What Is Ethical Fashion?

Words by The Folklore Team

Almost all that needs to be said about sustainability in the fashion industry has been said in the discourse about climate change and environmental friendliness. Earth Day has been a globally recognized event since it was first celebrated in 1970. Whether it’s fashion designers using naturally renewed materials to create garments or people recycling their used plastics containers, we are all encouraged to do our part in taking care of our environment. But what about the environment in which these practices are taking place?

This is where ethical fashion comes in, which, in the industry, refers to items that have been created or produced in a conscious environment that works to address the many issues facing the trade, from fair wages and working conditions to labor rights and animal welfare.

Today, many brands are going beyond the materials and manufacturing processes with which they make their garments and examining the way they run their daily operations to ensure that they are building consciousness into their businesses.

South African clothing brand Good Good Good has a page on its website dedicated to its “commitment to change”, where it notes significant steps such as the charitable organizations it supports, a fundraising pledge for the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and its plans to combat systemic racism in the fashion industry. The latter included deleting the black squares posted on the brand’s Instagram grid on 2 June 2020, noting that making an empty statement lacked “lacked transformative intention and action”. Instead, the company underwent a “deep process of self-enquiry, which forms part of our commitment to actively join the fight against systemic racism, and to better contribute to a more just society”. Good Good Good creates its pieces in a family-owned factory that has been operating for more than 25 years. The factory also provides assistance to other South African brands with fulfilling their manufacturing needs.

For Travis Obeng-Casper, the founder and creative director of luxury Ghanaian brand Ajabeng, this means weaving social commentary and the lived experiences of ordinary Ghanaians from whom he draws inspiration into his collections. This season’s “Ghana Awake” AW22 collection interprets the common “Obroni wawu” clothing into something modern that a new generation can be proud of. For the collection’s campaign, Obeng-Casper cast first-time models from the local community in Nwasam in the eastern region of Ghana, where the images were captured.

Ajabeng’s AW22 “Ghana Awake” campaign shot on the streets of Ghana

Luxury lingerie brand The Underargument employs an “anti-casting” policy for its models, in what founder Maïna Cissé calls her take on “a more authentic representation of diversity and women empowerment.” The brand invites regular, everyday women of all colors, heights, shapes and sizes to share their stories and pose for images wearing its collections. Calling it the highlight if her work, Cissé has said that the feedback she receives from the women who participate in the experience is priceless. “So many women have shared how cathartic writing their story and cementing it with the shoot was to them,” she notes.

Using a fashion brand as a way to give back is another way brands are embracing ethical practices. In Nigeria, footwear and accessories brand Shekudo offers a different pricing model for its products from other parts of the world. For founder and designer Akudo Iheankanwa, it just makes sense. “It’s a Nigeria-wide discount. I like to do this because it’s made here and we are shipping within Nigeria so there isn’t a need to include a fee like we have to for international orders,” she says.

Iheankanwa works with local artisans who make her shoes and bags by hand, and she works directly with each of them to build upon their skills in order to get the best out of them. This also means paying them fair, equitable wages that they can live on. “We tend to pay our team higher than the average local pay because I believe their work deserves it and people can afford to invest in that when they buy our products,” the designer says. She is also working towards facilitating further technical training in shoemaking and leather work for her team and hopes to bring in more women into the craft. “Men in this industry believe that women can’t do this type of work [goldsmithing and shoemaking] and I want to contest that,” Iheankanwa has said. “I would particularly like to work with women who are finding it hard to find work because of their age or social situation.”

A Nigerian artisan preparing a Shekudo mule heel

Employing locally, keeping the sources of materials close to home with a clear supply chain have always been characteristic to the African fashion industry. By not relying on imported materials, brands are circulating funds within their community, boosting their national economy and supporting small, usually family-run businesses in the process.

The woven Boulé textile, believed to have originated from the 16th century Ashanti Kingdom, is associated with the Akan people of Côte d’Ivoire and has been worn to celebrate festivities, community gatherings and traditional ceremonies for centuries. In many Ivorian regions, producing the fabric is often their main source of income, such as the town of Sakiaré where it’s estimated the 95% of its inhabitants are weavers. Ivorian brand Kente Gentlemen relies on the Boulé textile for its colourful tailored separates, highlighting not just the historic nature of this fabric’s elegant craftsmanship but to ensure that it is celebrated and worn in the modern era. “It’s a great honor and privilege for Kente Gentlemen to directly work and collaborate with the artisans that provide us with the fabric,” notes Aristide Loua, the brand’s founder. “We also feel honored to contribute to the local economy, even in the smallest of ways, and add to the story, art and beauty of said fabric.”

As consumers themselves become more environmentally conscious, they look to companies and brands that share their values and contribute positively to their way of life. For animal lovers, this means using products from brands that don’t test on animals while environmentally conscious consumers look for goods that are free from toxic materials, use natural ingredients and recyclable packaging.

Beauty brands such as South Africa’s 1981 and New York-based For Tmrw take care to ensure that their products are non-toxic, organic and cruelty-free. These practices attract like-minded consumers who are increasingly discerning and quick to point out when a company’s actions fail to match its purported inclusive, eco-friendly or ethical credentials.

Today, many brands are holding themselves accountable for not just producing luxury garments, but the way they are made and the impact it has on all ways of life. Taking a considered approach to all aspects of business operations imbue their products with added value that encourages consumers to not only shop fashionably but responsibly.

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