No need for the herald: It’s a well-known fact that American society is a consumerist culture. Americans are known for gobbling up marketing messages, spending unnecessarily just to catch a deal and extreme couponing. The rate at which we are consuming goods has put pressure on overseas suppliers to make products fast and cheap, according to Jennifer Bair, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, but that means cutting other corners that make the brand less sustainable in terms of environmental and social costs to the countries producing those goods.
“The retailers want a few things: They don’t want to be caught in a scandal, they want to tell their consumers they are an ethical company, but at the same time they want their clothing made as cheaply as possible,” Bair says. “There’s a bit of tension there, on the one hand saying you want better conditions for workers, but not paying suppliers to provide better conditions.”
Large retail companies have been trying to make supply chains more ethical since the ’90s by implementing codes of conduct for suppliers, according to Bair.
The problem, however, may be fast fashion itself, and the bottom line comes down to conscious consumers paying more for their clothes than is feasible if following the rotating closet trends promoted by some fashion companies.
In the fall of 2013, Hennes & Mauritz LP (H&M), an international, “fast fashion” retailer that started in Stockholm, Sweden, will be opening a store in Boulder and likely bringing with it a recently launched “Conscious Clothing” line. That line of clothes was made from recycled textiles as an effort to be more sustainable. H&M staff has said they are rebranding as a sustainable, conscious clothing company that wants to educate their consumers on the impact of their dollar. They’re increasing transparency in the supply chain, funding schools in places like India and Bangladesh and offering more resourceful ways to use and reuse clothing.
But other retailers say their efforts, to be truly successful, need to be larger in scope.
Part of the solution is cutting down the supply chain and fostering better relationships with the actual workers, according to Kevin Natapow, co-owner of Momentum, a fair trade store in Boulder.
“The big thing, the way fair trade at least tries to keep the retail prices down while still paying the artisan a fair wage, is by cutting out all of the middle people,” Natapow says. “When you buy a pair of jeans, for example, that pair of jeans has probably gone through 10 hands before it actually gets to the retailer.”
As a part of its effort to be more ethical, H&M is now involved with UNICEF to support educational programs in large textile-producing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and India. These programs are aimed to get children out of factories and fields and into schools, according to UNICEF’s website. In 2009 the company sponsored a five-year program called All for Children in Tamil Nadul, India, through a $4.5 million donation to aid families who work for their living in cotton fields so their children can go to school instead of working in the fields.
The approach may be the closest to actually making change in factories, according to Bair.
“Some research suggests if some brands or retailers work really closely with the workers, try to understand what their problems really are, they can help reduce those problems,” Bair says.
On April 4, H&M hosted a panel on sustainability at Vogue headquarters in New York City to discuss its new sustainable and ethical practices. H&M representatives on the panel stated that they had a responsibility to be sustainable and ethical, but some of the responsibility also lies with the consumer.
“I think it’s about raising the awareness of our consumers [about] the added value of sustainability in a product and encourage people to act more responsible,” Catarina Midby, head of fashion and sustainability communications for H&M, said at the panel. Representatives from H&M did not respond to requests for comment.
What it really comes down to is paying more for the product at both ends: company and consumer.
“Ultimately, the consumer is part of the story,” Bair says. “We have gotten to a point where we expect clothing to come down in price dramatically, and that all comes from this global industry. But if we are serious about ethical production, someone has to pay for that.”
If consumers demand clothing produced ethically, companies will respond, according to Bruno Pieters, founder of Honest by, a clothing company that emphasizes minimizing its effects on the environment and human health.
“The customer is key,” Pieters said at the H&M panel. “They are the solution for a lot of problems, and in the end the companies — any company — will offer what the public wants, so it’s important to become aware of that power.”
Natapow says he has noticed consumers recognizing that power, especially right after the economic collapse in 2008.
“We were getting more customers because they were starting to shift their perspective in terms of where products were coming from,” he says. “There was a greater awareness; I think people always knew what globalization was, but when all of a sudden your economy is starting to collapse and you see this global ripple effect, people start making the connection and start asking, ‘Where are my things coming from?’”