Is this really ethical?

Why actions speak louder than words.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” - honestly, I’ve always hated this phrase. That was until I found myself failing to assert my worth in a lengthy email exchange and thought “well at least I can write about this”. So today, friends, I thought I would divulge my biggest pet peeve: self-proclaimed ethical platforms acting in morally questionable ways.

As a freelance journalist, I am well acquainted with chasing late invoices and pitching into the void. And as an ethical fashion journalist, it rather stings when the publication not cooperating has “ethical” in their company bio. To demonstrate my point, I was recently approached by a well-known sustainable fashion Instagram account that teaches its followers to become “conscious consumers”. After enjoying reading Not What It Seams (yay!), they proposed collaborating on a new co-owned newsletter with a reader-funded model. All that they could offer me, however, was a 10% cut.

After some back and fourth, I helped to consolidate the idea and tried to negotiate an equal fee. After all, if I was a co-owner (and the co-owner with the newsletter marketing expertise might I add), I should reap the same rewards. Unhappy with my stance, I was later contacted by their “social media manager” who sent me the most unprofessional email out of the entire exchange. It now transpired that I would, in fact, not be a co-owner but would still be expected to write the majority of the weekly newsletter myself. The real kicker was being told that, because they wanted to appropriate the newsletter format I had already developed, I would have to sacrifice this very newsletter you’re reading. They called this a “compromise”.

Ok, that’s a lie - the real kicker was being told that “what [supposedly ethical platform] can offer you is more beneficial for you than what you can offer for them”. I was then reassured that 10% was “very fair” because I would be further compensated with “exposure from one of the fastest growing Instagram accounts in the sustainability market”. Reader, I was not happy. As you would expect, I politely declined the opportunity, reiterating that expecting to directly use and profit off my work without equally paying me is hypocritical.

In response, I was offered a rather comical apology which informed me that “exposure does pay the bills” (yes, you read that right) because I haven’t monetised this newsletter. They also felt it unfair that I had tried to compare them to larger platforms “who actually have the money”. Frankly, I didn’t owe it to them to respond. But had I, I’d have sent them various memes highlighting that exposure is not a universal or valuable currency. Oh, and I would have reminded them that, as it would be the readers - not them - directly paying for my work, they could “actually” afford to be the ethical platform they claim to be.

Sadly, it seems that these issues are all too commonplace for the freelancing and creative industries. And when you’re working in the sustainable fashion space, the irony of “ethical” brands acting unethically can be, well, too much to bear.

Ruth MacGilp said it best when she wrote: "so many 'ethical' fashion brands are propped up by unpaid interns, unpaid influencers and unpaid writers. They can strike ethical from their Instagram bio, now. No, I'm not 'honoured to support you' just because we have the same 'common goal' of a more sustainable fashion industry, no, the 'exposure' you offer will not pay my rent, no, your collaboration is not collaborative if it only benefits you.⁣⁣”

When first starting out, I was often expected to work for free and, naively, I did because it would supposedly help my portfolio and exposure. In reality, every free piece I wrote undervalued the industry just that little bit more. So-called ethical platforms are the last people you’d expect to demand free labour because, if you’re really what you say you are, you should have budgeted for freelance commissions, internships and paid social media collaborations from the start. Actions always speak louder than words.

If the fashion industry is underpinned by unpaid labour, it creates a system where only the wealthy and privileged can afford to speak. Unpaid internships are particularly harmful, excluding those who cannot live off a £10 daily allowance for travel and food. These internships are often located in snazzy corporate offices in cities where the average living cost far exceeds a tenner. The result is that the industry is inherently whitewashed and sidelines marginalised voices. To understand it from a serial fashion intern’s perspective, I’d recommend this equally fascinating and horrifying read.

The issue extends far beyond freelancing. Just recently, The New York Times published this exposé on Everlane’s questionable ethics. Despite their trademark promise of “Radical Transparency”, the company was accused of fostering an anti-black working environment, union busting and resisting calls to cater to plus-sized shoppers. Such revelations only came to light after fired union members and The Ex Wives Club worked tirelessly to prove that Everlane’s ethical image was merely a facade.

When “ethical” is an uncertified claim, we need more than vague sustainability commitments, staged photos of happy employees or Corporate Social Responsibility Policies written with the sole purpose of pleasing stakeholders. We need traceable supply chains, freelancer budgets, transparent actionable reports, and more.

It’s time for ethical platforms to put their money where their mouth is.

In other news…

What’s next for Boohoo? In case you missed it, last fortnight we looked at Boohoo, the retailer at the centre of a sweatshop scandal in Leicester. It was the same retailer who feigned “shock” at these “allegations”. In response, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne MP, penned this letter to Boohoo’s Group executives to dispute claims that they were unaware of the illegal working practices in their supply chain. Boohoo has since urged the government to create a factory licensing scheme (and plan to open its own ‘model’ factory in Leicester), after analysts estimated that the retailer could move up to 40% of its production abroad. Moving your business from one sweatshop to another (or, in this case, to poorer, less regulated countries) does nothing to tackle the exploitation at the heart of the fast fashion model. For interested readers, I’d recommend this reflective read on tackling fashion’s systemic issues, this piece on why fashion designers should start meeting their suppliers and this article on what the law says about modern slavery.

Sustainable fashion versus Covid-19. As we adapt to our ‘new normal’ (ew), the question on everybody’s lips is whether economic recovery will take precedent over sustainable development. Fascinating research carried out by McKinsey found that ‘engagement in sustainability has deepened during the Covid-19 crisis’. Of the 2,000 surveyed consumers across Germany and the UK, two-thirds agreed that it has become even more important to limit impacts on climate change. Meanwhile, 57% have already made significant changes to their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact. You can find other telling insights in this spring trend report. Clearly, consumers want radical change but is the fashion industry ready to act?

Redesigning a fatphobic industry. The fashion industry is infamous for perpetuating an unattainable ‘thin ideal’ and lacking inclusive sizing. The long overused excuse of lacking the startup, fabric or grading costs or that plus-sized folks won’t spend money on quality clothes was put into stark view when fashion label, Alice Alexander, published its sale data for 2020. What it shows is that the brand depends on its plus-sized customers who account for 84% of their total sales revenue. Other brands should start taking notes. For more like this, discover how a new wave of designers are challenging a fatphobic industry to adapt and learn how brands can design plus-sized clothing the right way. I also enjoyed this article on how the current size scale is discriminatory, increasing calls for a size-free industry. For size-inclusive brands, check out some recommendations here and here.

The future of fashion week is uncertain. Lisa Armstrong recently reflected on how big fashion houses are adapting to the Covid-era show, with some embracing virtual events and others longing for the past. Echoing the views of many, Rachel Tashjian believes that we should never go back to the runway. But are digital fashion weeks automatically more sustainable? Emily Chan doesn’t think so. Alexandra Mondalek also questions how impactful digital shows really are for brands’ marketing reach.

Shop small! During these tough times, it’s vital that we support small, ethical businesses and black and queer designers. If you’re after some brand recommendations, check out these curated roundups of the best black-owned ethical brands, sustainable fashion brands and Depop stores to support. You can also find some amazing queer and ethical brand recommendations here.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

What is ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion is a relatively new term and one that has been traced back to this 2002 study. It had something of a resurgence 11 years later when the collapse of the Rana Plaza exposed the human cost of otherwise cheap clothes. Ethical fashion is now understood as an umbrella term to describe the protection of human rights, animal welfare and the environment throughout the entire fashion supply chain. At its essence is an acknowledgement that fashion is inherently social and man-made. Our clothes can pass through hundreds of hands, from the raw material and manufacturing stages right through to retail and disposal.

Ethical fashion encompasses a wide range of issues, including non-exploitative working conditions, fair hours and pay, gender equality, freedom of association, fair trade, sustainable production and animal welfare. The ethical label is fairly unregulated, depending entirely on a fashion brand’s ability to trace the production of its goods and identify any problems across its supply chain. Such a commitment is reflected in “policy-making as well as regular monitoring, auditing, reporting and acting on the responsibility for continuous improvement”. The most ethical brands have nothing to hide, offering freely available, transparent data and records to back up their claims.

A brand’s sustainability credentials very much hinges on its ethical record. In other words, a fashion brand can never be sustainable if it is unethical. Take H&M, for example: despite having a popular Take Back recycling scheme and annual “conscious” collections, they are yet to pay 850,000 garments workers in their supply chain a fair living wage (despite promising to by 2018). Sustainable fashion, therefore, should sustain more than our planetary resources; it should equally sustain the livelihoods of the communities who make our clothes.

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