As awareness about the negative impact of fast fashion has spread, the idea that if something is cheap it probably isn’t ethical has made its way into our collective consciousness.
This can be a pretty safe assumption. As Anne Bienias (Living Wage Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign) recently shared on the Conscious Style Podcast, “A good rule of thumb is that usually the price a brand pays to the factory is 25% of the retail price. If you’re buying a t-shirt for $20, a good estimate to assume is that $5 was paid for that t-shirt. Then from that $5, between 5-12% is usually reserved for labor costs. That means that roughly 25-60 cents from your $20 shirt will actually go to factory workers.”
The flip side to this presumption is the potentially incorrect belief that a higher price tag guarantees a positive impact. But are “luxury” fashion brands necessarily more ethical, or do they have more in common with fast fashion brands than we might hope?
Why quality matters more than brand names and pricing
Linda Mai Phung, sustainable fashion designer, consultant, and Fashion Revolution member points out that we need to think about what we mean when using the terms “luxury” and “high-end” or “designer” brands. “High quality fashion manufacturing necessitates high skilled artisans, technicians and workers,” she says. “Therefore, the pay is often greater than mass production workers because of their skills and rarity.” We should also consider the fact that higher quality manufacturing, generally, leads to a longer life for each garment.
Much of [luxury garments are] also produced alongside fast fashion in the global south – in the same factories and under the same working conditions.
The problem is that not everything with a high price tag or luxury branding is necessarily of a particularly high quality. When it comes to what we typically think of as “high-end” or “designer” brands, the story about how these products are made is often very different from what we might expect.
Busting the myth: Are Luxury Brands More Sustainable?
Remake’s Transparency Manager, Becca Coughlan, explains: “luxury garment production varies both across and within companies. While some luxury clothing may indeed be produced in ateliers in France or Italy, for example, by seamstresses who do earn a living wage, much of it is also produced alongside fast fashion in the global south – in the same factories and under the same working conditions. What’s more, many luxury brands also still rely on oil-based synthetic materials to make their products.”
…luxury brands have unfortunately doubled their collection rhythm from two to eight [or more] collections per year to compete against fast fashion for market attention.
While in the past our trust in luxury brands might have been justified as they worked at a much slower pace, producing two collections a year, the business model of many brands has changed. “Over the past 15 years luxury brands have unfortunately doubled their collection rhythm from two to eight [or more] collections per year to compete against fast fashion for market attention,” Mai Phung explains. This increase in pace has led to huge shifts in the way trends and designs come to be, as well as requiring that companies adopt the unsustainable practices used by fast fashion brands.
Ruth MacGilp, Fashion Revolution’s Communications Manager, agrees: “It is a myth that luxury brands are automatically more ethical or sustainable than fast fashion,” she tells us. “Higher price points may not translate to increased labor costs, with the majority of the price we pay for garments comprising the brand margin and retail markup. For example, the Fashion Transparency Index found that 96% of major brands, including luxury labels, don’t disclose the number of employees that are paying a living wage.”
…some of the lowest scores this year were also from luxury brands like Tom Ford, Max Mara and Jil Sander.
Another persistent issue for designer brands is waste production: in 2018 the BBC reported that upmarket British brand Burberry destroyed unsold products worth £28.6 million in one year in efforts to ensure that the market didn’t become too saturated with excess goods, thereby devaluing their products and forcing them to lower their prices. Unfortunately, this move is becoming increasingly common rather than an exception for both designer and fast fashion labels.
activism is having an impact
Mai Phung is hopeful that things are now starting to change for the better, “thanks to the years of work from non-profits and citizens raising awareness and pressuring the brands to be more transparent and responsible.”
Governments are starting to listen and take concrete action: in France, legislation now prohibits the destruction of unsold goods. Meanwhile, in a recent victory against greenwashing, H&M agreed to refrain from making unsubstantiated and misleading claims, and the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign is calling for legislation that would hold fashion brands selling in the EU to higher standards of living wage due diligence to ensure fair pay for garment workers.
In recent years, experts and activists have been working hard to make it easier for consumers to check the impact of fashion brands. Whether you use Remake’s Brand Directory and Accountability Report, the Good On You app, or search the Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, there are numerous resources to help you to be an informed consumer.
“In general, luxury brands are more hesitant to disclose information about their supply chains, which can make it difficult to decipher whether their sustainability policies and promises are anything more than greenwashing,” MacGilp says. “However, for the first time, we’re seeing a lot of luxury brands disclose their first tier suppliers – where clothes are cut and sewn – including Chloé and GUESS, which is encouraging. Meanwhile, some of the lowest scores this year were also from luxury brands like Tom Ford, Max Mara and Jil Sander, so there is long way to go before these brands can truly be held accountable for their impacts on people and the planet.”
Re-imagining a radically different fashion industry
As a society we’ve lost touch with how much time, money, and skill sewing clothing requires. As we’ve become so far removed from the process, we’ve also become less skilled at spotting quality, and most of us are utterly lost when it comes to knowing how much we should expect an item of clothing to cost. We tend to attach value to brand names rather than to quality of the garment.
For many smaller brands who are trying to have a positive impact, this poses a problem; they don’t have the reputation, prestige or a large (and wealthy) audience in contrast to designer labels. These small brands often struggle to compete in a world where people are used to either paying a lot for a major label, or paying very little for fast fashion.
…independent designers…have more freedom to define what is a creative and ethical fashion brand.
While of course it was great news that Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire founder of Patagonia, donated most of his family’s shares in the company to a climate change charity, it would be better still if we lived in a world where the CEOs of businesses didn’t become billionaires while garment workers struggled to make a living in the first place.
As Remake’s Transparency Manager, Becca Coughlan points out, “these luxury fashion companies are usually massive conglomerates with vast value chains and substantial overall social and environmental footprints.” When an organization is huge and well-established, with many stakeholders and billionaire upper management, it’s incredibly hard to enact change.
…the head of a company should not be making an exorbitant amount more than their employees, because the more you grow the more you should be wanting to support your employees.
We need fashion companies to make brave decisions earlier, not waiting until they’ve “made it” to act. This will mean building a different kind of business model from the ground up that includes transparent pricing and sourcing, treating garment workers with dignity, and asking hard questions about their environmental impact. Yes, this will mean lower profits for people at the top, as well as slower growth and overall smaller companies. But it also means a fairer distribution of wealth and lower environmental impact; this is the future people and our planet need.
Smaller ethically-conscious brands have been leading the way when it comes to re-imagining the fashion world. As Mai Phung puts it, “independent designers…have more freedom to define what is a creative and ethical fashion brand.”
Fashion design that limits waste and maximizes transparency
Veronica Marrinan is the Designer and Co-Founder of Litany, a made-to-measure clothing company. She has made some very intentional choices about doing things differently when building her company from the ground up: firstly, making each piece of clothing to measure means that it’s harder to scale the company, but it reduces waste and transforms the value that the customer places on the items she buys. When something is made specifically for you, the choice to purchase feels more thought-through (you have to slow down long enough to take your measurements, for example), and because you won’t get it right away, you’re less likely to make an impulse purchase.
Litany also shares the breakdown of her pricing for each item; this isn’t unheard of in the conscious fashion industry, with bigger brands like Everlane and Reformation sharing details like pricing breakdown and estimates of the environmental footprint of products, but it’s still rare enough in the fashion industry as a whole to be notable.
Marrinan is open about the fact that this way of going about things requires different end goals to the ones we’re used to aspiring to. “My goal with Litany is not to make it a company that is profitable that I can sell… I honestly am fine with Litany being something that can support my life, can support my employees’ lives,” she says. “I don’t think anyone needs a private jet. I’m very much of the mindset that the head of a company should not be making an exorbitant amount more than their employees, because the more you grow the more you should be wanting to support your employees. And also people deserve to be compensated for their hard work, and any hard work that comes out of a clothing company is thanks to the employees and the factories that you partner with and the seamstresses that you partner with.”
As Marrinan points out, “it’s really hard to make a change in that unless you have a small company, because any big company that already exists is being built on this system. And shifting away from that takes a huge cut in their profits, and board members do not want that.”
We need to hold luxury brands accountable, too
The message from conscious fashion experts, then, is clear: it’s important to hold luxury and high-end brands to the same level of scrutiny as fast fashion brands, and if you’re able to spend more on your wardrobe, it’s definitely worth taking the time to do your research. As a general rule, the bigger the company, the more we need to push for accountability and transparency, as it’s hard to go into large scale production without sweat shops and a big environmental footprint.
As consumers, we also need to be more discerning about what we mean by “luxury”, shifting our aspirations from an obsession with brand names to high quality products that are made in safe working conditions for fair pay.
The bottom line is this: we need to approach expensive brands with the same level of scrutiny that we approach fast fashion. As the past few years have proven, our activism has an impact, and supporting small independent brands who are re-shaping the future of fashion for good makes a powerful statement.