is no longer simply about style preferences and prices, but also about ethical considerations—and companies are taking note. On the website of almost every fashion brand, one can find a section dedicated to explaining the brand’s code of ethics and the ways in which it attempts to have a positive social impact.

This phenomenon isn’t new. In the ‘90s, outrage spread about the use of sweatshop labor by countless major fashion brands, most notably Nike and Gap. However, public outcry did not lead to lasting or meaningful change, and in recent years companies such as H&M, Walmart and JCPenney have faced scrutiny over labor violations in their overseas factories. These offenses are changing the way consumers, primarily millennial shoppers, make decisions about what to buy and where to buy it. According to Alice Goody, a retail analyst for Mintel, 44 percent of people in the 17-26 age range say that eco-friendly fabric is something they want to see in the clothing they buy. However, price is still a leading factor, with 80 percent saying that they’re looking for low prices. These two priorities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. H&M, a store typically associated with fast fashion, created a “Conscious Collection” using mainly recycled materials. Many of the initiatives for socially conscious fashion are generated by social media movements. Fashion Revolution, a non-profit global movement, began a social media campaign that encouraged users to share #WhoMadeMyClothes in order to hold fashion companies accountable, and it trended on Twitter with 64 million users sharing it.

Ethics aren’t only important to consumers when it comes to sustainability. In the #MeToo era, shoppers also want to see that the companies they’re spending money on have a healthy corporate environment free from misconduct. The chief executive of Lululemon Athletica resigned after sexual misconduct allegations, and although Lululemon never directly acknowledged the allegations, it released a statement emphasizing that leaders in their organization must set the right tone for its corporate culture. Furthermore, Conde Nast and other publishers banned photographer Terry Richardson at the corporate level last October after countless allegations of sexual assault spanning several years. Companies in the fashion industry understand that consumers won’t tolerate brands that turn a blind eye to misconduct at any level in the company.

However, some efforts on the behalf of companies to improve their social responsibility and ethics don’t seem to be entirely authentic. While H&M did start a collection made of recycled goods, they also continue to be a pillar of fast fashion, producing 600 million garments per year, many of which end up in landfills. Beginning a line of sustainable fashion is a great headline for the brand, but it doesn’t seem to be a meaningful change in its culture of mass production. Additionally, many affected by sexual misconduct in the fashion world do not believe that there has been a true reckoning. Model Louise Parker said in an article for The Cut: “The only thing you can do is be appeasing and enthusiastic. And that’s where the power dynamic comes in, because girls just want to please whoever they are working with and to walk away leaving a good impression. It’s really hard to do that when all you have to give is your body—you’re not giving your brain.”

Consumers feel uneasy about spending money on clothes made by companies who they view as unethical. This means that promoting an image of social responsibility is crucial to fashion brands, whether it’s authentic or not. What’s essential to consumers, especially millennial consumers, has changed significantly over time and it’s no longer enough for a clothing company to merely be cheap and stylish.

EssentialsJean Sanders