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Ethical Style: Why Fashion Needs to Get Political

Fashion needs a rebirth of the political spirit—a serious consumer-focused movement to help us navigate the trends.

Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

Rachel Carson is often heralded for exposing the effect of pesticides on the great outdoors, but her environmentalist crusade also reverberated deep within American closets. When Carson’s Silent Spring hit in 1962, it laid bare the dangers of pesticide and chemical use in the fibers and finished fabrics that made up the U.S. wardrobe. The political fashionista was born.

While newly-minted environmentalists began investigating the labels of their jeans, the social unrest of the '60s and '70s was making its mark on our clothing in other ways. The U.S. fell deeper into a war with Vietnam. The oil crisis hit. Together, these cultural shifts sparked a movement around pollution, the depletion of our natural resources, and America’s role in the global marketplace. A DIY, back-to-the-land approach to clothing and other consumer products grew out of that political climate. The era’s tie-dye, embroidery, and tent-like dresses made of natural fibers like hemp left an imprint on our collective memory.

The political fashion impulse grew more sophisticated from there, as clothing manufacturers and upstart designers figured out how to put Carson’s lessons into practice on a wider scale. The 80s brought a growing “green design” movement, which meant an emphasis on recycling, energy efficiency, and design durability in the general design sphere. In clothing production, this meant an effort to move away from toxic chemicals like flame retardants in synthetic fabrics, and a movement toward “natural” fabrics like cotton, silk, and linen. In the "me decade," natural materials took on an individualistic political bent. Amid the bicycle helmet laws and seatbelt campaigns of the 1980s, natural fabrics were spun to satisfy individual health concerns, not global ones.

Meanwhile, some designers were turning personal fashion statements for the greater good. In 1983, fashion began broadcasting social protests when Katharine Hamnett released her first protest T-shirt line. Shirts printed with phrases like "Save the World," "Save the Whales," and "Education Not Missiles" turned wearers into radical billboards, and Hamnett donated a portion of proceeds to charity. A year later, the British Fashion Council named Hamnett its Designer of the Year; she’s gone on to become a pioneer of the organic cotton movement. What began as an individualistic, save-your-own-skin social movement was on its way toward becoming a widespread political driver.

By the 1990s, workers’ rights awareness had synced up with the ecological awareness that had previously dominated the conversation. In 1992, the Chicago Tribune uncovered the story of Levi Strauss’ sweatshop production. Over the next decade, many more retailers were put under the pressure of wide-ranging labor violation accusations—child labor, below-minimum wages, and discrimination of all kinds. The highly politicized anti-sweatshop movement garnered public support for politically charged organizations still making a difference in this arena today, including the Clean Clothes Campaign and the International Labor Organization. Developed countries started taking a new stand toward ensuring corporate social responsibility within their borders, making an effort to go above and beyond, socially and sometimes environmentally, what is required by law.

Big corporations were listening. In the 1990s, they made strides to incorporate these political shifts into their capitalist models. Esprit took up the ‘90s ecological spirit, becoming the first major retailer to present an eco-focused clothing line: The Ecollection, created under the tutelage of Lynda Grose. Grose has since consulted for Gap and Patagonia on sound ecological practices, recycling, and upcycling. Slowly, other major retailers would follow suit, culminating in today’s eco-lines as presented by Top Shop and H&M. Then, the backlash hit: In 2000, Naomi Klein’s No Logo momentarily turned the general public off the concept of branded goods entirely. Her indictment of fast fashion laid bare the effects of globalization and branding as a product identifier, and influenced the eco-fashion movement to cultivate sustainable businesses, artisanship, and corporate responsibility.

Smaller companies have been on the rise ever since. As a result, the ethical fashion business model has diversified. Ethical fashionistas can now choose from a variety of interpretations on the trend: Junky Styling, a brand dedicated to repurposing old clothing; Edun, the Made-In-Africa clothing line famously founded by U2’s Bono and wife Ali Hewson; and People Tree, a line that incorporates Fair Trade at all levels of the production cycle, uses ecologically sound practices, and emphasizes a quality product for the consumer. These brands are a far cry from the self-made one-of-a-kind garments coming out of the hippie era. Here, the political statement remains just below the surface, avoiding DIY sensibilities as well as wearable slogans. Consumers want to buy into these companies' ethical belief systems; they just don't necessarily want to broadcast it on their tote bags.

As the ethical fashion world has grown to tackle more problems and reach more markets—and socially conscious fashion becomes imperceptible from other clothing on the rack—the movement's political underpinnings have decentralized. Only recently have international organizations begun to fill in the gaps. In 2008, the International Trade Center, a joint agency of the UN and the World Trade Organization, launched the Ethical Fashion Programme, which “enables European fashion houses and distributors to source fashion and lifestyle products from Africa” while maintaining the triple bottom line of “People, Profit, Planet.” NICE (which stands for Nordic Initiative, Clean and Ethical) was founded in 2008 to improve the region's "sustainability footprint" and "provide systemic solutions to social and environmental issues" in retail operations and global supply chains. This year, politicians and leaders of the fashion industry will convene for the first-ever Copenhagen Fashion Summit to streamline ethical fashion's various movements and concerns.

These top-level political movements are a necessary step, but they still leave the consumer unsure of what she's wearing. Discussion of ethical fashion has exploded in recent years, but without the clarity of a "Save the Whales" tee, we’re not totally sure what we’re aware of anymore. We don't expect modern consumers to return to hemp pants, and, it's great that eco and socially-conscious fashion is now so pervasive that we can find a pair of waterless jeans at a Levi’s store or a benefit T-shirt at the Gap. But fashion still needs a rebirth of the political spirit—a serious consumer-focused movement to help us navigate the trends.

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