How Governments Could Change Fashion For The Better

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 years ago | Features

Image: designers get political at NYFW. From the Creatures of Comfort show. Image source.

Fashion and politics might seem worlds apart, but they are both hugely influential in terms of guiding societal norms. So if we hope to change fashion for the better, then governmental collaboration will be critical to success. This is something that Patagonia learned when they discovered slave labour in their supply chain, for example. Setting about addressing the issue, the brand’s VP of Public Engagement, Rick Ridgeway explained that this could never have been done without the help of local government.

“Our immediate response was that this was the kind of issue we’d be very unlikely to solve on our own. That it was the kind of issue to require multi stakeholder inclusion,” Ridgeway recalls. “In this case, we were going to have to partner with the Taiwanese government — because the factories were in Taiwan — and we were going to have to partner with the suppliers themselves, in a way that would make them feel safe about actually trying to [address] this.” After setting these changes in motion, though, Patagonia was also committed to continuing their governmental relationships over the long term. And it’s this that we need to see much more of in fashion today.

When we think about a government’s responsibility to its citizens, we often think of safety and education. Anti-drink-driving advertisements, sun safety pamphlets and educational campaigns are all par for the course within this domain. So why should it be any different when it comes to informing people about the risks associated with their clothes? Risks that include toxic chemical use, environmental degradation and the violation of human rights, just to name a few. Educating consumers about these sorts of issues is just the first step in helping them make more educated decisions about the clothes they buy.

But educational campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg. There is also so much more that governments could be doing in terms of mandating fair labour for garment workers and putting a cap or ban on the toxic pollution that’s generated by factories as well. Some companies like Patagonia have been pushing for these sorts of reforms over recent years and even fast fashion retailers claim to be engaging with the government in Bangladesh to raise the local minimum wage.

However mandating fair work standards goes well beyond just increasing wages. For example, it is also about implementing the systems to review those standards on an annual and adjust them according to increases in living costs. As H&M points out, for instance, “the wage level in the Bangladeshi garment industry has in the past many years only been revised in 2006 and 2010. In the same period living costs has increased, resulting in a reduction in the minimum wages in real terms. 

And then there is the environmental cost of the fashion industry, for which governments also need to take on greater responsibility. Amidst talk about introducing carbon taxes and other sustainability incentives, it would be great to see more governments also tackling the issue on a more business-oriented level. As an industry that’s known for generating vast amounts of toxic runoff, carbon emissions and air pollution, fashion should be part of this picture. And governments should be regulating garment factories when it comes to their environmental impact. Or at very least incentivising those businesses to do better. Because as long as they are allowed to coast along unchallenged, things will never really improve. 

After Patagonia cofounded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in 2010, for instance — a coalition that helps fashion businesses measure their environmental and social labour impact — they found it incredibly difficult to convert certain businesses unless their hands were forced by governmental intervention. “As something like this grows, it gets increasingly difficult to get the second half in, because they are already the people that don’t give a shit,” Rick Ridgeway tells Well Made Clothes. “It gets harder and harder to bring them in, unless the government orders them to. So that’s kind of like our ultimate play — we want government to take over this whole thing, because the end game has to be government and policy.”

So while it is of course positive to see an increasing number of fashion businesses starting to get serious about sustainability and fair work in 2017, we also need the help of governments to truly change fashion for the better. By taking a three-pronged approach here, involving public education, fair work mandates and the introduction of environmental incentives for factories, governments could help ethical fashion to finally reach a critical tipping point. And until then, the work of responsible businesses will unfortunately be just a drop in the ocean.

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