07/05/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Ethical Fashion: The New Luxury

In an arena long defined by unrestrained spending on diamonds, designer dresses and exclusive resorts, the idea of "luxury" is being revised by none other than the United Nations. Who'd have imagined it?

In a span of ten days, Simone Cipriani and Ilaria Venturini Fendi traveled from Europe to Rio to Haiti and back again. Cipriani, the effervescent head of the U.N.'s Ethical Fashion Initiative, made sure that Haiti was a centerpiece of the tour, not an after-thought. And Venturini Fendi, founder of Carmina Campus and daughter of the noble Italian fashion family whose glitzy products shimmer off the pages of glamorous magazines and pricy billboards, took on Rio's garbage pickers and Haiti's paper mache' artisans not as charities but as colleagues.

Together, Cipriani and Venturini Fendi are leading a crusade to have buyers think in terms of 'human value" not glitter and price.

"The work of creation is the most beautiful work in life," said Venturini Fendi, from an earthy artisan's workshop outside Port-au-Prince. "I was taught the value of objects made by hand, by artisans. What they produce is the true luxury, the true product with value."

Venturini Fendi's successful fashion brand, Carmina Campus, is an example that everyone can change their way of doing business, if you want to, even when your industry is fashion.

For a product to have substantial value, says Venturini Fendi, it must make a contribution to the economy, the society and the earth. "These three things cannot be separated," she says, pointing to a graceful vase molded out of reused cement bags as her illustration. The vase re-uses what would otherwise be waste, brings income to the camps of Haiti and provides beauty for a dinner table in Rome. "This is luxury," says Venturini Fendi.

When we assign value to any created object, Venturini Fendi argues, we are making an ethical choice. Through Carmina Campus, she demonstrates that the newest fashion isn't driven by a color palette or the length of a skirt but by the object's ability to promote social, economic and ecological good. The justice with which a diamond is mined speaks more to its beauty, and its value, than do the carets by which it is traditionally measured. It's all about the value of just wages and human creativity in production, and training human beings who are shoppers to adopt new habits.

Key to all the changes is ethics. From concern over wages in Chinese factories producing our iPads or diamond-mine slavery giving us engagement rings, the world of ethics has landed in the world of shopping.

But Venturini Fendi takes ethics one step farther: Rooting out injustice isn't enough. What's needed is a system of justice, fairness, equality, ecological strength, embedded in ultra-cool designs is the new trend, is a new revolution that affects the aesthetics of all consumers' objects. Incorporating these human values into products for Carmina Campus results in what she terms "luxury." With the global fashion industry valued at roughly a trillion dollars per year, even modest changes could yield dollar values counted in the tens of billions annually.

Forty five years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King promised that a "true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies." In that moment, he said, we will see that "true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

In an industry defined by runways, flashbulbs, and this year's fad available at breathtaking prices, Simone Cipriani through the U.N. Ethical Fashion Initiative and Ilaria Venturini Fendi through her Carmina Campus line are stopping the show with their quiet questions: "Was it created ethically? Does it promote good?" They intend to toss no coins to beggars, but to restructure the global fashion industry using an ethical blueprint. There are signs that they're making progress.

What could be more luxurious than that?