Initiatives like CanopyStyle and Better Cotton are increasingly being adopted by companies seeking to prove to consumers they are making a difference

Initiatives like CanopyStyle and Better Cotton are increasingly being adopted by companies seeking to prove to consumers they are making a difference

Today's consumers are increasingly concerned their purchases should inflict the least possible harm on the environment and societies around the globe. As a consequence, there is more pressure than ever on retailers and brands to reassure responsible consumers their products are made using raw materials from reliable and sustainable sources. 

Initiatives like CanopyStyle, which is campaigning to end the use of trees from ancient and endangered forests in the rayon/viscose supply chain, and Better Cotton, which is produced through better standards in cotton farming, are increasingly being adopted in the highly competitive fashion industry as companies seek to prove to consumers they are making a difference. 

Ethical standards

Designers and fashion brands such as Stella McCartney, Patagonia, Reformation and Veja are actively campaigning for higher standards of ethics and the use of sustainable materials from reliable sources.

"An increasing number of brands are promoting their products on sound ethical and sustainable values"

As an increasing number of brands, including Finisterre, Kowtow and People Tree, are promoting their products on sound ethical and sustainable values, so their ideals are being reflected in magazine articles that are encouraging a greater awareness amongst their readers.

Ethical standards and the use of natural materials from sustainable sources have been on the agenda since 2009 at the Annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a leading influence amongst the major manufacturers and suppliers in the fashion industry. Initiatives such as Fashion Revolution are also campaigning for a more reliable attitude from leading brands towards environmental and social issues.

Responsible fashion

Many newcomers to the fashion industry will no doubt wish to be regarded as designers or manufacturers who are not prepared to sacrifice standards for profit. Building an instantly recognisable brand that adheres to social and environmental principles relies on presenting clearly stated objectives that will appeal to consumers.

Choosing to highlight a particular area of expertise can be invaluable. For instance, one brand might specialise in high quality, hand-loomed materials, while another promotes the use of natural dyes that are environmentally-friendly.

Trusted suppliers

Anyone striving for credibility in using sustainable, ethical materials also needs to be positive that all their suppliers who claim to hold similar values can be trusted. Setting aside time to make personal visits can lead to a greater understanding of shared aims. Look for materials that come with certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Fairtrade, that prove where they are sourced from.

Researching the backgrounds of all the companies in a supply chain can provide valuable insight into the different attitudes towards ethical standards. Conducting a thorough search to verify partners before entering into a contract and seeking out manufacturers that offer their employees bonuses, childcare facilities and healthcare plans, are a great way to seek out the right partner.

Ethical ideals

Many brands are becoming well-known for their support of ethical practises. E-commerce brand Everlane, for instance, is committed to publishing every minor detail of its enterprise, from the cost of individual components in the manufacture of a garment to an analysis of their suppliers.

Carcel is positively impacting the lives of imprisoned women by working with them to make their clothes and teaching them skills. For every pair of Toms shoes purchased, the manufacturer donates a pair to a charitable cause. Reformation is concentrating hard on reducing its carbon footprint, introducing a self-regulatory 'Ref Scale' to monitor waste, in addition to using a range of recycled materials.

Historic inspiration

Before the manmade fibres of the 20th Century, naturally sustainable textiles were being produced from locally sourced raw materials. Archaeological evidence has found that robust hemp fibres were the first to be spun and woven into cloth more than 10,000 years ago. For centuries, flax fibres have been woven into linen, a material that performs extremely well in hot conditions.

"Creating an ethical brand using sustainable, responsibly sourced raw materials is dependent on greater transparency and collaboration"

As recently as World War Two, the rugged fibres taken from nettles were spun and woven into fabric used to make army uniforms. Archaeologists have established that 8,500 years ago, the Chinese appreciated luxurious materials, particularly silk unravelled from the cocoons of the mulberry silk worm (Bombux mori). A lightweight, fluid material, silk's natural shimmering quality derives from the triangular shape of the threads refracting light.

Recycling

The 19th Century Victorians were well aware of the value of recycling textiles, collecting rags that were then reconstituted and re-spun as an extremely inexpensive, albeit poor quality, fabric. Today, recycled PET from plastic bottles is spun into fibres and woven into fabric.

Another innovative textile dating back to 1972 is Tencel; a form of rayon that was created from natural fibres known as lyocell, produced from the cellulose found in plant pulp. Other new developments include manufactured fibres from orange and pineapple plants; and the possible use of spider silk, a robust protein-based fibre where comparable sized strands can have five times the strength of steel.

Natural vegetable dyes made from a variety of berries, fungi and plants are once again becoming popular due to their subtle colours and low environmental impact.

Value

It is inevitable that textiles such as organically grown cotton are more expensive to produce, a fact that is reflected in the price of a designer or manufacturer's brand. However, consumers are often prepared to pay extra for products that are of high quality and give years of good service. Some brands such Dr Martens provide a lifetime guarantee for the materials they use, while Nudie Jeans and Patagonia have introduced a repair service to extend the life of their products.

Transparency and collaboration

Creating an ethical brand using sustainable, responsibly sourced raw materials is dependent on greater transparency and collaboration between all the companies in the supply chain. Producing high quality fabrics and garments that will stand the test of time is a challenge that every designer and manufacturer with a conscience will welcome. For the consumer with an interest in protecting the delicate balance of eco-systems, pursuing Fairtrade policies and reducing exploitation, the only choice is to purchase from reliable brands that can guarantee their policies of using ethical, sustainable resources.

About the author: Flora Davidson is co-founder of Supplycompass, a tech enabled end-to-end production management platform for responsible brands that want to find and work with the best international manufacturers. The company works with brands and manufacturers to embed responsible and sustainable practises into their business and deliver value and create opportunities for growth.