How the SA 8000 and Other Standards Are Shaking Up the Fashion Industry

Environmental, social and ethical pressures on the global textiles and fashion sector emerged in Europe in the early 1980s. The main driver was consumer concern over the safety of the materials. However, in parallel with this trend, a minority group of ethical consumers demanded “chemical-free” and low environmental impact clothing and fashion goods. This resulted in the European and later the U.S. organic labeling system being extended to include criteria for clothing and textiles, such as organic cotton. As of 2007, the sector was the fastest growing part of the global cotton industry with growth of more than 50% a year. Regarding safety standards, the Oeko-Tex standard has become highly popular in the industry. Although unknown to consumers, it tests for chemicals such as flame retardants in clothes and categorizes goods according to their likely exposure to humans (e.g. baby clothes must adhere to the strictest standards for chemicals). Thus the issue of chemicals in clothing has become largely one of liability risk control for the industry with the consumers obviously expecting products to pose no risk to their health. Organic and eco fashion and textiles attracts a far smaller, but fast growing group of consumers, largely in Western Europe and Coastal U.S.

Of far greater concern to the global fashion sector is the issue of worker welfare. The issue was highlighted by pressure groups such as:

Global Exchange in the U.S. targeting Levis and Nike and others.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s anecdotal evidence began emerging from labor activists in the U.S. and Europe concerning the supply chains and overseas factories of leading U.S. and European multinationals. A key target was the world’s leading maker of denim jeans Levi Strauss, but more significantly Nike, the world’s largest sports shoe marketing firm. Global Exchange launched its Nike Anti Sweatshop campaign, focusing on the firms sourcing in China and Indonesia.

A good deal of negotiations and stakeholder meetings led to a generally accepted code of practice for labor management in developing countries acceptable to most parties involved. The SA 8000 emerged as the leading industry driven voluntary standard on worker welfare issues. SA 8000 supporters now include the GAP, TNT and others and SAI reports that as of 2008, almost 1 million workers in 1,700 facilities have achieved SA 8000 certification. TheFair Trade movement has also had a significant impact on the fashion business. The standard combines a number of ethical issues of potential concern to consumers – environmental factors, fair treatment of developing country suppliers and worker welfare. The Fair Trade label has show explosive growth.

Albeit on a very small scale and not always at the top end of the fashion industry, many niche brands have emerged which promote themselves primarily on sustainability grounds. People Tree in the UK states that it “creates Fair Trade and organic clothing and accessories by forming lasting partnerships with Fair Trade, organic producers in developing countries. Leading fashion journal Marie Claire ranked its “top 10″ eco brands in a recent issue. The key issues remain chemicals in clothing (certified by organic and Fair Trade labels), worker treatment (certified by SA 8000 and Fair Trade) and increasingly mainstream environmental issues such as climate change. The world’s largest fashion brand Louis Vuitton recently acquired a small eco fashion label. It is clear, however, from the example of Nike and Levis, that certain issues are here to stay, such as a demand by Western consumers that leading brands manage the issue of worker welfare in their supply chain properly.

Fair Trade Jewellery – Why Bother?

Fair trade jewellery does producers a world of good. That’s what the advertisements tell you. But does ethical trade really make a difference? Surely a fashion necklace isn’t going to change the world? Should we really bother buying ethical jewellery?

Traditionally, the fine and fashion jewellery industry has focused on marketing its products by romance and emotion. You fall in love with a fashion necklace or a glittering ring and it makes a beautiful accessory for a party or wedding. Most often, it never crossed our minds where it was made and who created it.

This view is increasingly out of date, where any responsible person realizes that we are all part of one global community that is interdependent. Is that gold ring contributing to environmental degradation in Peru? Is your fashion necklace being made by a Bangladeshi child forced to work in intolerable conditions for a pittance?

Supply chains are becoming increasingly transparent. Before, the old attitude was ‘out of sight, out of mind’ but with globalization, the internet, cheap travel and Facebook, that’s no longer possible or desirable. Many more people are beginning to ask whether fashion jewellery companies that hide their supply chains are doing so for a reason?

Worth it, but not worthy

But the new generation of fair trade jewellery designers who are leading the way by creating eco-friendly and ethical jewellery have realized that preaching to customers won’t get you anywhere.

In fact, the best way to help marginalized or exploited workers in developing countries is to create cutting-edge designs of fashion jewellery that are desirable because they’re stylish, beautiful and on-trend first and foremost. The fact that by purchasing these products means you are helping to build a fairer way of trading is the cherry on the cake.

How a piece of fair trade jewellery is made, whether it’s a fashion necklace or a gemstone ring, is important to the wearer because it’s part and parcel of its story.

The future of ethical jewellery

Of course, fair trade jewellery still only makes up a tiny proportion of the jewellery market, but the ethical jewellery movement is growing fast and gaining fans and space in the mainstream fashion world.

One day soon, it will be socially unacceptable for anyone to purchase jewellery that is not ethically sourced.

Fair Trade Fashion Is Eco Fashion

Fair Trade fashion items like blouses, skirts, and accessories like jewelry and handbags are great because they ensure that a greater portion of the money gets to the people who make the products. However, Fair Trade fashion is also good for the environment.

Don’t believe it? Consider this: the raw materials for most Fair Trade fashion items are cultivated in a sustainable fashion because it makes economic sense for the people harvesting them-slash and burn tactics are just so inefficient. So the next time you’re checking out an article of clothing or an accessory that’s stamped with the Fair Trade logo, you’re also considering and Eco fashion item!

Now, of course, there are obvious exceptions to this rule. Not every Fair Trade item is an eco fashion item, but most are. You simply have to do a little product research to know if you’re getting what you’re paying for. You see, Eco fashion means either that the clothing and accessories you’re purchasing do not harm the environment or that they are manufactured by companies who give back to the environment through purchasing energy credits, paying for tree plantations, or supporting other Earth-Friendly projects.

So, when hunting for Eco friendly fashions, find out where the product is made, by whom, and if possible, how. It may be as simple as reading the label sewn into the garment, reading the mission statement on the storefront’s website, or emailing the distributor (or sometimes the manufacturer directly). Sure it takes a little more effort but Mother Earth will reward you for your time. And if she doesn’t, she will reward your children and theirs.

You see, eco friendly fashion is not only an investment in your social standing, it’s an investment in the human race’s future. In short, forcing manufacturers to embrace Eco friendly fashion (or Earth Friendly fashion to put it another way) is everybody’s responsibility. It sounds melodramatic, I know, but if we don’t start taking responsibility for the future, there won’t be one.

Now that the heavy thinking is done, let me give you a few Earth Friendly fashion tips. Consider recycled items in addition to items manufactured from natural fibers. They not only keep waste out of landfills but they ensure that we’re getting the most bang for a carbon footprint. And remember that Earth Friendly fashion doesn’t have to be earth tones. You can find great items in all sorts of jazzy colors.
So next time you’re shopping, shop with your brain and not just your credit card.