Thursday 24th April is the first Fashion Revolution Day, marking the first anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh and urging the industry to be a force for good. 1134 people were killed and hundreds more were injured when the factory, that had previously been declared unsafe, collapsed. Although the media spotlight shone brightly on the long tail of fast-fashion’s global supply chain for a few days, one year on the compensation fund for Rana Plaza victims has reached barely one third of its target and profits from cheap clothes continue to soar.
Against this stark background, Fashion Revolution celebrates fashion’s potential as a positive influence. Even a week after Rana Plaza many brands could not be certain whether their garments had been made in the building. Fashion Revolution Day is calling on us to care where our clothes come from. At the moment even if you do care, there is very little information available to customers about the processes and impacts involved in the creation of a garment at the point of sale. Reconnecting broken links in the supply chain and sharing this information with customers gives them a choice, not only about the garment or accessory but also the chain of values and impacts they are buying into.
As an economist, I am familiar with the theoretical maxim that markets communicate information freely and openly. Yet as consumers, we rarely have information about the full environmental, health and social impacts of the things that we buy. These impacts are invisible to us, so we can not signal, via the market place, that we would prefer products with a better social and ecological footprint. This inequality of information, dubbed “information asymmetry” by Joseph Stiglitz (who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his theory of how information shapes markets) hinders market efficiency. Lack of full information means that our purchases can have unintended consequences, even when we think we are buying better.
I recently had a moment of revelation when I looked up some sunscreen I had bought for my children on the GoodGuide. With a team of chemists, toxicologists, nutritionists, sociologists, and lifecycle analysis experts the GoodGuide rates products and companies from 0 to 10 on their health, environmental and social performance drawing on information from a range of life cycle assessment databases. The sunscreen I had bought declared it did not contain parabens, SLS, petrolatum, artificial colours or phthalates, but when I looked it up, I found it scored 4/10 for health, as it did contain other ingredients with health concerns. Sites such as the GoodGuide and SkinDeep provide authoritative, impartial and comprehensive ratings. Comprehensive because the consequences of buying a product cover a broad range of impacts, for example using solar power to manufacture a product is virtuous, but if that same product off-gases toxins in the customer’s home, or factory workers inhale noxious fumes then the product is far from ecologically sound. A full life cycle assessment of a product encompasses its supply chain (and those of all its inputs) manufacture, distribution, customer use, and disposal.
At present, the GoodGuide is US-focused, but it offers the beginning of what Daniel Goleman describes as radical transparency in his book, Ecological Intelligence. A combination of ecological intelligence and collective consciousness shared through social media allows a large number of actors to effect great change. It moves the purchasing decision away from price alone to include other variables, and reflects the true cost of producing something. As Rana Plaza showed so horrifically, fast-fashion clothes are often produced in circumstances where the minimum environmental, health and safety requirements that are legally mandated in the developed world are missing. Perhaps that is why ‘production costs’ are lower? In Bangladesh, wages have been raised by 77%, but that is barely enough get above the poverty line. The promise of globalisation was not supposed to be a race to the bottom to supply the cheapest goods the fastest.
In a world of transparency customers can be a catalyst for change, voting for the values they want with their spending choices. Greater transparency could lead to more efficient consumption and resolve the tension between private profit and public welfare. As Daniel Goleman urges us: Know your impacts; favour improvements; share what you learn. Or in the words of a grande dame of fashion, Vivienne Westwood, “Buy less, choose well, make it last”. To an industry with beauty at its heart know that “the best, most dramatic and most reliable motivator of human behavioural change is beauty”, to quote Elizabeth Farrelly. So let the creativity, playfulness, ingenuity and innovation run riot to inspire great change.