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Why Companies Should Consider Fashion Ethics as Key to Sustainable Growth

While sustainability has become a hotter topic in the apparel industry, ethics shouldn’t be far behind as it’s tied directly to the health of the sector at a time when consumers are paying more attention to where their clothing comes from.

Connecting fashion sustainability and women’s rights movements during a keynote address at the 12th Annual Sustainable Business & Design Conference at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology last week, Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs said, “There was a time when people didn’t talk about the ethics of fashion, when the dialog between the customer and clothing was only about price and how cute the item was.”

Now, however, the focus has shifted and St. Bernard-Jacobs, founder and designer of Tabii Just and Livari Clothing, and the Youth and Family Coordinator for the Women’s March on Washington, said companies will have to consider what’s coming next.

“What if more people thought about where their clothes came from and who makes their clothes? What if sustainability became mainstream and not just a buzzword? How can we mobilize young people around fashion justice just as they are mobilizing around gun control and women’s rights?” she posed.

Continuing, St. Bernard-Jacobs said, “I envision a world where fashion is the norm and ethics is the norm, where there is no distinction between clothing that positively impacts every hand that touches it and where we collectively take responsibility for the industry. That is what is next.”

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Today, both ethical design and activism have become increasingly key for brands looking to appeal to a loyal fanbase of conscious consumers. Mostly, consumers want to know their clothing was made by workers who were treated fairly and a process that was fair to the environment.

“I marry fashion and social justice because of the simple human need for justice,” she said. “Justice is equity, justice if peace for all; it’s fair wages, safe working conditions, it is paid time off. Justice is changing the effects of fast fashion on the environment. Justice is us realizing that with every shopping decision we make, we make a choice between right and wrong.”

While attending FIT for her studies, St. Bernard-Jacobs said she developed a shopping addiction to cope with stress, buying at affordable fast-fashion chains.

“I had no clue about eco-fashion and the impact of my clothing choices on the earth and the people making it,” she recalled.

At the same time at FIT, she was learning about the complexities of fashion and beginning to ask questions about the impacts her clothing choices had on the environment. St. Bernard-Jacobs started working at a large apparel manufacturer, and seeing how production planning included a percentage of fabric waste and the conditions of foreign factories, led her to make a change.

“In doing research, I discovered that 15 percent of the fabric used to make clothing is tossed out and wound up in landfills,” St. Bernard-Jacobs said. “I discovered the working conditions of some garment workers. I wanted to make a difference on my terms, so I started Tabii Just.”

Tabii Just is a sustainable clothing line made in New York City. St. Bernard-Jacobs sources all fabric for the collection from the excess at mills and makes other items like pocket squares and scarves from fabric scraps. She works with fabric scrap recycler FabScrap, to donate the fabrics she doesn’t use for the line.

“My clothes are made ethically at the BFDA (Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator),” St. Bernard-Jacobs said. “It’s important if we are to make fashion like this mainstream, we as designers need to find our niche and raise our voices. My niche has been selling at boutiques and online and being able to spread the word about sustainable design by showing during fashion week and through press and publicity.”

A second line, Livari Clothing proves that ethics and trends can coexist, according to St. Bernard-Jacobs, who noted that all workers at the facility where the products are made are paid fair wages and enjoy good working conditions.

One skirt in the Livari collection is made from fish leather derived from discarded fish scales from a village in Brazil, while another dress is hand dyed by a local artist in Oregon using rust. Some pieces in the line are made from fabric scraps from things like a jacket made with zero waste material.

“Many responsible fashion brands are doing well because of customers who are making educated choices with their clothing,” St. Bernard-Jacobs said. “Brands like mine and a few others have been working to make a difference and larger brands like Mara Hoffman and Eileen Fisher have made the pivot and the results are stunning.”

In a broader sense, she said, “Fashion justice doesn’t happen in silos. Fashion justice intersects with other issues such as race and gender.”

Just as the wage gap exists between garment workers in different companies, so does the wage gap between race and gender in the U.S., St. Bernard-Jacobs said, noting that her status as a minority woman working in the garment industry led to her involvement in the Women’s March movement.

“I am passionate about a reinvigorated movement of people who are ready to stand up on the right side of justice for gender equity as it intersects with other aspects of social justice,” she said. “The effects of fashion injustice disproportionately affects women in poorer communities, whether it be in the U.S. or overseas. Sustainable fashion is still seen as a luxury because of the prices and most people still cannot afford it. That’s one of the challenges as a designer I always face–how can I be fair to the makers of my clothing, as well as the consumers of my clothing?”

St. Bernard-Jacobs said today’s young consumers care about a range of issues, including sustainable and ethical fashion. The fact that something is “cute just doesn’t cut it anymore,” she said.