By Brooke Bordelon
There was once a time when the words “conscious consumer” conjured images of crazy-eyed PETA activists dousing fur-clad celebrities in blood or hemp-wearing hippies.
Today a conscious consumer is anyone who recognizes that what they purchase and where it was made can have a profound effect on the earth.
As people increasingly seek out more socially responsible products, companies are striving to meet consumer’s demands by holding themselves to a higher standard of ethically responsible practices. More and more consumers are abandoning their “out of sight out of mind” attitude toward sustainable living as it is no longer cool to not care.
Roza Essaw, a recent SMU grad, is currently working toward a master’s degree in human rights in London. According to an SMU Meadows spotlight on the young humanitarian, she has “evolved into a globetrotting advocate for overlooked populations in places like Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Africa.”
In an interview with me, Essaw stated that she believes that changing the face of modern consumerism requires both companies and shoppers to rethink their bottom line. “The more we put our money in factories that exploit workers, the more we are exacerbating workers’ rights,” she said “Companies must put ethical concerns at the forefront to set an example for others to follow.”
Problems with the fast fashion craze
Media coverage of poor labor conditions – especially in Asia and Africa– has many concerned consumers and human rights activists pointing the finger of blame at “fast fashion” chains such as H&M, Forever 21, and Zara. Due to constant coverage via the Internet and social media, trends now change within weeks rather than months, creating pressure on retailers to churn out the latest fashions at record speed.
According to Elizabeth L. Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the wages in many of the factories that fast fashion retailers utilize in developing countries fall below the World Bank poverty line, and workers earn an estimated 1 percent of the garment’s value. According to Cline, in the 1950s and ‘60s, nearly 100 percent of clothing in the U.S. was produced stateside. In 1990 that number had dropped to 50 percent – today it is 2 percent. In the wake of the controversy surrounding such practices, retailers and consumers alike have begun to push back against the fast fashion craze.
At a Women’s Wear Daily conference in October, famed fashion designer Micheal Kors said as teens grow they will begin to develop an aversion to the concept of fast, disposable fashion: “We’re going to see it circle back to a very old-school term, the idea of fashion as an investment. Because guess what? The least green thing you can do is engage in disposable fashion.”
Who suffers from bad business?
A 2007 consumer research study by the Natural Marketing Institute, a market research and business development company that focuses on health and wellness, found that knowing a company is mindful of its impact on the environment and society makes consumers 58% more likely to buy its products and services. Tragedies like the April 24 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh– which killed over 1,000 people– have many consumers concerned about the origin of their clothing. The factory housed clothing manufacturers, a bank, apartments, and other shops. Walmart and Children’s Place labels were found among the factory’s rubble.
SMU senior Courtney Curtsinger, an avid shopper herself, believes the factory collapse in Bangladesh was an avoidable travesty brought on by Western consumerism.
“We’re so caught up in the labels and fashion at the time that we never really slow down to consider where they are made and the potential harm to which people are exposed,” she said, “I feel like people should die for a reason and not as a result of consumerism.”
This September, following the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the global trade union industriALL called a meeting of some of the world’s largest retailers in Geneva to discuss a long-term compensation fund for the 2,500 workers injured in the factory’s collapse and the families of those killed. Only nine of the 23 brands produced in the factory at the time of the accident were present. Noticeably absent from the corporate conference were Walmart and Benetton.
Essaw believes that the factory collapse allows us a glimpse into deeply rooted gender issues associated with garment factories abroad. According to her, the bulk of textile workers in the factory at the time were Women, a fact supported by the British news company, The Telegraph, which reported in April of 2013 that a website for one of the Bangladeshi garment factories indicated that at least half of those dead and injured were women.
“While poor men also work in these industries, female employees remain highly segregated,” said Essaw. “Due to these poor conditions reserved primarily for women, it’s not a surprise that female employees find themselves as likely targets of dangerous working conditions.”
Legislation calling for change
It isn’t only consumers who are pushing for change, however. On July 17, Delaware became the 19th state to sign the benefit corporation legislation into law, doing away with the previous legislation that recognized maximizing profits as the sole corporate purpose. According to Benefit Corps Information Center, under the new law, a company that elects to become a benefit corporation has a duty to meet a statutory purpose of creating general public benefit, defined as “a material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole, from the benefit operations of the benefit corporation.” The law will give the over 1 million businesses, including 50% of all publicly traded companies and 64% of the Fortune 500 companies, the freedom to implement positive social policies as well as satisfy their bottom line. To recognize this historic shift, on Aug.1. nearly 600 businesses signed an Open Letter inviting their peers to join the conscious commerce movement. (B Corporation)
How the average consumer can make a difference
Due to the rarity and craftsmanship required of many luxury brands, these companies are often more sustainable than their fast fashion counterparts. Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy –a corporation comprising over 60 luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Celine and Gucci—employs a proactive approach to protecting the environment. According to its website, the chic company has issued an environmental charter since 2001. The document sets out key principles for “best-in-breed” environmental practices for the company and encourages collective environmental initiatives.
Unfortunately, however, the average shopper can’t afford to drop thousands of dollars on pricey luxury goods. That’s where ratings systems such as The Better World Shopping guide and Alonovo step in. These websites rate thousands of companies on their social responsibility to help a concerned consumer make wise purchasing decisions without breaking the bank. Moreover, reasonably priced, sustainable fashion companies are becoming increasingly popular. Although there is not a cut- and-dry definition for “sustainable”, these companies strive to create and market goods that foster social and environmental responsibility. A quick Google search for sustainable fashion brands will yield hundreds of socially responsible e-commerce websites committed to ethical business practices.
Curtsinger believes sustainable fashion brands are the future of clothing production and consumption. She sees the growing interest in ethically buying and selling goods as a natural reaction to the horrors such as the one in Bangladesh.
“I definitely think it’s getting harder for people to justify their purchases when there are so many different options nowadays for buying sustainably,” she said, “People are beginning to become much more aware of how they’re shopping which I think is the first step to changing the industry for good.”