Fashion Needs a Sustainable Handprint

04/27/2015 11:51 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015
Louis Nderi/ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Sustainability is about how things are made. Nowadays, the fashion industry talks extensively about becoming sustainable. Yet it concentrates mostly on one side of the story: how raw materials are made and the impact of production processes on the environment. By doing this, the industry avoids addressing the issue of how people are treated in the supply chain. And thus, it remains a highly unsustainable industry.

What are sustainable products? Products that last and that are made through processes that are good for people and the environment.

If a product doesn't last and needs replacing after a couple of seasons, it is not sustainable. To last, products must be well made, which in fashion means not at mass-production levels but by well-organized and skilled craft-people. Fashion used to be made by craft-people (I will call them artisans from now on), but generally this is not the case anymore and this is for three reasons.

Firstly, to reduce the costs associated to labor -- and therefore to reduce fixed costs -- and to maximize profits, fashion moved to industrialization. From thereafter, artisans were gradually excluded from production and the cost of labor was brought down. A person that repeatedly performs the same task (like attaching a zip) is paid less than somebody making the whole product or a substantial part of it.

Secondly, production started to be outsourced to countries with cheap labor. With simplified tasks and products, they became movable. Thirdly, the fashion industry began subcontracting production to specialized trading companies to manage production, which means brands avoid direct connections with the actual producers, and thus evade the responsibility of labor conditions.

In the places where real artisans remained in the supply chain, fashion has adopted another system: sending all the materials, requesting artisans to input their work, but dictating the value of this work, benchmarked on the remuneration of mass production in Asia. This is why people rightly say that today the world is divided into "Asia" and "not Asia." The first is a place where work is highly industrialized and corporate-social-responsibility schemes (CSR schemes) are more or less ignored, the second are places where the industry and artisans struggle to catch up.

This has resulted in three serious consequences:

1. A decrease in quality: fashion products are not always the beautiful products they used to be.
2. People from this industry have lost knowledge of artisanal skills: some forms of production are becoming more and more difficult to conceive.
3. Fashion products tend to last less.

All this is unsustainable. One can use all the organic materials he/she wants, but by manufacturing products this way, they will always remain unsustainable as they won't last and people who have the know-how of making them well will disappear.

This situation is already visible in one of the cradles of fashion manufacturing: Italy.

My argument is made with reference to the production of a luxury bag. Remuneration in Italy 10 years ago for the construction of a bag was invoiced at €23 to €25 per hour, plus overheads. It then went down to €19 to €20 per hour, plus overheads. One must know that, on average, a bag requires two to three hours of work for a skilled artisan, paid fairly (meaning it includes the costs of social security, etc.) Today, some fashion brands are proposing a different way of work: a flat rate for the entire work at €19 (or even less) per bag, including everything. This makes it impossible for an artisan to survive. Not by chance, many allegations of illegal employment involving immigrant workers with no social security or employment protection, have recently surfaced in Italy (see Rai's Report). People accept this work as they need it, and sometimes they complement it with other, better-paid commissioned work. Yet they gradually close down their companies and look for employment elsewhere.

In Kenya, where our program, the Ethical Fashion Initiative, coordinates the production of accessories for large brands, we invoice €13 for a bag similar to the one described above, plus overheads. This is roughly two thirds of what is paid in Italy, where productivity (the number of units per hour) is higher and, thus, there is a drive to bring this price down. Yet this allows us to pay artisans a living wage.

This happens because the benchmark of mass production is so low that everybody, in Italy and in Africa, has to decrease prices. Nobody can compete and artisans are disappearing. Today, being an artisan is not a good job anymore. At the same time, this means that products do not last and are unsustainable.

Technology is not a solution to this: the sector of luxury accessories is using the same mature technology of years ago, with the hands of people as a key input. You cannot use 3D printing to make a luxury bag. At least not yet.

My opinion is that, instead of concentrating only on the environmental footprint of fashion production, we should all have a look at its handprint. Are people able to get a life out of the work they do with their hands? To me, this is the core issue this industry should look into, if they truly intend to become sustainable, rather than the green washing sometimes used to run away from responsibilities.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.