Fashion has long been stereotyped the ultimate vapid industry, a world where style matters more than substance and political discussions are anathema. But a new crop of socially-engaged business owners, many of them women, is finding a way to fuse an interest in fashion with a commitment to making the world a better place and consumers are paying attention. While so-called "fashionanthropy" is certainly not a substitute for substantial structural changes to the world's political and economic systems, making a purchase from a woman-owned company with fair trade principles sure feels a lot better than paying for sweatshop clothes. If companies like those featured below can prove that sustainable business practices are also profitable, as several already have, they may indicate a sea of change in the way fashion is produced.
EDUN Doubles Down on Africa
EDUN was founded by Ali Hewson and her husband (some musician guy named Bono) in 2005 with the aim of creating "a global fashion brand bringing about positive change through its trading relationship with Africa, and its positioning as a creative force in contemporary fashion." EDUN is one of the largest companies taking a stab at sustainable practicies, and its record has been mixed.
First the good. EDUN has done lots of great work through partnerships with smaller, African-based organizations. For example, EDUN partnered with Mikono Knits to offer a line of hand-crocheted sweaters and tanks in colors including "utilitarian-inspired fatigue and delicate sorbet" for spring 2013. Founded in 2005 by Norwegian Froydis Dybahl Archer, Mikono Knits is an ideal partner for EDUN because the company builds on young women's knitwork skills with the goal of providing them with sustainable income. So far, the 10 Mikono knitters make every garment by hand, though they are learning machine knitting as well. The garments use locally-sourced cotton and wool, which serves not only to minimize environmental impact, but also to spread the economic benefit to local farmers and spinners.
EDUN also embarked on a highly-anticipated partnership with Diesel earlier this year. “With this project we want to show to consumers and to the industry alike, that it is indeed possible to source, produce and generate sustainable trade — and, hence, development — in Africa," Diesel founder Renzo Rosso told the New York Times. But EDUN hasn't always had success putting its lofty goals into practice. While the company's initial plan was to produce all its products in Africa (so as to maximize local economic returns), by 2010, most of EDUN's clothes were being produced in China. Hewson's revised goal is to have 40 percent of its 2013 line made in Africa.
Wishlist purchase: Overside rib trim leather coat (on sale!)
The IOU PROJECT Has a Story to Tell
Many of us would think twice about snapping up cheap clothes if we knew the conditions under which they'd been made. Except for the occasional news stories about sweatshop labor, most of us don't think about the stories behind our outfits very often. That's something the IOU Project has set out to change. Founded by Kavita Parmar (who also serves as creative director,) the fashion company puts and emphasis on transparency. That means that every IOU product tells several stories -- including that of the artisan in India who hand-wove the fabric and of the elaborate process of hand-assembly in Portugal -- that are empowering and encouraging, rather than depressing. Each product sold comes with a code that allows buyers a peek at just who helped craft it. "We like traceability because we think people will enjoy knowing how and where their clothing comes from," according to IOU. "We also think that this knowledge helps foster a sense of shared social and environmental responsibility." And because the consumer is also a part of the story, IOU asks buyers to send in photos of themselves wearing their new dress/scarf/reversible blazer.
Wishlist purchase: The Retro Work Dress.
Afia is designed by Meghan Sebold, who describes herself as "Born in Oakland, raised by Minnesota, educated by San Francisco, and primed by New York City." When Sebold studied abroad in Ghana, she was inspired by the patterns on the vibrant textiles that are a striking part of many West African wardrobes. Seeking to "engage popular culture in global development," Sebold returned to the States and began Afia, a line that fuses West African patterned textiles with contemporary American trends. The textiles are sourced from Ghana, and the garments are hand-sewn by artisans in a woman-run facility (also in Ghana.)
Wishlist purchase: Timeless Dress (green gradient)
BEULAH LONDON Appeals to Royalty
How's this for inspirational: The two women who founded Beulah London had absolutely no formal training in fashion when they came up with the idea to launch an ethical fashion label based in India. Moved by witnessing first-hand the difficulties faced by survivors of India's human trafficking and sex trade, BL's founders decided they would provide women with a sustainable livelihood through their designs. Oh, and Pippa Middleton is a fan.
"For each beautiful garment that we make, there is an equally beautiful change happening somewhere else in the world – we like to think of it as our ‘butterfly effect,' " write the founders. BL sells garments and canvas bags crafted by "women who have escaped trafficking and the sex trade, including some who are HIV positive and widowed," though not all the production is done in India. Although I admire any attempt to break the cycle of poverty, some of BL's mission statement makes me wonder about the commodification of poverty. But then again, I'm a cynic.
Wishlist purchase: Arelie pantsuit
Header Image: Wonderlane/Flickr
Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.