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The Only Way is Ethics: The Fashion Industry’s Path to do Good


By Natasha Frangos, Partner, haysmacintyre

Perhaps inspired by the incredible initiatives that had sprung up during the pandemic, or triggered by increasing expectations from their consumers to do ‘good’, many brands have recently taken steps to ensure their operations and brand values are increasingly ethical.

Alongside the many small businesses that have centred their founding principles around ethics, some of the world’s largest brands are considering their social impact too: Pandora, for example, announced that it will no longer be using mined-diamonds, whilst LVMH has launched a £30m ‘employee assistance fund’.

Momentum has shifted, and more consumers expect the brands they shop with to uphold their ethical values. As we start to build back the economy post-pandemic, now is the ideal time for a brand to consider what it does well, and how it can be better – ethically.

Building ethics into the business

Becoming more socially responsible and ethical cannot happen overnight – making sudden changes to the business is far from feasible for every fashion company, and it can come at a high financial cost.

In fact, starting simple with a few small, short-term steps and big long-term commitments can have just as significant an impact. There is no need for brands to be perfect right from the start, provided they remain transparent with their consumers and take them along on the journey: showing them what the brand is doing and where they plan to go.

The first, and fundamental, starting point for any brand looking to pursue an ethical business model is to ensure that workers are at least on the minimum wage. Questions around sustainable sourcing may be rising to the fore in the age of eco-awareness, but fair pay and worker protection are already firmly enshrined both in ethics and law.

Brands that are serious about becoming better should then set out their values on working conditions, fair wages, and ethical sourcing within their business strategy. Start-ups or early-stage brand are able to consider creating their own set of values that they want to build the business around – but by embedding these into their strategy, they have to be committed to deliver on any ethical promises further down the line.

Collaboration is key

A number of fashion businesses are already carving a path in ethical initiatives – and working with or learning from those who have set the standards is a great way for brands to take their own steps towards becoming good.

Many fantastic initiatives have arisen through collaborations, such as Cult Beauty’s partnership with tech platform Provenance.org, offering cosmetic customers detailed information on the products they choose to buy. Similarly, some of the largest brands in the business are turning to nimble, innovative boutiques who are shaking up the fashion sector for good: whether it’s collaborating to produce a collection, or simply turning to agile small businesses for advice on how to create change, fashion giants can benefit significantly from collaborating with smaller businesses.

The businesses that a brand chooses to work in its supply chain is also a key consideration for any ethical strategies. Eager to certify the fact that they only work with those suppliers that align with their ethical values, many businesses are exploring the possibility of becoming a ‘B corporation’, like sustainable maternity brand Isabella Oliver. However, the process can be costly and time consuming, and may not be feasible for the smaller brands. By maintaining transparency to their consumers and setting easily attainable ethical goals, many brands can still receive recognition for the organisations they align themselves with, before pursuing certification at a later date.

Considering the cash

Amidst all the reputational and business benefits of becoming a socially responsible brand, financial gain is a key challenge the fashion industry faces. Currently, the costs of becoming an ‘ethical’ brand often outweigh the alternatives – at the manufacturing stage, for example, there is still a limited choice on the more ethical fabrics or materials that are available, so it could cost a brand more to produce a greener or more ethically-friendly item of clothing.

Brands have to start with the rationale for change – and, provided the business’ stakeholders are on board, change does not always have to be financially driven. However, ultimately, a business has to remain a business, so the costs have to be factored into the equation. Starting small and evolving slowly is the best way to achieve both social and financial long-term goals.

Our society has undergone a monumental shift over the past year – in the fashion industry in particular, we’ve noticed a drive towards sustainability coupled with the rise of initiatives like #ShopLocal. Consumers are now tending to opt for more considered purchases, with staple investment pieces likely to maintain the popularity they have gathered. Whilst sustainability is now a key factor for many fashion consumers, shoppers do expect the brands they buy from to match their wider ethical values too. Some may question the authenticity of a few brands’ ethical steps, but ultimately the more attention brought to the issue, the more all brands will be expected to follow suit and work towards becoming good.

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