When stern-looking models wearing the colors of Africa sashayed down a New York runway in February, it was hard to imagine the well-heeled event had anything to do with alleviating human suffering. But 30 of the ensembles, created by upscale designers such as Donna Karan, were later auctioned on eBay to raise an expected $150,000 for the Save Darfur Coalition, an organization trying to aid victims of the crisis in western Sudan.
It's not surprising that an image-obsessed industry in a profit-driven culture would turn out such an event—nor is it that buyers purchased outfits worth thousands of dollars to "help" orphans in Sudan. As a society, we like to buy things, and we like to buy them with a clean conscience.
Companies have seized on our desire to do good while looking good. Today we can fight any number of social ills by buying products whose sales are directed toward helping others. For example, through the celebrity-infused (Product) Red campaign—a collection of companies including Gap and Armani—you can buy a T-shirt to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB and in the process help direct money toward buying and distributing anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. "As First World consumers, we have tremendous power," says the campaign's Web site. "What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet." Dramatic, but true—and consumers are increasingly realizing it.
Cynics will say these companies have found the perfect way for us to rationalize our shop-and-spend ways, while also adding significantly to their bottom lines. That's all true. And while it's not a bad thing if raised consciousness is part of the transaction, or when real money reaches real people in need—(Product) Red has so far sent $19 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, according to the fund's Web site—the danger of any fad is that it's soon replaced by the next big thing. Today it's all the rage for companies, including those in the fashion and apparel industry, to have a social conscience. Tomorrow it may not be.
THE CLOTHING BUSINESS, worth $500 billion worldwide, represents 10 percent of all world trade with developing countries, says Priya Patel, creator of Fashion for Development, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that sees fashion as a tool for development around the globe. This makes clothing one of the largest trade items being imported from the developing world. This sector also employs more than 30 million people, most from the developing world. One in six of these workers are underage, poorly paid, and forced to work in hazardous conditions, she says.
Fueled largely by conscientious shoppers, companies are finding—and creating—alternatives to current business models, whether through micro-finance grants to sewing cooperatives in developing countries, sweatshop-free workplaces, or adherence to fair trade principles (at least at some points in their production processes).
A high-profile example is Edun, a fair trade clothing line started by Ali Hewson, wife of musician and activist Bono, and designer Rogan Gregory.
Launched in 2005, Edun's clothes are produced by six small, family-run factories in Africa, South America, Portugal, and India and then sold to stores such as Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, specifically to create jobs and fair trade with the developing world. The clothes are expensive—even the omnipresent "ONE" T-shirts, created in a Lesotho factory for the ONE Campaign, are $40—but Edun recently joined forces with the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Miami (Ohio) University to get $4 T-shirts into the university market via its sub-brand Edun Live.
Edun also claims to use organic materials in much of its clothing, which points to another hot trend in the business: eco-fashion. Helped by technological advances, garments are being produced from hemp, soy, bamboo, corn fiber, wood pulp, seaweed, recycled soda cans, and blends of these materials. In addition to creating environmentally friendly clothing, many of these materials can be obtained locally and without using chemicals that damage the environment or workers. Fashion magazines such as Glamour and Elle have devoted substantial portions of specific issues to organic clothing, which suggests the trend is moving from the fringes of the clothing design world to the mainstream.
Entrepreneurs like Hewson and Bono have large amounts of capital, which isn't the case for most people looking to establish partnerships between First World consumers and Majority World producers. To work on a large scale, groups have to grapple with the multiple production stages of the garment industry, as well as the fickle nature of consumer demand. The fashion world moves fast; colors and styles change rapidly, and a company must be able to update its stock continuously. That's hard to do if your partners work in remote corners of the globe, even for a well-established fair trade company such as the United Kingdom's Traidcraft. It's also difficult to ensure that each material involved in the creation of a garment meets organic and/or fair trade standards because there are so many levels of production involved. The cotton in that shirt made of a cotton-linen blend may be organic, but what about the linen? What about the labor involved in putting it together?
"Traidcraft's clothes retail at three or four times the price [of non-fair trade items] because we've added value all the way up the producer chain," Traidcraft chief executive Paul Chandler told Sojourners. His company hasn't found it financially feasible to increase its clothes offerings—in fact, he said, the clothes it does sell function as accessories to its jewelry and scarves.
Ten Thousand Villages, a project of the Mennonite Central Committee and one of the largest fair trade organizations in the United States, supports weavers, knitters, and embroiderers, but their skills are evidenced through shawls and table linens, not sweaters and dresses. They don't sell clothes, presumably for the reasons Chandler cites. The same goes for Aid to Artisans and Servv International, two organizations that market crafts from artisans in developing countries to wealthier countries.
An organization that has made some inroads is Mumbai-based Marketplace/ SHARE. This coalition of cooperatives, which three women began in 1980, produces a small line of women's clothing that is marketed to U.S. and, more recently, Australian shoppers, in addition to local markets, via a twice-yearly catalogue. More than 400 women are now involved in designing fabrics, sewing and embroidering them, and readying the garments for distribution. The income they generate supports not only the individual women but also the organization's many empowerment programs.
While projects such as this are small—like hundreds of others started by faith-inspired entrepreneurs—they can make a real difference. Along with the empowerment they generate, one of the best byproducts of these partnerships is that they foster personal relationships. Because they circumvent the anonymity that's so prevalent in our commercial transactions, they remind us that we're more than economic beings—that we should value people, not just the products they create.
Despite the less-than-perfect track record of large companies that have sought to jump on the we-have-a-conscience bandwagon (Gap, for instance, has used sweatshop labor to make its products), the hopeful news is that the trendlet shows that consumers can change corporate behavior. While the companies benefit financially from these campaigns, they are also responding to consumer pressure. Sales of organic and fair trade products make up only a tiny percentage of overall sales—the Organic Trade Association reports that Americans spent nearly $750 million on nonfood organic items in 2005, and nearly $180 million in fair trade sales in 2002, according to IFAT, a global network of fair trade organizations—but we can continue to demand more ethically made products.
Next time we see that sleeveless silky top, or the T-shirt with just the right attitude, we can ask questions about how they were created and by whom. Long-term pressure will convince more companies to not only disclose where and how their clothes are made, but also to adjust their operations to meet ethical standards. Then we can really feel as good as we look.
Molly Marsh is an associate editor of Sojourners.