Ethical behaviour, sustainable and eco-friendly production are laudable goals - but in all too many cases they play second fiddle to rising sales and profit. In a world where cheap talk usually replaces action, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is different, believes David Birnbaum.

We live in an era when our world and our very lives seem to be dominated by a bunch of second-rate crooks. 

Senior executives in the nuclear energy industry worry that the recent Japanese catastrophe may reduce sales. Their solution is to persuade us that driving SUVs is worth the risk of annihilation.

Fossil fuel industry leaders worry that public growing awareness of ecological problems may interfere with their right to pollute the planet. Their solution is to show that global warming does not exist and that pollution does not impinge on health.

Our financial leaders - the so-called masters of the universe - having almost destroyed the European and US economies, are back demanding that government must not interfere with their right to fleece the public.

And, in all three cases, governments support these policies by providing multi-billion dollar cash subsidies to oil, gas and nuclear energy producers and bailing out the bankers - while at the same time these same politicians decry big government expenditures.

It is ironic that in United States the politicians who talk most about the need to reduce government expenditures come from those states such as Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska where per-capita government handouts are the highest in the nation.

It appears that industry and government everywhere have reached a consensus that ethical behaviour, sustainable and eco-friendly production are laudable goals - provided they do not reduce sales and profit.

Making a difference
Yet there some who are making a difference. For the most part these are NGOs and minority green party activists. However, on the industry side there is but one who is actually willing to reduce its sales and profits for the public welfare - and that industry is us.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an organisation of international garment industry retailers, brand importers, suppliers and interested groups who are making a difference. It includes some of the biggest names in the global industry, fierce competitors who have joined together for the common good.

Our industry has often been criticised for unethical behaviour, sometimes rightfully so. However, this is one important instance where we have taken the lead in a fight which affects us all.

In a world where cheap talk usually replaces action, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is different. For example, members have agreed to stop production of certain specific denim washes which are known to be dangerous, polluting or both.

This is a remarkable accomplishment. When companies such as Wrangler and Lee Jeans (VF), Levi Strauss, and Gap are willing to sacrifice a major part of their most important product line for the public good they are an honourable exception, and an example to others.

In a sense, it is right and proper that we garmentos take the lead here. We are in the business of selling fashion. We are masters at selling our customers another T-shirt or pair of jeans - things they really do not need. This time around, at least some of us are making a singular effort to sell our customers something they truly need.

The truth is that the public has long given up listening to politicians or do-good organisations. Nobody cares about, much less reads, the UN's latest report on global warming or what the US Congress has to say about the availability of clean water. We leave these things to the politicians, lobbyists and the other professional liars.

However, we are fashion and in today's world fashion counts. To most people the word of Ralph Lauren has greater impact than a speech by Ban Ki-Moon, because more people have heard of Ralph Lauren than Ban Ki-Moon.  

People follow our lead and for once we are leading in the right direction.

David Birnbaum is the author of The Birnbaum Report, a monthly newsletter for garment industry professionals. Each issue analyses in-depth US garment imports of four major products from 21 countries, as well as ancillary data such as currency fluctuations, China quota premiums and clearance rates. Click here to visit David's website.