THE BLOG
02/11/2016 09:43 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2017

The Runway Challenge: Fashion Week for the Soulful Shopper

Colleen Napolitano

This fashion week, I'm here to challenge you. It does not matter whether you shop at Bergdorf or H&M, TOMS or Jimmy Choo; what matters is if you're asking the right questions and realizing that the decisions you make reverberate around the world. It is certainly not easy to look a bargain in the eye and walk away. But the ethical fashion movement and the Soulful Economy are here to be your support system.

Ten years ago, I started a company in Rwanda to empower the female victims of the 1994 genocide. I did so because I felt powerless to help in any other way. At that time, I had no idea that my desire to give a hand-up, not a handout, and to provide employment to women genocide survivors would lead me to become a prominent voice in the ethical fashion movement.

I certainly had no idea that as a 'one-percenter' I would spearhead a movement to acknowledge the effects of our purchases, both positive and negative, and their ability to shape the lives of millions of people living in extreme poverty. But my real goal is to urge everyone to understand the intrinsic value of the ethical fashion movement, and the good feeling of being morally connected to your choices. To do this, we have to re-examine our own patterns of consumption -- yes, mine included.

Did you know that we are consuming at an unprecedented rate? Americans today buy 400 percent more clothing than they did 20 years ago and consumerism now makes up 72 percent of the U.S. economy. Just flip on one of your home's TVs to find the show Storage Wars, where Americans argue over our country's 58,000 storage facilities (according to a 2012 survey one in every 10 families has one). Today, the prevalent idea is that we need these storage facilities to hold our stuff while we go out and buy more stuff. We have gotten to a point where we don't even know what we have... What's in your storage unit?

In our defense, we are consuming at such an alarming rate because the price of consumption is at an all-time low. I recall a Vogue article that said, "Do I get a coffee? A snack? Or something to wear?" The article was highlighting a $4.95 dress from H&M pointing out that trendy clothing is cheaper than ever. This is due in large part to the unparalleled rise of fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, where CEOs have proudly remarked that several new designs come into the store every day of the week.

With 98 percent of goods in American stores being created abroad combined with the cheap cost of trendy clothes, I can't help but see a red flag. The red flag I'm referring to is the fast fashion model: "profits at all costs,"meaning the human cost of cheap clothing. Because we are so addicted to bargains, we don't realize we're leaving millions of people out of the equation. We know about tragedies like the Bangladesh factory fire in 2013 that left over 1,100 people dead, we know about inhumane child labor in the sweatshops of the Global South, but we are not connecting the dots and taking responsibility.

Just last month I met with Speciose in Kigali, Rwanda. She is a Same Sky artisan who crafts beautiful glass bead jewelry and gets paid 15-20 times the average wage in Sub-Saharan Africa. She was glowing when I saw her and so proud for her daughter to tell me that she had just enrolled in college. It is a remarkable transformation from when I first met her several years ago. At that time she was traumatized from rape during the genocide and living with HIV in government housing. She used to tell me that she was only waiting to die. Then there is Dominique, who was recently released from the Hudson County Jail, and is employed by Same Sky America to bead bracelets. Through Same Sky, she realized her managerial skills and began to pursue her passion for business management.

At Same Sky, we believe the best form of philanthropy is providing a good job. With collectives based in Rwanda and Jersey City, we see firsthand that real change happens with the dignity of work. We elevate the idea of ethical shopping -- in fact, just one Same Sky bracelet pays for healthcare for a Rwandan HIV+ artisan for an entire year. A Same Sky necklace pays for their child to go to school for one year. The ethic behind our operation is that talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn't. The true value of Same Sky is that it's a ribbon that ties you to women a world away -- a beautiful piece of jewelry that connects you to an idea and a revolution that can change lives... even yours.

The Soulful Economy emphasizes that you don't have to give up style to get this feeling. Ethical fashion is about being brave --you have to be willing to stand up to the social and cultural pressures that tell you consumption is the key to happiness. I can speak from experience, I feel happier knowing that I'm wearing a bracelet crocheted by Speciose, and so proud to know I'm helping a woman a world away. At the same time, Speciose is a constant reminder of the power of my purchases. It really is a win-win model.

So please keep a discerning eye out at Fashion Week and I promise that you won't be disappointed. You'll see Naeem Kahn is now employing talented bead-workers in Miami who were in need of a second chance. You'll see that Donna Karan and Parsons School of Design are working full-time with Haitian artisans.

Articles on what it means to be happy in life will continue to circulate the Internet. Doctors and journalists meditate on how to find happiness -- they question whether happiness resonates in a yoga class or a vitamin D supplement. To me, there is nothing more clearly defined: to be happy is to find purpose in the everyday. Consume with knowledge, consume with empathy, and consume in a way that does not leave 3.5 billion people out of the picture.

Keep a lookout for Part 2 of my series on ethical fashion: The Human Cost of Cheap Clothing.

PHOTO GALLERY
Same Sky

This blog post is part of the "Soulful Economy" series produced by The Huffington Post and Same Sky, a trade initiative that creates employment opportunities for women struggling to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. The series is running in conjunction with New York Fashion Week, and aims to use shopping as a force for good. To learn how to become a conscious consumer, read here. And to join the conversation on Twitter, look for the hashtag #SoulfulEconomy.