How To Make Ethical Clothing: The Complete Guide

How To Make Ethical Clothing: The Complete Guide

Dennis Kamprad

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After the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, most of the fashion industry was exposed by the media as highly unethical in production and manufacturing. Since then, there have been thousands of new brands created in the name of good ethics and fair treatment of garment workers. And these days, there are plenty of resources available to help you in your quest to make ethical clothing.

To make ethical clothing, you need to focus on and research the specific aspects of ethical and sustainable manufacturing most relevant to you. Also, associate with organizations that specialize in standards and certifications, and always verify any manufacturer’s ethical claims.

Starting your own brand of ethical clothing can be a daunting task, and it can easily become overwhelming. This guide provides you with the things you need to consider before you get started.

Understand That Ethical and Sustainable Are Not the Same Things

When it comes to manufacturing–in the fashion industry, especially–many put ethical and sustainable under one umbrella and view them as one and the same. However, these are two separate principles. 

Sustainability typically refers to the impact a brand has on the environment, whereas ethics concerns the health and overall wellbeing of people/animals involved in the production. In general, the ethical and sustainable fashion movement has embraced doing no harm to the environment, animals, or workers.

You can choose to give your brand any ethical identity you wish in an attempt to correct any wrongdoing of the fashion industry. However, this will require you to hone in on some specific areas of ethics and sustainability, as trying to do everything optimally all at once is a Herculean task. 

This article will consider ethics alongside sustainability, but you’ll want to keep this distinction in mind throughout your endeavor to better focus on what you hope to accomplish.

Pick and Prioritize Your Ethical Battles

Several factors are involved when it comes to making ethical clothing, so it’s vital to start this process by defining what ethical (or sustainable) means to you and go from there. 

Ethically speaking, your main concern is the fair treatment of people–and also animals –involved throughout production. This could include fair worker’s wages, economic empowerment, ethical and fair-trade certifications, or many other factors. Typically, this comes with a higher financial cost, once again making focus your key point to take away here.

Know that you will never be able to please all the people all the time when it comes to sustainability. Plus, creating a sustainable and eco-friendly brand requires looking at your business as a whole, from materials and production to packaging and delivery, even things like what lighting you use in your office. If you are going to consider sustainability as part of your definition of ethics, be sure to focus on what’s most important to keep things manageable. 

For example, one may choose to focus on your employees; to ensure all your workers are paid a good living wage and treated fairly. At the same time, another may decide to make clothes using only natural fabrics. Yet neither of these choices alone make a brand any more or less ethical than another brand that is trying to be a Jack-of-all-trades in a sustainable fashion. All these things together make for good ethics in fashion, which is still the goal.

Keep in mind you can always add to or improve upon what you’re doing later on down the road. Once you have your focus, use it as the foundation of your brand identity and philosophy.

Know Your Target Customer

When starting any business, it’s important to know you have a customer out there for your product. Ideally, a good business will offer a solution to a problem or make a product that people are demanding (or both). This may also play into your focus on ethics versus sustainability. Many entrepreneurs stumble and fail in fashion because they try to appease the general public and get “liked” by a wide range of consumers. 

In reality, you need to get people to love your brand and what it stands for to convince them to give you their hard-earned money. And it’s much easier to target a particular customer you know you can design for and cater to so as to get them to love your product and onboard with what you’re doing.

Consider asking yourself and others the following questions to help define your target customer:

  • What brands does your target consumer currently shop, and why?
  • How often do they shop?
  • How much do they typically spend?
  • What is their income/disposable income?
  • How old are they?
  • Where do they live?
  • What style do they like?
  • What size do they wear?
  • What are their lifestyle and behavior?

Once you’ve gathered as much information as you can on your potential target customer, aim always to create something that will please these specific consumers to maximize your chances for success.

According to the MAMOQ Sustainable Fashion Blueprint 2018, when deciding what fashion items to buy, price is second only to fit as the biggest consumers’ concerns. And while a higher price for ethically-made clothing is understandable, many will still have to draw the line somewhere. 

As uncomfortable as it is, the fact remains that most consumers don’t care about the difficulties you have to endure to get ethical production. Generally, it is left to the entrepreneur to determine how to reduce costs without sacrificing quality or ethical practices. But this is hard work that will pay off–in more ways than one–as it will help make ethical fashion more affordable and attractive, encouraging customers of mainstream’ fashion to shop ethically.

Select Which Materials To Use

Textiles account for roughly 18 million tons–and growing–of waste annually (Imagine how long that will take to decompose!) This is particularly depressing, considering that nearly 95% of this waste could and should be recycled instead. 

For example, polyester takes anywhere from twenty to two hundred years to break down and may not be the best choice you can make for the environment. More eco-friendly textile options include bamboo, hemp, wool, linen, and organic cotton.

If you plan to use materials such as silk, wool, angora, leather, or alpaca, these choices come with their own set of ethical considerations. People have different beliefs surrounding this topic–vegans wouldn’t be your customer in this case, as an example. However, others may be willing to purchase such products so long as you can assure them of good animal welfare.

Additionally, consider materials like natural dyes for your fabrics as well. You may be surprised to find how many common plants and foods are used for this purpose, like coffee, turmeric, and indigo, and it makes an important difference in ethical manufacturing.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Arguments can be made for and against the actual sustainability of every material used to make clothing. For example, while biodegradable, some natural fibers may have had toxic pesticides or excessive water used to grow them; others can only be made utilizing chemical processes. However, textiles like nylon are made entirely from unsustainable materials that won’t biodegrade for hundreds of years. 

Don’t Forget To Consider the End-Life

Of course, you’re looking to make quality garments that last, but nothing will last forever. A truly sustainable and ethical brand will consider what happens to its product once it is no longer fit for use. Using all bio-based, eco-friendly materials will ensure quick decomposition. However, you may also consider using recycled polyester and introducing some kind of recycling program or upcycling project for your customers to increase brand sustainability.

Find an Ethical Manufacturer

In order to operate your business ethically, you’ll need to work with a respected, trusted factory that supports the basic human rights to fair compensation and safe working conditions. Unfortunately, most manufacturing in the fashion industry commonly practices various forms of labor exploitation–including in “developed” countries, as some local laws are crafted with words that create legal loopholes. 

Many consumers out there are just as concerned about ethics in the fashion industry as you are. You will likely receive a range of questions like, “Who makes your clothes? Do the people work in fair and safe conditions? Is there child labor involved?” When this happens, you want to be able to answer these questions with confidence that your manufacturer is ethical.

For these reasons, we start with what is not the first step but rather the most important step in finding an ethical manufacturer.

Verify Manufacturing Claims for Yourself

The best way to see what is really happening at a factory and how a manufacturer actually operates is by visiting the location yourself. There are many places in the United States, for example, that make it easy for you to visit and personally walk the supply chain so you can see and know, without a doubt, that your garments are being produced ethically.

If a personal visit is not possible, you can always arrange an independent audit by a group or organization that will go on your behalf. Organizations like Qualspec will visit a factory to ensure that machinery is safe and functional; Resources like  Virtue + Vice will visit and inspect the site and chat with employees for you. 

Don’t underestimate the power of a reputation, either. Ask around in your local fashion community about manufacturers that you are considering to see what others have to say about them.  

Ask All the Questions…and Then Ask Some More

The odds are good that all the questions your customers may ask of you are the same questions you should be asking prospective manufacturers. Make up a list of all the questions you want to be answered, and don’t be afraid to ask them! You will come to find that people who are passionate about ethical and sustainable fashion tend to share this information with great detail. In contrast, those who aren’t so ethical often change topics.

ORDNUR is an online resource for information and practical knowledge concerning textiles, textile engineering, garments, fashion design, and the fashion industry’s financial and economic aspects. Their mission is to develop clear concepts that are easily applied in the workplace. Utilizing their Compliance Audit Checklist in the Apparel Industry can help you address all the components of any ethical consideration you want.

Visit Trade Shows

Trade shows are some of the greatest resources to find the necessary materials for your brand and to learn more about the manufacturers. You can get up-close and personal with textiles and chat one-on-one with the makers themselves. 

Bring your list of questions and look for someone who is willing to be transparent and give you clear, straightforward responses. Those who are genuinely ethical are often quick and eager to share this information. If anyone appears to skirt around your questions at any time, this may be a red flag.

The Artisan Resource trade show hosted by NY Now provides you access to manufacturers and makers across the globe. You can even find amazing companies like AOW Handmade who can source materials for you that are ethically made.

Beware of Greenwashing

With sustainable becoming a buzz-word and expectation for many consumers, many brands and manufacturers use this term even if their products are bad for the environment. This is known as greenwashing, and savvy consumers have caught on–just another reason transparency is so important. 

Verification of this can be difficult, and you will find yourself having to take suppliers and manufacturers at their word more often than you’d like. However, there are some certifications that verify global standards of sustainability that you can look out for, such as Oeko-Tex or the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS).

Unfortunately, the same greenwashing scheme is also done with claims of ethical manufacturing. A factory may be subjected to laws or standards against forced labor, for example, but still manage to engage in these practices and get away with it. 

Again, you can be on the lookout for particular certifications; in this case, something like the Fair-Trade Certification. The World Fair Trade Organization has 10 Principles of Fair Trade that one must adhere to in order to promote this claim.

But in the end, this goes back to verifying these claims for yourself as best as possible. 

Consider Artisanal Production

Many in the sustainable and ethical fashion movement argue on the side of artisanal production. The basic belief is something like this:

“Handcrafted items made by skilled artisans are generally considered more “special” by consumers; for this reason, items are cared for with greater discernment and tend to last longer. Slower production means less waste. And such employment often helps take people and their local communities out of poverty, and promotes transparency in the supply chain.”

This is all well and good, and it could very well be the route you choose to take. But unless you are looking to start a high-end luxury brand, artisanal production may not be economically wise. 

For instance, it won’t matter that your basic white T-shirt can help save a community in an under-developed nation from starvation if your customer is unwilling to pay $70 for it. Or, if the artisans can only produce two dozen garments every year, it will be near impossible to ever really turn a profit. 

Artisanal production will never be able to compete with mass production, but a good compromise is creating smaller sized “mass” batches using fast production methods. High-quality can still be assured when made quickly so long as quantity remains low. 

Consider Producing in Developing Nations

Since production and labor wage costs are typically less than what you would pay in the ‘Western’ developed countries, many think producing in developing countries is unethical. Such thinking often prompts many ethical fashion brands to decide to manufacture in places like the United States, Australia, or Europe, where there are stricter labor laws and higher-wage labor costs.

But in spite of evidence to the contrary, it is possible to find good labor in developing countries without going against moral or ethical standards. In fact, producing in places like Asia or Africa will not only greatly reduce production costs, it will also make a significant difference in the lives of your laborers.

Get Yourself Certified

Certification is optional, and it often comes with a hefty price tag. But labeling your brand as GOTS Certified, or some other certification more appropriated for you, could potentially get many customers to buy your clothing. Visit the Fashion Revolution for a list of key organizations to associate yourself with, many of whom offer official certification labels. 

Final Thoughts

Successfully making ethical clothing can be done when you take the time to do your research and find the right customers, materials, and manufacturers you need. Remember that ethical and sustainable manufacturing contains many components; you will likely find it is easier to focus on doing a few things really well instead of taking on every issue. And in the end, you will have made a genuine difference. 

Stay impactful,

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