“Alternative” or “Ethical” Clothes

What is ethical fashion?

A number of initiatives selling clothes that are calling themselves “ethical”, “alternative” or “fairly produced” have sprung up following campaigns by the international anti-sweatshop movement and increased consumer interest in fair trade and ethical shopping. These initiatives aim to promote the idea of a more ethical clothing industry and/or meet the demands of a rising number of individual and institutional consumers for “clean clothes”.

The standards and processes these initiatives use vary greatly. For the concerned consumer, it is important to be able to assess and compare these differing approaches and to look critically at claims made by the new ethical market. Of course, for the Clean Clothes Campaign the main question is to what extent these initiatives comply with CCC criteria for ethical production, including:

  • Are workers guaranteed all the basic rights they are entitled to?
  • Are the companies ensuring the implementation of good labour practices at all levels of production and regularly monitoring this?
  • Can working conditions be (independently) verified, in a process that includes workers and their organisations?
  • Does the way the company does business with their suppliers mean that workers are able to have stable employment, decently paid and without excessive working hours by having long-term relationships, paying fairly and not making excessive demands on the supplier?

Origins of alternative/ethical fashion In order to understand what these initiatives really aim to achieve and what they might mean for workers, it is important to have some background on their origins. The descriptions below are general trends from which most but not all initiatives have developed. Some initiatives may be influenced by elements of each of the general trends.

1. Fair trade: Some initiatives have grown out of the European “fair trade movement”, which generally works to ensure that a fair price is paid to producers who meet minimum social, and in some cases environmental, standards and that trading relationships between them and buyers are more equal, rather than necessarily guaranteeing core labour standards. The annexe to this document describes the origins and principles of the fair trade movement as well as the debates to date about producing “fair trade garments”.

2. Union made: Other initiatives originate from the USA, whose own clothing industry is characterized by bad working conditions, and were launched mainly by activists or as a result of activism in the anti-sweatshop movement. They aim to show that it is possible to run a viable clothing company in the USA that sources from unionised factories in which workers enjoy all basic rights.

3. Solidarity: A very small number of initiatives have grown directly out of workers’ struggles, like the Solidarity Factory set up by the former Bed & Bath workers in Thailand.

4. Trade not aid: Other initiatives are an attempt to create employment and direct money to developing countries (such as Edun). Trade not aid initiatives may or may not address working conditions or trading relationships in the supply chain of the garments.

5. Eco-fashion: In recent years there has been a growth in small brands that have grown out of the fashion industry. These brands often focus on the environmental aspects of the garment at various stages of the supply chain from textile production through to recycling, and may or may not address working conditions or trading relationships in the supply chain of the garments.

The Clean Clothes Campaign believe that the key way to improve working conditions in the long term is for workers to be able to stand up for their rights and improve their labour conditions. Union made- and solidarity-type initiatives and some fair trade models enable this. This needs to be coupled with paying a supplier fairly, having appropriate lead times and making reasonable demands of suppliers, so that attempts to improve workers’ rights are not undermined.
About this list Linked to this page is information about some of the existing so-called alternative or ethical initiatives that have an international presence. Of course there are many more that aren’t included here.

Only some of the small brands that say they are making some attempt to challenge current trading systems and to find a different way of doing business are included. They are: Dignity Returns / Solidarity Factory, No Sweat and Blackspot Shoes. These brands may have long-term partnership-based sourcing relationships and may manufacture through partner cooperatives or artisan groups. They tend to be aimed at a niche market. Information about other brands that make ethical claims, are perceived to be ethical or focus on charity, such as Gap Red, Edun, Kuyichi and American Apparel, is included in the main section on companies.

The brief information presented on each initiative is by no means in-depth and entries should not be interpreted as constituting a company profile or factory audit. Each listing is based on information from the internet and, in some cases, correspondence with companies.

The presentation of information about the initiative follows a particular format, but different questions may have been asked of different companies, recognising the difference of approach that each one takes. Some companies were more forthcoming with detailed information than others. For each company listed we have made some comments and asked questions which we hope will inform the way in which policies and practices will evolve. These comments and concerns have been shared with the companies. They highlight some key issues to be addressed by the initiative in question, but are not intended as an assessment for comparative purposes. None of the information given constitutes a judgment of any charitable or environmental aspects of any of the companies work.

If some of these comments seem too demanding, it needs to be understood that we cannot expect any less from companies that are viewed as “ethical” or “trading fairly” or otherwise selling “clean clothes”, than full compliance with what are after all minimum labour standards. We are making the same demands for independent evidence of compliance with a full package of labour standards that we make of conventional (regular) companies, although we recognise that the way companies may achieve this will vary depending on the context.

Please help us update, correct, or elaborate on this information with whatever additional or new information you hold or come across. Comments can be sent to info@cleanclothes.org.

For a better understanding of some of the terms used above, see http://www.cleanclothes.org/

SRC via @CleanClothes