Fashion Conscious: Clothing the World with Justice

By Molly, Marsh | Sojourners Magazine, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Fashion Conscious: Clothing the World with Justice


Molly, Marsh, Sojourners Magazine


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 Hogan 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. …

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