Fashion and charity hardly go hand in hand. Fashion is an inherently selfish act as you purchase clothing to represent yourself or to fit in with a group or to succeed at your job. As millennials are more eager to purchase purposeful products that come with a story, brands are starting to include more philanthropic missions for the traditionally self-centered act of buying clothes. Philanthropy and fashion don’t mix as well as charity in other industries though. In the wake of Fashion Revolution week we are again reminded of the injustices throughout the fashion supply chain. Fashion Revolution week commemorates the devastating Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that killed over a thousand garment workers. The fashion industry is also known for being incredibly wasteful and damaging to the environment with the harsh unregulated dyes and the fast pace of fashion trends that cause people to buy cheap clothing and throw them out six months later. It is these factors of the fashion supply chain that makes true charity difficult to achieve as many consumers prefer to show off superficially charitable acts rather than change their spending habits to usher in real change.
Superficial philanthropy and fashion go well together because western consumers love to look and feel like they are charitable. This is the factor that makes companies like TOMS and FEED very successful because the branding and charitable mission are so publicized on the products that those wearing the garments and accessories can show off the fact that they did something “good”. Unfortunately these companies that put their charitable missions at the forefront of their companies are often ignoring the tragedies in their own supply chain or providing a bandaid to a symptom of poverty instead of trying to truly empower developing economies. TOMS got some heat a few years ago when some economists noticed the true effects of the “buy one, give one” business model. When a company gives away shoes for free, it makes it nearly impossible for shoe cobblers in the area to make a business. While TOMS has changed their business model a bit after this discovery it is very representative of how western brands approach solving these sorts of problems. There are also brands like N Philanthropy that push the charitable element (donating a portion of their profits to cancer research) without publicizing any sort of ethical production. Meaning these brands may be hurting communities in (primarily) Southeast Asia with irresponsible production techniques while giving back profits to communities in the US or Europe.
Philanthropy and fashion don’t always succeed together because the truly charitable companies are less appealing to consumers. There are many fashion brands in the so-called “ethical fashion” or “sustainable fashion” space that are constantly looked down upon for being “lame” or “unfashionable” because they don’t respond to fashion trends as quickly due to their commitment of producing ethically. A lot of these companies are really trying to do less harm in the world instead of just trying to cover up the bad things they’ve done to the people in the countries they produce in. The problem arises with social comparison. While those who shop at more ethical and sustainable companies are trying to do social and environmental good just like those who buy TOMS or FEED products, it requires a larger shift in their purchasing habits. The TOMS and FEED products are more statement pieces to accessorize your outfits with charitable acts as opposed to changing the way you shop. A series of studies by Rebecca Walker Reczek and Daniel Zane at Fisher College of Business and Julie Irwin at McCombs School of Business illuminate why this is a harder goal to achieve:
Basically we feel threatened by those who were placed in the exact same position as us -- the act of buying jeans -- that made a more selfless decision than us. It’s a similar phenomenon as when someone touts their vegan lifestyle. The fact that you could have done the same and didn’t makes you more critical of their lifestyle in order to feel better about your own decisions. This is why the truly “good” companies don’t succeed as quickly as superficially charitable companies. The real challenge for the future lies with ethical and sustainable fashion companies to market their products in a way that goes viral without making a segment of customers feel bad about their previous clothing choices.
Brands that I think are trying to improve the world in a sustainable manner:
- New Market Goods: Made in Bangladesh, responsibly. They source from ethical factories and the brand aims to further improve local livelihoods by returning a share of our profits directly back to the community they source from
- Everlane: “Radical Transparency” in price and supply chain; they also help improve an individual factory every Black Friday with all their profits from that day’s sales
- Zady: online boutique selling other ethical brands as well as their own line with sustainably sourced materials and Fair Trade manufacturing. They also do a lot of work in educating consumers on injustices in the fashion supply chain (I recommend signing up for their newsletter, The New Standard)
- Pamela Love: sustainably-sourced jewelry, made in New York City
- Brother Vellies: men’s and women’s shoes sourced in Africa with consideration for the needs of the workers and incorporating traditional African elements
- Ethical Silk Company: producing silk products with Peace Silk (PETA-approved silk fiber), Fair Trade certified, and a portion of the profits are given to charity
On the consumer side, giving clothing to charities like Salvation Army or disaster relief groups can be equally problematic. Because our consumption of clothing has exploded in recent years, these charitable groups cannot handle the sheer volume of (usually cheap) clothing they receive. For places like Goodwill, most of the clothing they receive cannot be sold in the same region since people usually give old clothes that are already wearing through. In fact, only around twenty percent of donated clothing can be resold, the rest is either recycled, sent overseas, or dumped in landfills. The U.S. sends away a full billion pounds of used clothing per year where clothes are bought in 1,000-pound bales, sorted and then resold to the local populace, sometimes wreaking havoc on local industries by taking jobs away from local textile workers (similar to the TOMS problem). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the constant flood of used clothing is so pervasive that it's even part of the language. The colloquial Ghanaian phrase "obroni wawu" can be translated to "clothes of the dead white man." Eleven percent of donations made to Goodwill in 2014 were deemed unsaleable and carted to landfills — about 22 million pounds — costing the organization millions of dollars in transport fees and other expenses. This last point is an issue for those disaster relief groups as well. Those in need after a natural disaster, for example, don’t need your cheap, unwanted clothes they need water, medical supplies, and food and the disaster relief groups need money to buy supplies people actually need. The sorting and transporting of these unwanted physical goods can cause a lot of problems for these groups and severely decrease their effectiveness in the areas they’re trying to help. By some estimates, about 60 percent of donated items cannot be used. These are mostly clothing and food. People even send strange items like high heeled shoes or sports equipment like Cher in Clueless.
The solution (beyond any government regulation) is to buy fewer but better, longer-lasting clothing that are produced responsibly. It’s not as fun and requires a lot more research than spotting a cute dress in a shop window but it can be incredibly rewarding and make you really care about each item in your closet. Yes, they will probably be more expensive but when you don’t shop as often it can start to make up the difference. If doing the right thing was cheap, the world wouldn’t be in this situation. Some companies like JUST are trying to reduce the research efforts and make it easier to shop responsibly.
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