The Business of Ethical Fashion
PART 2: The Challenges of Staying Ethical
Whether we recognize it or not, most of our choices are based on what we truly value. They are based on what we interpret as being ethical.
As part of my deep dive into learning more about ethical fashion, I was curious to learn what kind of real life challenges there are to building an ethical brand. What I have been learning has helped me appreciate what it really takes to do this. And, beyond that, it also makes me excited about what it can provide for all of us.
For anybody out there who has ever considered starting an ethical business... or even for those who are simply curious, I’m sure you may have wondered what it must be like to build a brand around ethical values, too. Here are ways brands are tackling the key challenges I discovered...
1. Growing Your Brand Awareness
A quirky little quote that sums it up:
“Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does.” –Steuart Henderson Britt
Existing. One of the biggest hurdles many of our ethical brand leaders face is simply being seen by the people who may be interested in their products.
Many brands have very humble beginnings. As small companies that pay more upfront to ensure fair wages and positive environmental impacts, ethically driven brands often find themselves left with tight budgets. And marketing, one of the major drivers of brand awareness, is one pricey piece of real estate that these brands often struggle to afford.
“We pay our workers living wages, we ensure everyone in our value chain is fairly compensated, we go to the effort to ensure that we’re not harming the environment in the process of making it, and all of that takes time and money! We work with much narrower margins, so we don’t have that much disposable money to be throwing behind Facebook or Google ads. I think you’ll find for most ethical brands, it will be about raising awareness about your mission and offering people solid reasons why they can shop with you.”
– Farrukh Lalani
Daria Day has been really creative with how they have approached this challenge. You can find some of the great content Daria Day creates to boost their online presence below. They help their followers and customers learn and discover everything from ethical shopping, to mindfulness, to gemstone-ology!
2. Educating for Ethical Awareness
An important aspect of doing ethical production is educating your customers so they know what they’re paying for.
When was the last time Walmart came out with a podcast? Probably never. Big corporations capture customers by grinding down prices. While this may work in the short term - it only works to serve as a transaction built solely on one thing: money.
On the other hand, small ethical brands have opportunities to take more proactive approaches to showing consumers why their choices matter and how to find alternatives that are in line with their values. You’ll find these ethical brand owners are not just business owners, but brilliant educators and thoughtful storytellers.
“Our mission is to create responsibly made products AND humanize the apparel industry by sharing stories of the maker and involving our consumers in how things are made. Ultimately, we focus on education.
You’ll see a lot of this in our brand story: from Maker’s stories, to interviews, and in all of our videos. We want to educate people on the process and give them a visual. This gives our customers an appreciation for what they’re buying.”
– Adila Cokar
True to her word, Adila and the team the The Good Tee are dedicated to sharing the stories of both the Makers and the importance of the supply chain through various forms of media. From detailed infographics to videos and podcasts, you'll find it all in their online presence.
3. A Survival-of-the-Biggest Kind of Economy
We live in an economy that not only favours- but rewards- companies that produce things for cheap and in large-scale quantities.
A simple example of this is sourcing zippers. A company that is mass-producing a dress gets a massive price break when ordering enough zippers to produce 10, 000 items at a time. However, a small local shop that might only produce 50 dresses in store, can't get the same price breaks and therefore pay more per zipper unit.
A huge challenge for these small ethical brands then, is figuring out how to make their products as affordable as possible (despite managing greater expenses), while still sustaining their businesses. This is probably one of the biggest hurdles for brands, especially when starting out.
“So much of the world’s economy is built on scale.
When you are a small fashion company, (especially when you are the smallest of the small) you can’t participate in the economy at that scale. Instead, you have to figure out how to participate in the economy at this smaller level, and still keep it reasonably affordable. The challenge in our current time is that everyone is used to paying for the cheap stuff that’s made at this [larger] level. It's been far too easy to completely disconnect to valuing quality over quantity.
For brands like ours, our products are truly better made AND we’re doing our best to keep it as affordable, honest and authentic as possible.”
– Christal Earle
While you may not know this, Brave Soles from the get-go has worked hard to be an affordable alternative to fast fashion - ethical, meticulously hand crafted, but most importantly, accessible.
You may be thinking, wow, these challenges sound awfully similar to challenges that other small-scale businesses face.
What I learned here is that running an ethical brand is actually not that different than running any small for-profit business: you’re still running a business and you’re still moving through the same processes. It's possible that your small business will be subjected to a few more constraints such as higher costs and smaller margins
,But yet, there is one big difference when you start a small business that has a strong mission statement. That difference is that you’re choosing better.
.You’ll definitely need to put in the extra work to share your story in a meaningful but generous way so people understand why they should be opting for ethical instead of economical.
But these are the choices each of us make everyday.
Do you want the vanilla bean? Or do you want the vanilla extract? Do you want the peaches from a can, or do you want them fresh? Each of them have their pros and cons.
It’s a matter of what you’re willing to give, to live the kind of life you want.
I hope the takeaway for those of you reading this is that ethical fashion business practices are not nearly as strange, unconventional or puzzling as you may have originally thought. Maybe it even encourages some of you to apply some of the practices into your own life!
At the very least, I hope it gives you a greater sense of appreciation for all the hurdles these brands jump through to offer us what they do. It is no easy walk in the park, but I am learning that it is the best way forward for us to build the world we want.
What are some other challenges you'd imagine these companies face on the daily? What are some obstacles you'd like to know more about? Let me know. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime, while you wait for Part 3: Exciting Opportunities in Unlikely Places, you might be interested in some of these ethical origin stories
Yona Lo - Your Guest Blogger
To give you some context, this series was born from a personal curiosity over the seemingly elusive nature of ethical fashion creators.
A quick Google Search will give you a multitude of general definitions, of “Top 10’s,” and reasons to why everyone needs to shop ethical. But it didn’t prove to me how things were decidedly ethical, how these brands managed their supply chains differently, and the very real struggle of doing things with the less conventional approach. Where were all the makers in this conversation?
Some one-on-one phone calls later, here is what we have to share: some behind-the-scene looks into ethical fashion from the people who live, breathe, and dream the words. There is so much to be said about this diverse community of entrepreneurs. However, there's one definite thing that has captured my imagination and attention: the genuine and infallible drive that is shared amongst every person in this community to create more good than what they arrived to see.
So we try to talk more, buy less. Ask the questions that excite, and start the conversations that not only inspire, but empower.
I hope this series has been able to do at least one of those things for you.
Thanks for following.