Environmental, social and ethical pressures on the global textiles and fashion sector emerged in Europe in the early 1980s. The main driver was consumer concern over the safety of the materials. However in parallel with this trend, a minority group of ethical consumers demanded “chemical-free” and low environmental impact clothing and fashion goods.
This resulted in the European and later the US organic labeling system being extended to include criteria for clothing and textiles, such as organic cotton. As of 2007, the sector was the fastest growing part of the global cotton industry with growth of more than 50% a year. With reference to safety standards, primarily addressing consumer concern over chemicals in textiles, the Oeko-Tex standard has become highly popular in the industry. Although unknown to consumers, It tests for chemicals such as flame retardants in clothes and categorizes goods according to their likely exposure to humans (e.g. baby clothes must adhere to the strictest standards for chemicals).
Thus the issue of chemicals in clothing has become largely one of liability risk control for the industry with the consumers obviously expecting products to pose no risk to their health. Organic and eco fashion and textiles attracts a far smaller, but fast growing group of consumers, largely in Western Europe and Coastal US.
Of far greater concern to the global fashion sector is the issue of worker welfare. The issue was highlighted by pressure groups such as Global Exchange in the US targeting Levis and Nike and others.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s anecdotal evidence began emerging from labor activists in the US and Europe concerning the supply chains and overseas factories of leading US and European multinationals. A key target was the world’s leading maker of denim jeans Levi Strauss, but more significantly Nike, the world’s largest sports shoe marketing firm. Global Exchange launched its Nike Anti Sweatshop campaign, focusing on the firms sourcing in China and Indonesia.
Issues included child labor, minimum wages, working hours and employee benefits. Activists argued that such issues should not differ too widely from standards mandatory in the West, while Nike argued at the time that differing national economic and social conditions dictated different standards globally. A good deal of negotiations and stakeholder meetings led to a generally accepted code of practice for labor management in developing countries acceptable to most parties involved. The SA 8000 emerged as the leading industry driven voluntary standard on worker welfare issues.
SA 8000 supporters now include the GAP, TNT and others and SAI reports that as of 2008, almost 1 million workers in 1700 facilities have achieved SA 8000 certification. Such a certification requires investment in the process but also more significantly in changing labor practices such as wage structures. It is clearly being driven by large US and European multinationals that may require certain suppliers to gain certification.
The Fair Trade movement has also had a significant impact on the fashion business. The standard combines a number of ethical issues of potential concern to consumers – environmental factors, fair treatment of developing country suppliers and worker welfare. The Fair Trade label has show explosive growth.
Albeit on a very small scale and not always at the top end of the fashion industry, many niche brands have emerged which promote themselves primarily on sustainability grounds People Tree in the UK states that it “creates Fair Trade and organic clothing and accessories by forming lasting partnerships with Fair Trade, organic producers in developing countries. Leading fashion journal Marie Claire ranked its “top 10” eco brands in a recent issue.
The key issues remain chemicals in clothing (certified by organic and Fair Trade labels), worker treatment (certified by SA 8000 and Fair Trade) and increasingly mainstream environmental issues such as climate change. The Carbon Reduction Label verifies a product’s cradle-to-grave carbon footprint, although is not specific to clothing. Mainstream brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, H&M and Zara have been slower to make firm commitments on the full rage of ethical issues due to the difficulties of switching their supply chains and products lines completely in favor of organic or Fair Trade certified or other standards and norms.
They are however, moving slowing to ensure they capture the market if it becomes significant – the world’s largest fashion brand Louis Vuitton recently acquired a small eco fashion label. It is clear, however from the example of Nike and Levis, however that certain issues are here to stay, such as a demand by Western consumers that leading brands manage the issue of worker welfare in their supply chain properly.