Ethical Fashion – A Guide For Independent Labels

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So you want to be an ethical fashion label?

Fashion is about identity. Designers may be as different in their thinking as the clothes they make, but a common thread sewn into every successful label is that fashion isn’t simply about selling clothes – it’s about helping people embody the image they have of themselves by wearing something that represents their inner thoughts and desires.

Think of every big trend in clothing and there’s a psychology of identity behind it. Padded shoulders gave women in the 80s power in an ambitious corporate world – our current obsession with sleek runners and sports brands mirrors a desire to lead a more active, healthy lifestyle.

And identity goes beyond colourways and cuts. Every aspect of your business, from marketing to customer service, counts towards a customer’s evaluation of whether a label “feels right”. Fashion consumers are looking for a deeper affinity with a brand than for almost any other kind of purchase.

What about ethical fashion?

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh reignited the conversation around harmful practices in the clothing industry. Since then a new breed of conscious consumer has begun to question whether the clothes they buy are made in a way that’s consistent with their own values on protecting the planet, people and animals.

This means that showing customers that your supply chain is untainted by the things they oppose isn’t just something that helps you sleep at night – it’s a central and very marketable part of your label, and a new way of locking in with this aspect of your customers’ identity.

It’s true that small labels wanting to put priority on sustainability are faced with a difficult task: they’re limited by time, money and energy. But small steps towards better practices can be instantly rewarding and give your label the impetus to take on more of the challenge.

Here’s Good On You’s tips to get your label started.

Ethical Fashion Quick Wins

Initial steps towards developing a safe and transparent supply chain don’t have to be a drain on a small label’s tight resources. It’s all about finding a focus and setting out your values.

Organic Materials

1. Craft your vision

Be clear on what your brand represents. Your clothing range is a reflection of who your customers are or want to be – but are you taking into account their ethical concerns? Initiate changes that are in line with your social values and those of your customers. Whether it’s associated with social, environmental or animal welfare improvements, start small and increase the impact of the next step with each success.

2. Start with easy fixes

Don’t try and change everything at once. Identify areas in your business that could be changed relatively easily and start there.

Do you use predominantly one material for your clothes? Are garments manufactured in one location? If so, look at options that improve the supply chain transparency in that area of your manufacturing. For example, when you are next searching for a company to supply a particular fabric, use the database of producers supplied by the Global Organic Textile Standard to see if an organic option can be produced to your specifications.

Business Victoria has produced a guide that offers several tips for reducing your environmental impact in the materials you use, the garment process, and marketing.

Another early move for may be the introduction of sustainable carrier bags or packaging that can be reused or recycled, in place of plastics.

Find an initiative that supports your brand, your vision and your unique selling proposition and build from there.

3. Be authentic

It’s easy to talk about being more ethical and responsible in supply chain processes, but make sure you can back up your claims with evidence. Do you actually do what you say you’re doing? According to Rank-a-Brand’s 2014 Feel Good Fashion Report the ‘greenwashing’ of credentials causes long term damage to a label’s reputation and often negates any good work that may have been done.

4. Take your customers on the journey

Talk to your customer base in-store and through marketing channels. Let them know that you’re looking into ways of lowering your footprint as a producer and that you’re interested in their feedback on steps you take. Any new challenge is easier when you’re not doing it on your own.

Putting in a little more effort

Medium term strategies include the implementation of new company policies and management structures to ensure your brand’s vision is met.

5. Know your Supply chain

This is an area where SME’s that are targeting niche markets can establish a clear competitive advantage over larger fashion chains. Transparency and traceability of supply chain processes become disproportionately more difficult as brands and businesses grow in size and geographical spread.

Even so, it’s surprising that, according to the Australian Fashion Report 2013, a large percentage of Australian fashion labels can only provide limited information on their supply chain activities, despite the potential for positive differentiation.

Upstream processes such as the selection of raw materials and textile manufacturing are largely outsourced and generally not controlled by a brand’s management team. Establish a new and sustainable competitive advantage by taking control of these sectors of production.

6. Assign responsibility and accountability

Establish management positions that have clearly defined roles of responsibility and accountability in regards to the achievement of supply chain standards. Just like the rest of your core capabilities, your business structure must directly support and manage your supply chain transparency and standards.

Senior management should lead the process and communicate the importance and benefits of the required changes to those at every level of the business. The outsourcing of this role to independent organizations creates a ‘blind spot’ in the manufacturing process and reduces the level of control and ability of a business to identify and assess potential risks in their supply chain process

7. Supplier Code of Conduct

Develop and publish a ‘Supplier Code of Conduct’ that clearly states your expectations regarding the social and environmental standards of your ethical fashion label.

Be realistic in the development of this document and aim for standards that are achievable now, but can be improved as relationships with suppliers develop.

Codes of Conduct are designed to eliminate any misunderstanding of what is an acceptable ‘standard’. Find examples of codes of conduct from the websites of brands that you look up to for their ethical standards, a good starting point is Mantis World. For best practice start with the Codes of Conduct that comply with the Ethical Trading Initiative.

8. Demonstrate compliance with good practice – get audited, certified or accredited

It’s all very well to have a code of conduct – words on paper – but is it having an impact in the real world? Check whether your suppliers are independently audited or accredited.

Key certifications to consider include:

Schemes offer a range of certifications appropriate to primary production, factories, or complete supply chains.

For Australian manufacturing operations, Ethical Clothing Australia offers accreditation that will help you map your supply chain and verify that all workers in the supply chain in Australia are receiving their legal entitlements.

The new (2015) Child Labour Free accreditation scheme communicates that a brand or product is genuinely free of child labor. The accreditation service extends to full ethical reports (that is a broader range of labour issues are also considered), that can be conducted independently in over 70 countries throughout the world. There are several levels of Child Labor Free accreditation: Manufacturing level, Component level and Source. 100% of the Child Labor Free licensing fee goes into our Foundation who works with international NGOs to support the remediation of children found in labor.
ethical fashion

9.  Access Industry Expertise

Use information that is readily available through national, international and industry initiatives. Multi Stakeholder Initiatives (MSI’s) bring together government, industry bodies, business and community members in order to find solutions to complex problems. Being a member of an MSI allows access to research, information on certified suppliers and creates an international ethical profile for your brand.

Organizations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and the Ethical Fashion Forum provide members with access to information, services, training programs and tools that allow brands to assess their ethical performance and identify areas for immediate and future improvement.

Other sources of expertise include Ethical Clothing Australia, the national and international unions representing clothing industry workers (the TCFUA and Industriall respectively), and industry activist and support bodies such as Fashion Revolution and Clean Cut Fashion (check out CCF’s great glossary on ethical fashion terms mentioned in this article).

10.  Measure and Monitor

To ensure agreed standards are achieved, regular monitoring and audits are required. SMEs can engage private companies to conduct audits, or with appropriate in house personnel can perform the audits themselves. Continual auditing however can prove costly and time consuming, especially for SME’s.

To address this issue, organisations such as SEDEX (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange) provide an audit information sharing facility for members. This reduces the need for duplicate and repetitive auditing and minimizes the cost to individual brands. Online options such as Trade Good are also available.

 Longer term strategies

Long term strategies involve reviewing and improving internal management processes and investing in innovative ideas.


11.  Review and Evaluate Performance 

Monitoring and auditing provides real time information on actual business performance and can be used as a basis for corrective action. This constant evaluation and review of performance is a necessary part of the improvement process.

12. Innovate and Differentiate

Investigate ways to continually differentiate your brand from your competitors and maintain your competitive advantage. Look at incorporating alternative materials, such as bamboo, hemp, or recycled fabrics into your fashion range or offer innovative services that minimize waste and encourage customer loyalty. Be creative, and encourage feedback from all stakeholders.

Examples of innovative initiatives include G-Star, who has teamed up with textile producer Bionic Yarn to create a fashion range using fabric made from recycled plastic removed from the ocean. Nudie Jeans offers a free repair service for damaged or worn out jeans.
Larger companies, such H&M, have initiated a recycling program where consumers receive store credit for donating old clothes (of any brand). This has raised the profile of the ethical clothing issue and has led to consumers being more aware of socially responsible brands. Country Road has a similar recycle program with the Red Cross.

How’s your brand doing? Take action now!

Is is there a step on this journey that you can commit to now? Why not make that commitment in the comments below?

Or are you already taking steps to be more sustainable? Leave a link to your site in the comments below so consumers can find your brand and your ethical fashion commitments.

For consumers

We’re developing a tool that will let you ask your favourite label to make a start on their journey to clean up their fashion footprint… Stay tuned!

This post was originally written by Jenny Greenslade in collaboration with Good On You staff in March 2015. It has been updated with new information from time to time. Jenny is an environmental and waste management consultant with experience in advising a range of businesses on sustainable work practices. She is also a qualified environmental auditor.

Photo credits:
1. Kris Sikes
2. Adam Graham
3. Zanita Whittington
4. Destiny Reflection
5. Garygraphy
Jenny Greenslade

Author Jenny Greenslade

More posts by Jenny Greenslade

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