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A Form of Art: Ethical Fashion

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

As an art form, fashion can be used as a vehicle of social change. Through the clothing we wear, we can dismantle bias and create positive representations of minority communities. We can tell stories that force people to ask important questions and push conventional boundaries that help us unlearn harmful practices and beliefs about things like body image and how much value should be placed on the garments we wear. The human and environmental impact of an industry that provides something most of us use, is vast, but with terms like “sustainability,” “sweatshops” and “green-washing” being thrown around regularly, it can be difficult to decipher the facts from the noise. This is a topic that has interested us for some time, but over the past few months, as we spent more time on our first merch collection, we’ve been contemplating it even more.

We live in a world full of intersectional realities. Fashion does not exist in an independent bubble. It’s how we signify important characteristics about ourselves. It’s how approximately 22.67 million people earn a living worldwide. It directly impacts issues such as labor rights, human exploitation and climate change, due to the fact that the profitability of the fashion industry is largely, if not exclusively, owed to a combination of cheap female labor and the exploitation of migrant labor, as well as a general disregard for the impact the industry has on the planet. The regular occurrence of health problems experienced by agricultural workers and people living in communities close to garment dying facilities, are issues that have historically been ignored. The same can be said about the fact that it takes approximately 2,000 gallons of water to make a pair of jeans.

These issues and figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet, when people try to rectify them, setbacks often arise from oversimplification. We tend to look at problems through our narrow perspectives and consider things in relation to how they impact our individual lives directly, without taking the wider picture into consideration. For instance, we should not only be concentrating on where products are made (it’s now become a colloquial phrase to signify quality or levels of “cool” when we declare that something is “not made in China”), but how they are made, using which methods, and by whom. We should be questioning how our clothes travel from Bangladesh, or China, to our closets on the other side of the world. Instead of justifying these purchases by using the option to donate clothes that we no longer want or need, we should be focused on purchasing items that are made to last, even if they cost more. Changing our perspective in this way would not only have a positive impact on production supply chains, but since clothes often end up in developing countries, where their presence makes the need for local creators obsolete, thereby negatively transforming local economies and psyches, it would also have a positive impact on societies that seemingly are far-removed from the original garments in question. The subjects of social and environmental assistance are particularly complex.

Round table at the Ethical Fashion Initiative event in Paris, France with designers from the African diaspora and UN officials
Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop

A similar example can be drawn from an Ethical Fashion Initiative event we recently attended, where speakers pressed local designers to purchase traditionally-made fabric from artisanal designers in various African countries. While this is an important initiative, the question was raised about the precarious situation of local couturières and people who sell traditional fabric in the “Little Africa of Paris,” who although they live in France, do not live in stable conditions. They regularly lack work, which impacts their financial stability and their immigration status, and are therefore greatly helped by local designers who buy fabric from them and employ them to contribute to their collections. Should these designers choose to stop this in favor of artisans in other countries, their situations would become even more difficult. Although well-intentioned, these options (e.g., donating clothes or favoring small businesses in other countries) are not always the most ethical solutions, just as oversimplifying these issues is not the best way to ensure positive outcomes.

As is often the case, education is the best way forward. Arguably, one of the largest issues within this complex topic is that the average person does not know how their clothes are made or even where they are made. This inherently means that they are not aware of the environmental, social, human, or economic impact caused by what they wear, or how to best care for their clothes to ensure they last longer. Still, there is hope because fashion can be democratic. We have the power to purchase clothing that speaks to us, is ethically made and consciously created. We can choose to wear culturally representative clothes by designers like, Walé Oyéjidé, who uses his collections to subvert negative narratives about minority communities and irregular migrants. We can choose to educate ourselves about upcycling brands that waste as little as possible, such as super marché, or those that combine upcycling with other important social issues, like HoMie, which uses its profits to fund their programs that help young people experiencing homelessness. We can consume less and focus on small made-to-order brands, like Maison Cleo, or choose to shop vintage and secondhand as much as possible. Through our purchases from brands like Maison Château Rouge and Lukhanyo Mdingi, we can contribute to projects that work to provide equitable economic empowerment to communities that need it most. We have the power to create meaningful change by learning about these issues and transforming how we approach getting dressed each day. A dress or a t-shirt can be more than just garments. They can be pieces of art that drive social and environmental change.

Merch t-shirts for Soul Food, a nonprofit in Paris, France (people sewing custom labels on)
Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop

This is where we started our Soul Food fashion journey, by researching these issues and taking the time to ensure we are doing the best we can in terms of quality, ethics and sustainability. In creating our first merch collection, we’ve stayed away from fast fashion brands that would have probably made our lives easier, and allowed us to earn higher profits by producing and selling our merch at lower costs. Instead, we chose quality, ethically-produced products. Our t-shirts are produced in Bangladesh by Stanley Stella, a company that is ethically certified by several international, independent entities and standards. They only work with 100% organic cotton and recycled materials. Our t-shirts are made by people with fair working conditions, in a country hard hit by social and environmental dumping. One of the models from our first collection is made using undyed (100% organic) cotton, making it even more gentle on the environment. They are also size inclusive. Our sticker sheets are recyclable and biodegradable. They are produced by Print.Work, made partially from recycled materials. To cut down on waste, we opted for minimal packaging (specifically, baker’s twine by GARN & MEHR instead of a box) and chose Packhelp mailer bags that are produced from organic vegetable starch and are fully bio-degradable. We decided to use the pre-order/drop system, not only to cut down on costs, but also to produce the least amount of waste possible because we will only produce merch that is bought or used by our organization (we have limited to no stock, depending on the item). As we continue to grow and use our merch collection to raise money for our initiatives, ethics and sustainability will remain part of every decision-making process and goal.

When done correctly, fashion contributes to a wider cultural landscape and makes the world a better place by invoking meaningful conversations, raising awareness and empowering the people who contribute to creating a piece or a collection. Conscious fashion tells untold, thought-provoking stories and makes people feel like the best versions of themselves. Ethical fashion lasts long enough to leave a minimal environmental impact. As an art form, fashion has the power to create social change and challenge ideas of body image, class, beauty, and conventionality. Through its influence, we can learn about ourselves and other cultures, and be inspired to preserve meaningful traditions and find creative solutions to today’s most pressing environmental and social issues.

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