Priya Patel is a former Londoner with a passion for fashion that promotes sustainable development – which she blogs about at Fashion for Development. Although she has only lived in Washington DC for a scant six months, Priya has already helped create a Fashion for Development Committee through her employer at the World Bank, aiming to raise awareness and funds for projects and initiatives which pursue creative, effective and sustainable means to ameliorate global poverty. Priya has also helped to organize a Fashion for Development Show and Conference that will debut alongside DC Fashion Week on 2.22.07. This event will showcase individuals such as Ali Hewson's (Bono's wife), whose fashion label EDIN focuses on helping to eradicate poverty in Africa. For more information on these or upcoming events, email her at priyaindc-at-gmail.com.
In this interview, Priya talks about the fashion consumers' growing need to know the who, what, where and how, about the products we buy, why the US has been slower to pick up on the trend of ethical fashion, and her fear that if ethical fashion becomes the fashion industry's latest super-fad, it will inevitably fade away, despite its potential to improve people's lives.
What exactly is ethical fashion?
- Fair Trade
- Recycling fabrics
- Environmentally friendly
- Livelihoods for local artisans
- Ultimately sustainable development
Buying fairly traded products isn't expensive, but by doing so the general public can make a real difference to people in third world countries who otherwise may have to endure poor working conditions and low wages. Fair Trade clothing is often printed/dyed using vegetable dyes and uses production methods that are kinder to the environment. Some of the ranges also recycle silk saris to make new items, which again benefits the world in which we live.
How do you see ethical fashion changing the fashion industry?
I think more and more people are realizing the importance of transparency, not only in the materials and products that clothes and shoes are made from, but also how they were made.
For example, the recent media frenzy over sweatshops in China for Nike and movies such as Black Gold highlight the importance of fair trade in the developing world. It’s making people more and more aware of where their clothes came from. Consumers are getting more and more sophisticated in their choices and are demanding increased transparency in the process of their products they buy [like] organic produce or fair trade coffee.
It's only a matter of time before this is replicated in everything we buy. However, I believe that the fashion industry plays a big part in what we buy, it influences not only our choice in clothes but also music, interior design and role models.
You mention in your blog that the idea of "ethical fashion" has taken off in the UK - and is starting to play a larger role in the US. Why do you think it has taken longer for US designers to go this route?
According to the Co-op Bank, ethical fashion spending in Britain rose by 17 percent to £273 million, or $509 million, by the end of 2003 (while total fashion spending amounts to £23 billion today. The hidden costs of conventional fashion are, broadly, issues of pollution, waste and workers' rights. While sweatshop labor has been widely publicized, there is still no legislation to enforce humane standards, according to the Ethical Trading Initiative, a British alliance of companies, nongovernmental organizations and trade unions.
Personally, I feel the reasons the movement has gained more momentum in the UK are two fold:
1) In general the average European is better traveled then the average American and so there are many more entrepreneurs who are interested in setting up companies based on their experiences traveling. [Also there are] more consumers who see the importance of their shopping habits have on the plight of people around the world.
2) North America is very much driven on mass consumerism and low prices, more so than the UK where consumers tend to demand more niche and unique products. Also I believe consumers in the UK are more sophisticated in their choices and are demanding increased transparency in the production and supply process.
There has been a lot of controversy lately with regard to healthy models - is ethical fashion just about the clothes/materials and/or a financial benefit to a certain cause...or does the idea extend itself to models/advertising messages/pr messages etc? Should it?
At the moment the focus of ethical fashion is more on the clothes and materials and the financial and wider benefits they have on the world both environmentally and for developing countries. However, I definitely believe that this should be extended to the wider fashion world such as models, messages and marketing.
With regard to healthy models - this is a much harder image to shake off. As long as designers believe that clothes look better on skinny models, [seeing] fuller models will take a long time to implement on the runways. Recently Kate Moss, who has been highlighted as starting the waif craze in the 90's and her cocaine scandal last year, was recently voted the top role model by girls in the UK. This to me is worrying, I feel that girls [in both] developed countries where education is mandatory [as well as] in the developing world should have role models who are driven by achievement in making the world a better place and not just because they look good.
For example, Princess Diana or Queen Noor of Jordan are great examples of how a fashionable icon can give something back to the world. These really are the people that the Fashion PR world should be promoting.
Recently the fall fashion weeks gave this some media attention and the Italian designers in Milan refused to use skinny models. I think this is a positive step.
In addition, designers are increasingly designing for celebrities such as singers and actresses. Once again, more PR should be given to those celebrities that make changes e.g Angelina Jolie. The media is a powerful tool in shaping the youth of today and it should definitely give more coverage to this kind of work. Designers are driven by demand, the more educated and informed the public are, the more they will demand ethical products, which is exactly what it is happening in the UK.
Anything else you would like to add?
There is some concern that headline-grabbing high fashion style that happens to be ethical will cloud the complexities of the global issues.
There is a danger that publicity for the glamorous, fleeting designer fashion labels does not give consumers a fully balanced understanding of the issues. I see that real change can only occur if an 'alternative fashion company' cares deeply about three things: the final product, those who made it, and the raw materials used. There is a danger that like any passing fad or trend, that as soon as fair trade is fashion, it'll disappear. I really hope that this doesn't happen.
I much more interested in the fair trade sub-set of ethical fashion. Working in development is a great way to create businesses and sustainable development for communities in the developing world. Though I am all for fashion which promotes environmentally friendly ways of production or the use of environmentally friendly materials.