By Sarah Portway
Sarah Portway has 10 years of fashion industry experience as both a retailer and educator. She has earned a Master’s Degree in Fashion from Ryerson University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Art from the University of Guelph. Portway has also been honored with several prestigious awards, notably including a current Doctoral Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Portway is undertaking her Ph.D. in Apparel Design at Cornell University and expects to graduate in 2018.
There is a growing market for organic, fair-trade, vegan, natural, not-tested-on-animals, do-good, and sometimes green-washed products. These products proudly boast the promise of “responsible consumerism” from their shelves to sooth the pain of the 10% premium we are usually willing to pay. But what’s behind these labels? It’s been shown repeatedly that most consumers don’t know. This diatribe will describe why some producers don’t know either, and how their ignorance is keeping them out of the competitive market for these products.
For our purposes, I will call a consumer who makes purchasing decisions based on certifications and other eco-labeling a ‘green consumer.’ Green is a colour, not a behavior, but let’s put that aside for now due to the brevity of this post. Everyone else is doing it. Green consumers are shopping for what they think are more environmentally or socially ‘responsible’ products. They assess this instantaneously based on labeling which attempts to communicate a myriad of ‘responsible’ criteria from labourer’s wages to waste management. Given this range, let’s also isolate organic cotton apparel labels for a closer inspection, also in the name of brevity.
If we can cautiously sample a dash of theory from Cornell University economist Dr. Robert Frank (The Darwin Economy), and accept that individual and group actions often diverge, organic cotton seems like it would be rather self-evidently for the ‘greater good.’ If this were true, we could spare the next 600 words (or so); we can’t. Herein lies to crux of this argument: what has been marketed as a ‘responsible’ product that benefits the group through lowered pesticide use, actually prioritizes individual (read: American) cotton interests over the rights of organic farmers who lack fiscal resources and English education. Since group and individual actions diverge, organic cotton certification isn’t exemplary of Frank’s good-for-the-group.
On the white, fluffy face of it, organic cotton has promise. It promises to avoid contamination of land and water. It promises longer-term, slow-and-steady crop yields in lieu of unsustainable rapid over-growth which bleeds the soil of vital nutrients in mono-crop practices. These are all good promises for the group (human kind). All you need to show you’ve made this noble contribution to the group is a brightly coloured and easily recognized certification label on the product. That’s the value of your product for the green consumer: differentiation through labeling, when other things remain equal. Imagine the over-used and tired example of the infamous plain-white cotton t-shirt, one bears a ‘certified organic’ label and one does not. That label is the one chance you get to tell this customer that you made your cotton ‘green’, just for them. Just for everyone.
Pietra Rivoli is a professor of finance and international business in the McDonough School of Business, at Georgetown University. Leafing through her pioneering text Travels of T-Shirt Through the Global Economy forces the question: what about fair competition? Poor countries should have an advantage in the organic cotton business. Organic cotton is more labor intensive than conventionally grown because of the use of mechanical pest control over chemical. The United States has higher wages than Africa (for example), ergo Africa should be able to compete in this market. Perhaps more importantly in the African context, the farmers were already growing organically because of financial barriers prohibiting access to pesticides and herbicides. These are far too costly for your average small African farmer. So are the defoliants; cotton was already hand-picked (a sign of higher quality in the world of fashionable goods). As Rivoli rightly points out, Africa will be left out of this product-positioning arms race also.
Getting organic certification isn’t easy and it is extremely costly. If some African farmers had a hard time affording pesticides to save a year’s crop, they will find it absolutely impossible to afford third-party organic certification. Counter-intuitively, in addition to having more labor and water inputs, organic cotton also costs money to certify. The certification itself must be mostly a marketing mechanism because some farmers are organic without the label, but well-intentioned green consumers have been trained to look for these labels. No label means no trust, therefore no 10% premium price hike will be paid (which probably just barely pays for the farmer’s cost of certification anyhow). Even the green consumers’ noble attempts at supporting small organic African farms will be thwarted by the lack of labeling on these products. Therefore, the very regulation limiting the freedom to use pesticides, which was supposed to be good-for-the-group, will necessarily fall short of that goal. Instead, it is just another market mechanism preventing green consumers from reaching responsible products. It serves the individual (wealthy, subsidized American cotton) interests.
This point is salient enough, but I will add some more threads to the weave. Organic certification bodies use English. Or at least, they use some form of English. The English used in the certification forms and regulations is so convoluted it is difficult for even native English speakers to read. In fact (and somewhat embarrassingly), it was even difficult for a Ph.D. student at an American Ivy League school to decode. These forms require a reading level that is a challenge for even the most educated. I’ve done some light gardening, and from experience (if you’ll allow some comedic respite) I’m certain that reading ability does not influence a farmer’s ability in the field. A farmer may have the best crop of premium organic cotton you’ve ever seen, lush and fluffy, white as a cloud, even the name “Round-Up” may never have been breathed in the same county as this prestigious cotton, but the green consumer is never going to find it if the farmer cannot read, or if they can’t afford someone to read for them.
This attempt at policy in the name of the group good falls short. It costs the individuals at a low end of the global income gap, the very people your average green consumer thinks they are supporting with their ‘responsible’ purchases. If you can’t read, apparently you can’t farm either… or at least you’ll never be able to compete with English-reading cotton farmers. This still-developing policy is a wolf in sheep’s clothes, all puns intended. It protects the body of English-reading global cotton farmers, while leaving the rest of the world out in the cold. In the heat of the African sun where farmers will always be too poor to pollute, but too ignorant to communicate it, it’s always going to be a cold market.
Until we describe a better policy.... but that’s going to need another 30,000 words or so.
I have grown up in a country, in a society, in a family and environment where the most beautiful and natural materials to use and wear were made from our fellow companions on this earth.
In Denmark, where I was born, the Queen wears fur as royals before her have and in Denmark we are one of the worlds biggest producers of minkfur. Some of the most recognized and acknowledged Danish furniture architects use hides from animals in their designs combined with wood or metals.
This is considered normal and accepted, but also fashionable, trendy and as a means of exhibiting a social position dependent on design.
’Non-human animals’ are creatures who show characteristics obeserved in humans but not enough characteristics to be considered a human. The term has been used in a variety of contexts.
As a fashiondesigner, an activist, a (social) entrepreneur and an ethicist, I have to question what we take for granted in our everyday life both as a maker but also as a consumer. I consider this to be a serious part of my job. To be curious and to see stuff, products, clothing from all possible angles. I must examine not only design and the outcome to make sure it is useable and meets its purpose but also examine the production behind the end product.
A part of my personal task includes the fact that I would like to inspire and encourage everyone else to make the effort to think about what they surround themselves with. What is ’this product’? What is it made from? Where and by whom? If it was made next door and this process could be witnessed, would you support it, put in the order or become the owner of that specific product?
Very early in my teens I decided not to participate in this world’s consumerism, which led me to take an active part in how we work and produce in the fashion and lifestyle industry.
After I graduated from The Royla Danish Design School, KADK in1994, my colleagues and I started a ’Sustainable Solution Design Association’ and a small brand called Paradigm (http://adrude.dk/?page_id=211&lang=en).
Supported financially by the Danish Ministry of Environment, the Green Foundation, our goal was to promote inspiration for sustainable fashion and organic products that targeted the lifestyle and fashion industry. We made fashion shows, lectured and gave talks, wrote articles and participated in several exhibitions to promote the subject ’Sustainable Fashion’.
We were among the few pioneers at that time who were trying to wake up a world and an industry which was swathed in a web of luxury dreams. But at that time the fashion world was not ready to take in the message -- not in Denmark nor in the rest of the world. The message was quickly turned into an economic gain for the fast fashion companies as a huge trend that dissapeared after only season and became a contra trend where all products had to be synthetic materials in psychedelic colors.
During these past 25 years we have seen a huge change going on in the western world. Though too many fast fashion companies are still operating against all odds for future generations to survive, more and more companies have taken their share of responsibility and recognize that the challenges within this industry must be taken seriously and changed. But to put it mildly let’s just say there is certainly room for improvements. The absolute contradiction is out there to be solved.
Anyway, the message is recognized and acknowledged, the information and knowledge is being shared and comprehended between designers, students, businesses, shareholders, and consumers. Research is going on at many levels ranging from grassroots experiments to large corporations researching and investing in future sustainable production methods.
Small steps in the right direction – or as we say, searching for some sort of eternal truth to lift the burden and responsibility from our own shoulders. But in all this we missed out on one subject. We talk about pollution, organic products versus manmade and conventional products, recycling and labour rights. Humans, earth, water, sky and heaven are mentioned and noticed. Described and fought for. These are subjects we as human beings can accept, comprehend and understand. But one subject is still missing out. The millions of animals used in this industry are not being addressed. Who within our own field has been doing research about the non-human animals?
Every five days approximately 619 million animals are being slaughtered, equivalent to approximately 55 billion animals per year. These are the animals being used in the food industry. The animals which are included only in the textile and clothing industry -- rabbits, mink, crocodiles, silk larvae -- are not being calculated into the aforementioned numbers. These numbers will be very hard to find.
So I believe, the next step in the fashion, textile and lifestyle industries has to be facing this very challaenging subject. It is a subject where it will be possible to find just as many opinions as people and cultures in the world. Nevertheless, it is a subject to be placed at the top of todays agenda on sustainability and in how to make people, nature and animals flourish.
As it turns out more and more consumers are surrounding themselves with and wearing products from animals, not only in a historical context of necessaity but also as something that is done all over the world in the name of luxury, pleasure and status.
At the same time, we find the opposite going on in the food industry where more and more consumers, exspecially young people are raising awareness regarding the consumption of meat. They are doing so - based on facts of the cruelty going on in this industry but also because of the problems related to environmental factors regarding water consumption, carbon emission and deforesting.
Bascically the battlefield within fashion and lifestyle products made from non-human animals could be divided into two obvious camps: Those against, who we can call ’the extreme activists’ and the majority, who have chosen to turn a blind eye to the problems and challenges faced philosophically. Those who use traditions, cultures or forces of the market as an excuse to not become informed on the level needed to actually make descisions involving products from other living beings are just such a majority.
The fact is that this topic has not yet been described or discussed at all as is the case with other environmental issues or every other subject related to the value chain within the fashion and textile industry. But this subject very challenging to access and also provocative in its context as it contains elements that affects our own history, culture and traditions, that without an introduction or set of guidelines on how to make sense and justify behavior, the challenge is even greater.
This is why I have contributed an article to the book Green Fashion (recently published by Springer Science) called ”Animal Ethics and Welfare in the Fashion and Lifestyle Industries”. This article deals specifically with the ethics of the animals we use in the fashion and lifestyle industry and how on access this subject. It provides an introduction to how some of the world's largest and most recognized scientists and ethicists relate to ethics and animal welfare in general. It also serves as a guide to deal with these issues as a designer and the choices that must be made when designing products that incorporate elements from non-human animals. These can range from skins for fur, feathers or insects such as the silkworm, which has been produced for a millennia and is considered one of the world's finest fibers.
Included in the article is a general review of all the animals that are a part of this industry, as well as a brief description of the environmental challenges that can occur within each topic. It suggests links and references, on a single topic or a single animal breed. My article does not provide definitive solutions or guidelines, but leaves it to the reader to decide what should be ethical choices should be for working within the field of sustainability.
“The problem is that humans have victimized animals to such a degree that they are not even considered victims. They are not even considered at all. They are nothing. They don't count, they don't matter, they're commodities like T.V sets and cell phones. We have actually turned animals into inanimate objects - sandwiches and shoes.” -Gary Yourofsky
During the last 25 years Drude-katrine Plannthin has been working to disseminate knowledge on the topic of sustainable and environmentally-friendly fashion design and production. She describes herself as a fashion activist, who has a sense, an attitude, and a thought behind her work. In recent years, she co-wrote the handbook Guidelines II with colleagues from the Sustainable Solution Design Association. She offers talks, lectures, counseling or teaching in Danish and English, and as a guest instructor, she targets secondary schools, colleges, design schools and private companies.