Words Alberte Rothenborg
Sustainability is IT. We buy organic eggs, let H&M recycle our old sweater and drive environmentally friendly cars (or so we are lead to believe). Sustainable choices are slowly integrating into our everyday lives, regarding various options and enlightenment. The growing focus on sustainable solutions is without a doubt a success and a step in the right direction. Even though sustainability has become much more than a green wave, I continue to feel we turn the blind side to issues that are not right under our noses. I'm talking about social sustainability.
Sustainability is often measured by the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. But social sustainability (people) is probably the least defined aspect of sustainability, partly because it has had substantially less attention in the public dialogue, but in my opinion, also because it is out of sight, out of mind. The term is almost too complex to define in one sentence; however, I will try and simplify it. Social sustainability is the social impact; ensuring socially fair and safe working conditions for every human being throughout the supply chain (let's mention human rights, fair wages, labour contracts, corporate responsibility, no child labour and sweetshop-free working environment). Unfortunately, it is easy to forget when the real issues are on the other side of the world, in countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh and China where our clothes are made.
Today there are between 100 and 200 million children working in sweatshops, creating the unregulated market of cheap and fast fashion. The price we pay for clothes is in no way reflected in the wage of garment workers or cotton pickers. A garment worker’s wage is only 1-3% of the total cost of most clothing – an average of 25 cents per hour, under horrible and unsafe working conditions. It can be seen as modern-day slavery. A truth most consumers and designers are not aware of. Cheap and fast fashion makes us live in denial and turn the blind eye to the consequences and human sacrifices around the world, created by our consumer choices. The biggest challenge is a lack of transparency in the supply chain and use of subcontractors, making it impossible for designers to know the social standards of their production (I could talk about this forever, but instead recommend Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s 20 minutes episode on Fast Fashion).
It cost 1137 lives, and thousands of injured garment workers when the Rana Plaza Factory collapsed in 2013 before we began to seriously debate the reality of garment production. The catastrophe raised the question: “who made my clothes?” Which has become the slogan for the international campaign Fashion Revolution, raising awareness of the horrible conditions for garment workers around the world. Furthermore, it has kick-started a wave of documentaries like The True Cost of Fast Fashion (if you missed out on Less Magazine screening in May, it is now available on Netflix). Aftenposten's “reality-show” Sweatshop - Deadly Fashion, sends Norwegian teenage bloggers to Cambodia to experience life as a garment worker. And the podcast series Behind the Thread, tells the untold stories of the people and places that make your clothes.
Rana Plaza has raised awareness and enlightened us about the problems and lack of social sustainability in the fashion industry. But has anything actually changed? According to Ecouterre’s Samantha Maher “(…) workers are still earning poverty wages, union organizers are still being threatened and attacked, and workers and their families are still are awaiting full compensation.” Accord of Fire and Building Safety has inspected 2000 factories, to assess how safe the work environments really are, and caused several to shut down. So there are a lot of talks, yet the industry doesn't change overnight.
The Rana Plaza collapse has created a demand for transparency. Companies like Everlane and Nudie Jeans, have opened up about their production processes and factories, to let customers know the story behind their clothes. Furthermore, Danish brand Under Protection and Swedish house Acne Studios have joined the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), an independent, non-profit organization that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. So designers and brands are slowly starting acknowledging their responsibility and social impact. Some by collaborating with factories to improve the social standards of garment production. Others have taken the matter into their own hands by starting independent ethical production or by working with only one manufacturer to maintain a close and transparent relationship. Fortunately, new brands are trying to use fashion for a good cause. But to succeed in transparency, enlightenment and better standards are essential. Designers as well as consumers have to actively create and demand the change. We have the innovation, money and opportunity to restart. The Rana Plaza was a disaster, but it opened for an opportunity to create change. We have to start somewhere and we can begin by making conscious choices.
The Conscious Choice
As a consumer making conscious choices can be like navigating through a jungle. It has become easier to obtain organic basics for your wardrobe, but a lot of companies are stretching even further to create change and focus on social sustainability. These brands are not necessarily Fair Trade Certified, but each one considers their social impact and produce in an ethical way that considers both people and the planet.
Nudie Jeans - Reuse, Repair, Recycle
Swedish Nudie Jeans is a frontrunner and are especially renowned for holistic sustainability: "(we) do not envisage a trade-off between profit and people, or between manufacture and environmental responsibility”. They are transparent about their operations from beginning to end and on their website, they guide you through their supply chain. Nudie Jeans don’t own the garment factories they produce in, but they collaborate closely with them to create the best ethical working environment. As a member of the FAIR WEAR FOUNDATION, they act responsibly to ensure that people involved in the manufacturing of their clothes are working under safe and fair conditions. Nudie’s philosophy is based on their triple R-program: reuse, recycle and repair. They recommend only washing your jeans every 6 months, and provide free repairs in their shops around the world. They recycle your old jeans and give you a discount on your next pair. In 2012 they reached their goal of 100% organic cotton production - next step is 100% transparency.
Aiayu - Empowering knitwear
Danish Aiayu says the idea of introducing good quality sustainable knitwear began with a llama. A journey to Bolivia and a financial grant from DANIDA to improve working conditions and decrease the environmental impact proved to be only the beginning of their journey. Twice have they been rewarded with the prize of ”Ethical Brand of the Year”, and in 2015, they were nominees at ELLE Style Award 2015 in the category ”CSR Brand of the Year”. Aiayu works with only one manufacturer in El Alto, Bolivia, who covers the entire supply chain from sorting of fibers to dyeing, spinning and finishing production. This ensures full transparency of their supply chain and cuts cost on shipping and transportation. The company includes sustainability in several aspects of their business mainly focusing on long lasting quality and timeless designs. They make zero waste designs from their scrap materials, reuse 75% of their water and cherish the story and craftsmanship of their products, as well as the people who made it.
Dorsu - Know who made it
The Cambodian/Australian brand believes clothing can create change. They do it by reconnecting consumer and producer. Each item is signed by the person who made it, and at dorsu.org, you can learn more about the woman who made your clothes. Dorsu ethically produces in their own workshop in Cambodia under safe and fair working conditions. To minimize waste, they reuse fabric remnants from surrounding garment factories, which would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Dorsu originally started as a supporting business for the local Chumkriel Language School (CLS) and continues to financially support them to ensure community development and education in Kampot, Cambodia.
Nisolo Shoes - Handmade in Peru
Nisolo started with the idea of creating a business with social impact as the core. Co-founder, Patrick Woodyard, was working in development and microfinance in Trujillo, Peru when he met a group of shoemakers who possessed remarkable talent yet lacked access to consistent work, money and established markets. By connecting the craftsmen with the western market, Nisolo turned into a lifestyle brand committed first and foremost to ethical production and the well-being of its producers. Their shoes, bags and jewellery are all handmade in Peru.