How the simplicity of mandatory labelling in clothing fails to inform consumers about the complexity
of the global supply chain of fashion
After nearly three decades since the beginning of the eco-age, the environmental damages and humanitarian crises caused by the global supply chain of the fashion industry have become a topic of public debate. Consumer awareness campaigns have called for more transparency in the fashion industry. Studies have shown that the consumer remains full of intent to purchase more sustainable and ethical products. However, these intentions have yet to be materialised into any meaningful action plan capable of bringing change to the industry. This paper argues that the current status quo is maintained because fashion consumers lack access to basic information related to the global supply chain of fashion. In order to address the issue of lack of transparency in the industry, this paper concludes that an update in labelling regulations is long due. A labelling regulation revision would hold fashion companies accountable for the products they make and provide consumers with the knowledge required to be able to ‘vote with their wallets’; whilst allowing the market to remain free of governmental constraints. This study identified how the limits to labels are crucial to the fairness of the market due to the moral dimensions carried by the typically amoral behaviour of conspicuous consumption; the unholy alliance that links consumers, retail and producers that is destroying the planet and eroding labour rights across the globe.
Keywords: Supply Chain, Globalisation, Ethical Fashion, Sustainable Fashion, Labelling
A globalised economy comes with many unknowns for the consumer, the ‘ethical complexity’ of the neo-liberal globalised trade perpetuates consumers ignorance making it impossible to tackle a problem of global proportion due to the lack of access to basic information. The complexity of the many ‘veils’ behind the value chain of the fashion industry has created the perfect atmosphere for corporations to thrive at the expense of misinformed consumers, workers and the planet. Fashion here is used as a general term for the production of clothing and focusing in particular on the supply chain of the fashion industry (SCFI). Not to be confused with fashion as the term used to express the romanticised cultural, stylistic and aesthetically concern means of self-expression. The lack of accountability on a global scale has earned fashion the unflattering title of the second largest polluting industry in the world. This shameful runner-up position is now the topic of public and industry debate.
Considering that most consumption has a moral dimension (Daya, 2016), consumer awareness movements expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency in the SCFI. This paper illustrates the issues related to labelling regulation of the fashion industry in both mandatory, and independently created marks of virtue. An examination conducted by Claudia E. Henninger from the University of Sheffield in the UK and Ralph E. Horne from RMIT University in Melbourne found evidence that independently created sustainable labelling initiatives marks of virtue are often exploited as an unchecked marketing tool (Horne, 2009; Henninger 2015). Since the beginning of the new eco-fashion era, a plethora of independent marks of virtue certifications and labels have emerged. However, the lack of standardisation, accountability and adoption has brought about criticism regarding the efficacy of those labels and their ability to bring meaningful change to the industry.
Further studies done on the topic of standardised labels and their impact on consumer behaviour suggests that labels do work. Such is the case with energy-saving labels initiative adopted in the 90s. This paper argues that for labelling to have a positive impact on the fashion industry, empowered authorities must mandate an expansion on the information required on clothing labels to address the consumer call for more transparency in the supply chain of fashion.
The fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world (Moragn, 2015). The alarming news for fashion consumers sparked the beginning of ethical fashion movements that advocate more transparency in the supply chain of fashion. Exposing campaigns created by non-for-profit organizations highlighted the environmental and ethical issues behind the veil of fashion propaganda, causing consumers to demand more information about the fashion items they purchase. Why have what consumers thought were just harmless impulse buys, destroyed the environment to such an extent, without their knowledge?
Environmental concerns emerged about the waste of finite natural resources used to artificially inflate a wasteful demand for chipperly made garments. Public opinion shifted to ethical concerns about the responsibility that mundane purchases carry morally. Fashion consumers became aware of the negative impact that their purchases were causing to society and the environment. Recent studies on the ethics of consumption and its impact on geography fall within what (Popke, 2009, p. 435) refers to as ‘something of an ethical turn’ in the discipline, with ethics emerging as a central question ‘in a wide range of geographical discussions, from environmental issues to geopolitics’ (Daya, 2016).
Apart from fashion, the two industries that cause significant damages to the environment are the energy trade (fossil fuel, nuclear and biomass) and the transportation trade (Taylor and Watts, 2019). The fashion industry finds itself at the centre of those heavy polluters because the SCFI is heavily dependent on fossil fuel energy to produce its goods. The manufacturing process is highly reliant on Petroleum-based raw materials. Furthermore, due to the globalised nature of the trade, the SCFI is subjected to various complex international routes to manufacture and deliver the final product to the end consumer. Consequently, the industry accumulates such an extensive carbon footprint that it is estimated to emit ‘more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined’ (McFall-Johnsen, 2019).
The largely polluting fossil extracting trade has an unlikely connection with fashion. Synthetic fabrics, made from chemically manipulated petrochemicals, are some of the most toxic fabrications on Earth. Those fibres were created in a laboratory from the petroleum molecule. Nylon was the first petrochemical-derived fibre invented by the famous American chemical corporation DuPont in the 1930s. Since then, the low cost but highly poisonous and polluting to both humans and the environment fibre became the most popular choice in the textile industry; synthetic fibres make up 60% of the total output of the industry (Greenpeace, 2016, p. 4). Studies have linked the chemically manmade materials to cancer, congenital disabilities, neurotoxicity, and hormonal disruption in humans. The toxic textile chemical compounds accumulate in human breast milk, soil, air, water, aquatic, and human food chain (Schreder and La Guardia, 2014, p. 11575; Sajn, 2019, p. 3). Polyester is plastic and plastic is forever. Meaning that unlike traditional natural fibres used in textiles such as cotton, wool and silk, petroleum molecule derived fibres are not biodegradable. It is important to also note that even though cotton is biodegradable, the crop cultivation still causes environmental concerns. The farming of cotton alone is responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides used worldwide (UNEC/Eu, 2018).
Synthetic fibres are hazardous also because they are combustible. ‘According to fire statistics, about 50% of fires are caused by textiles’ (Guan and Chen, 2006, p. 415). All fibres burn, still, some are far more flammable than others. When synthetic fibres burn, they melt and drip like plastic. The hot molten substance causes exceptionally severe burns (Lerdkajornsuk and Charuchinda, 2010, p. 68). This aspect of polyester forced its producers to create even more toxic fabrics in order to be able to address their fire safety issues. Consequently, synthetic fabrics require treatment with fire retardants; those fire retardants are bonded chemically to the polymer material, creating a coat of chemical protection on top of the petrochemical -derived fabric. However, fire retardants will wash off, and the estimate is that after 30 to 50 washing cycles, only a negligible amount of ~30% remains (Guan and Chen, 2006, p. 418).
Microplastics are also an issue; studies suggest that one of the most significant contributors to the pollution of oceans and the environment are washing machines. The toxic molecules from synthetic fibres make their way into the oceans, the soil and plants. Scientists have found evidence of microplastics so deeply in aquatic food chains, that a new species found in the Mariana Trench was named Eurythenes Plasticus (Marcelli, Benatti and Elix, 2008). The shrimp-like creature showed confirmation of the plastic pollution in the oceans because it contained microplastics in its guts. Apart from the pollution of the waters, the industry is also particularly demanding of the precious resource, to the extent that it is currently the second- largest user of water worldwide, responsible for producing 20% of the global waste of the finite resource (UNEC/Eu, 2018).
Consumers are often unaware of the hazardous fabrications they are taking home due to their many different names. Petrochemical fibres are also known as Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, Spandex, Neoprene, Lycra, Synthetic fur, leather and Suede. When a consumer buys clothes made out of petrochemically derived components, they have no idea of the implications their purchase will have on their personal health, the health of their families and the environment. Worse yet, once bought, there is no safe way to dispose of a petrochemical-based item of clothing. It will not biodegrade easily, and keeping it and washing it will continue to pose a threat to one’s health, and it will continue to pollute the environment every time it needs a wash. Only 1% of fashion garments are recycled (Sajn, 2019, p. 1).
Despite the industry’s significant carbon footprint, energy consumption, water pollution and wastage plus the toxic hazards, the SCFI has another astonishing environmental violation to address — a matter of waste that is far more sordid. The unacceptable practice of the destruction of excess stock carried out by fashion companies across the board from fast fashion to luxury brands (Elia, 2019, p. 539). The industry systematically overproduces because it has created an unhinged fashion calendar that expects a new look at the turn of every season. Fashion companies have created this intrinsic obsolescence to remain profitable all year long by selling superfluous goods of no real value that is only supported by the illusion created by a brand. In order to protect their brand image and value, fashion labels destroy unsold stock rather than sell it at discounted prices.
Furthermore, false fashion propaganda fuels consumerism and perpetuates the environmentally toxic cycle of conspicuous consumption. What gives fashion the impression that clothing items are expandable is the price and the amount in offer. Hence it has become clear that the false sense of scarcity and the speed in which fabricated trends entice consumers to buy more have prompted the society to treat clothes as disposable objects. Moreover, as far as waste is concerned, via one way or another, both consumers and retailers ultimately end up sending ~85 % of textiles to landfills (UNEC/Eu, 2018).
The SCFI also carries a human cost (Rivoli, 2005). 1 in 6 people in the world is employed by a job that is fashion related. Despite the staggering number of workers worldwide, those workers often lack trade union representation, “poverty pay conditions are standard for garment workers” (Environmental Audit Committee, 2019). The industry is laden with stories of human rights violations tales of modern slavery of all sorts, from child labour, prison labour, forced labour and even literally bonded labour. Industry reports have documented how the ineffectiveness of trade regulations and corporate greed has undermined the rights of workers, particularly in low labour cost countries (Tallontire et al., 2014). To the extent that in 2013 the collapse of an overcrowded ‘sweatshop’ in Bangladesh killed 1,131 and injured over 2,500 workers. The frequently reported incidents of those labour rights abuses in the garment industry turned an international trade debate into a human rights issue, causing the industry to re-evaluate the current state of affairs of the global supply chain of fashion. Human Rights issues are also women’s empowerment issues. Women are the predominant labourers in the fashion industry; 75 – 80 % of garment workers are female (Riisgaard et al., 2010; UNEC/Eu, 2018). Allegations of woman’s rights violations in ‘sweatshops’ are common and include charges of sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse and discrimination. Furthermore, factories offer no job security to women, who often find themselves in disadvantage positions when they fall pregnant. They are not entitled to any maternity leave coverage, and factories do not offer any nursing or child care facilities. Women also get paid less in factories even though they are the majority and do the same work as their male colleagues do.
Considerations of Consumption
The power of choice to sponsor or boycott belongs to the consumer, who can only exercise this power when presented with relevant information. That which consumers sponsor will persist. Corporations have a mandate to make a profit. Sadly, their concerns are not with the preservation of the environment and neither with the commitment to upholding humans’ rights. Those epacts of the global trade are characterised as externalisations. Policy constructs are complex political decisions that take decades to form, so it is wise for consumers to understand that every purchase they make is equivalent of a vote for what practices they would like to sponsor. ‘Vote with your wallet’ is a term that gets used by consumer responsibility awareness campaigns to illustrate the importance that consumer choices carry.
In a neoliberal globalised economy, consumers become global citizens, and as such, society should strive to protect the rights of those without a voice. In order for the consumer to make conscious purchase choices, they need to have access to global SCFI information, making ethical and environmental sound purchase decisions, is ultimately a trade regulation and governance-related issue. The modern thinking associated with the ethical considerations of consumption is an idea inspired by the writings of Foucault’s notion of ethics as care of the self, in which he suggests that ethical dispositions are always present in the everyday routine of consumption. In efforts to preserve high moral standards in society, the question then becomes how much such dispositions can be ‘worked up, governed, and regulated’ by an array of actors who make possible for individuals to make ethical consumption choices (Popke, 2009, p. 508).
The Ethical Market Segment, Labelling and Regulation
Indications from various fashion consumer behaviours surveys suggest that there is a strong call from consumers for a more transparent fashion industry. The fashion consumer remains full of intent to purchase more sustainable and ethical products (Horne, 2009, p. 175). These expressed intentions have yet caught up to the increasing ethical fashion market that remains a niche, representing only a small fraction of the market share. Still, the consumer interest in climate change issues, so dominant at the beginning of this new decade has led to rising calls for labelling to enable consumers to differentiate between more or less ethical and sustainable products. With regards to the current state of the global SCFI, a myriad of proposals has been put forward by stakeholders, institutions and governments to address the industry’s most pressing issues. These proposals include the development of new business models such as recycling programs, circular fashion, and slow fashion initiatives. The promotion of new material research and development. Investments in campaigns that advocates for change in consumer behaviour that generally emphasises the new fashion jargon of ‘buy less and buy better’.
Surprisingly, none of those initiatives mentions mandatory changes to labelling that have in the past, clearly positively aided the consumer in making better and healthier choices such as the prominent example of the food industry. In the new age of information, the consumer empowerment movement began with food production. When consumers became aware of the marketing traps used by the food industry to disguise vital information about the food they consumed. As customers’ understanding of the supply chain of the food industry deepened, and as customers gained a better understanding of nutrition, they began to demand more information form the industry. That is when the food trade was revolutionised by the demand for lighter, healthier, non-GMO, organic and also locally produced products. The food industry also bears the burden of explaining in detail the nutritional facts of each of their products.
Analysis of the impact of labelling suggests that regulated or government-sponsored initiatives work. Mandatory labels generally hold widespread recognition and support among consumers and provide a ‘level playing field’ for producers. One example is the FDA obligatory nutrition facts food labels. Consumers became aware, for example, of the amount of sugar, salt and fat that they were consuming. The FDA estimates that 300,000 preventable deaths per year are related to diet and a study conducted in 1993, estimated that the nutritional facts label might have been responsible for the savings of $26 billion in healthcare costs in the past 20 years (Kessler et al., 2003). This mandate impacted consumers choices and influenced companies to make better products. Consumer demand for more healthy and sustainable products have influenced, for instance, major beverage companies such as Coca- Cola. Since the new era of consumer information, they have invested in the creation of portion-controlled beverages and are forced to re-evaluate their excessive use of plastic in their packages.
Studies on the impact of energy-saving labels, an initiative sponsored by the US Government in the early 90s, confirms that the adoption of the label led to a reduction in energy consumption. Mandatory display of energy star rating labels has now existed for nearly two decades, and it covers refrigerators, freezers, air-conditioners, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers. Considered today as one of the most successful and informative programs in the world, the US lead initiative is calculated to have reduced “3 – 4% per year (1993 – 2005) for fridges, freezers and dishwashers.” Because the label is of international standard, it is recognisable by 94% of consumers and 88% electronic consumers use the label as a mark for guidance when making purchasing decisions (R.Horne, 2009, p 178).
When it comes to the fashion industry, however, it seems that corporations, institutions and even governments are only interested in putting the burden of choice on the shoulders of the ‘blindfolded’ consumer. Without showing any interest in ‘throwing their weight in’, and without using the authority and power that only they have to put corporations in check. It seems that the international trade community is only interested in demolishing borders and shredding regulations instead of adopting policies that have a successful record at keeping industry accountable. Ultimately, the truth is that because of opposing interests, the lack of regulation on labelling is beneficial for companies but detrimental to consumer rights, the environment and local economies. “With globalisation and economic liberalisation market integration, the private sector is strengthened and the capacity of national governments limited” (Hartlieb, Jones and Hartlieb, 2009). Expecting consumer rights protection institutions to do all of the work alone seems like a fight between David and Goliath. Independent fashion transparency initiatives fail to compare in power and resources against the global fashion industry that is worth over $1,638 billion (Karaosman and Brun, 2019).
Since the beginning of the ethical fashion movement, a movement that is closely linked to the new eco age, initiated by Eco 92 in Rio de Janeiro, a plethora of non-statutory regulations and standards have been created. They address different concerns, ranging from environmental to labour standards and human rights, and in many ways, differing not only in terms of stakeholders but also in the operational areas they address (Bendell, Miller and Wortmann, 2011). Most of those regulations and standards marks are independent. In reality, the consumer is time-poor, uneducated about the environmental and ethical concerns related to fashion and unfamiliar with the multitude of independent marks of virtue. Researches have shown that in most cases, these symbols mean nothing to the consumer. The contribution of current independent marks of virtue concerning actual sustainable consumption or any humanitarian benefit is unknown (Horne, 2009). Be that as it may, if a company wants to create a product that is considered ethical, they are faced with an abundance of certifications to choose from, but not all certifications are created equally. Currently, the ethical fashion segment treats ethical and sustainable practices as a marketing tool. Communicating with customers about ethical brands and products have been the biggest challenge to this new segment of the fashion industry (Rangari, 2017).
Social development agencies are working in the field of garment manufacturing in developing countries to build and support several ethical and environmental sound practices. In the past decade, the industry witnessed a surge in eco-fashion and fair-trade fashion businesses. However, these kinds of businesses are still viewed as a niche in the market. The elevated cost of goods hinders these company’s competitiveness. Ethical fashion practices significantly impact the cost of goods in fashion. Although it is a positive aspect for fashion businesses to engage with good-willed exercises, it also impacts a company’s bottom line. Those companies tend to spend more resources in marketing and communication to convey the message that their noble practices are their unique value proposition (UVP). Being ethical often means higher prices for relative superior quality goods.
Nevertheless, the promise of better-quality goods does not necessarily translate as a mark of difference at points of sale. Consumers cannot appreciate ethical businesses noble practices, which include the preservation of the environment and the improvement in the lives of workers in faraway countries via their senses. By touching or trying clothes on at a store, or by looking at an e-commerce picture on a screen, a consumer cannot appreciate an ethical fashion business humanitarian effort. Communicating their point of difference (POD) has become a costly marketing activity for these businesses.
Modern ethical fashion companies have existed for more than a decade now, but their market penetration is still marginal. The extra level of commitment to communicate their POD becomes an extra expense on top of an already costly operation. Those businesses often find themselves at a disadvantaged position in the market, when due to lack of significant means of differentiation, they find themselves competing with giant corporations who take full advantage of their minimal mandate to disclose vital information to the consumer. Ultimately, despite the repetitive ‘drum-beating’ of the interested parties for a fairer and more ethical global SCFI, no actions have been taken to date that rewards fashion business that is genuinely ethically and environmentally friendly. On the contrary, those businesses are failing to thrive and gain market share. Given the extent of the damages caused by the SCFI, some of the most radical environmentalists insist that the most sustainable fashion option is no purchase at all. To a certain extent, that is a valuable perspective that needs to be taken into consideration. Indeed, in the case of petroleum molecule derived fibres, due to its toxicity, it is valid to question the existence of these products altogether. However, in reality, the evolution of a fashion consumer awareness is a slow process that begins with transparency and to expect the industry to come to a complete halt seems like an implausible solution.
Currently, fashion consumers only have insight into what country the apparel is made in, what the product is made of and how to care for the product (AU, NZ CIS, 1998). Since the fashion industry embarked in a global supply chain with the opening of China, the simplicity of the information that labels offer has become obsolete, and it is no longer able to guide consumers satisfactorily. The current code for labelling needs an upgrade to reflect the needs of consumers for critical information. In the age of the ‘Citizens-Consumer’ (Scammell, 2000) in which purchasers are highly concerned with global warming issues and growing inequality, as it stands, 100% Polyester, Made in China, machine wash it warm, is just not good enough.
Labelling regulations are practical and standardised arrangements designed to communicate vital information to consumers in a way that is clear, concise and easily readable. Labelling regulations are created to make access to information easily and to minimise the producers’ capacity to mislead the consumer. A change in regulation would incentivise the industry’s ‘propaganda machine’ to focus on the dissipation of relevant information to consumers; instead of allocating most of their resources to the communication of a fabricated sense of scarcity and luxury. Hence, they are crucial to the fairness of the market due to the moral dimensions to the usually amoral behaviour of conspicuous consumption that links consumers, retail and production (Hartlieb, Jones and Hartlieb, 2009). This kind of virtuous practice aims to demystify and educate consumers about the intricacy of the global SCFI. The new measures would also allow the ‘invisible hand of the market’ to remain impartial, allowing the balance between supply and demand to regulate itself. Such a solution would empower the consumer while maintaining the market free to operate without any effective governmental constraint.
Labels don’t preserve the environment, labels don’t alleviate poverty, and they are not the solution for social responsibility. However, these revisions indicate that mandatory, standardised and well adopted government-sponsored marks of virtue do have an impact in consumer behaviour. It satisfactory aids consumers in making more ethical choices and well- informed purchases do have the capacity of impacting ecological goals, such as the example of energy consumption. These results serve as a good indicator as to how crucial it is for continuous investigations to identify the potential impact of labelling regulations on the fashion industry.
To mandate that consumers’ have the right to detailed information about the products they consume is protected by the law and to mandate the producers disclose better-detailed information to the consumer is a practice that many industries already have an obligation to provide. The fashion industry seems to have a hard time catching up to the knowledgeable consumer phenomenon of the new age of information. The demand for transparency is a solution that still allows the government to remain neutral, and the market to remain free. In an era in which corporations tipped the scale and have overwhelmed consumers rights, the mandate to allow consumers to access truthful and relevant information in order to vote with their wallets is paramount.
The fascinating and intricate world of fashion doesn’t have to be the medium to fuel only vicious cycles; it can also fuel virtuous cycles. A more transparent fashion industry can add to society. These include improvements related to consumers being able to access better quality goods that are also good for the people who produce it, and that does not harm the environment. Raising the standards of supply chain transparency regulation allows consumers to choose safer products. If more information is required on clothing labelling and that consequently impacts consumer’s choices, it may force the industry to change its practices. It may turn the ethical fashion revolution into a fashion industry evolution. How will the demand for transparency affect fashion companies bottom line, brand image, and brand value are too soon to answer. The answer to those question lies ahead of our time, in a future that has not yet arrived simply because the regulations have not yet caught up with consumers rights.
Finally, this paper concludes that a major clothing labelling reform initiative is long due on a global and local scale. Since the fashion industry was able for so long to rip the benefits of an unrestrained globalised supply chain, it is now time for the industry to also bear the burden of responsibility for the disclosure of the details for the goods it is freely producing. It is now clear that the fashion consumer wants to know more about these products and given the current state of affairs of global SCFI, there is a base to support the need of an update on labelling regulations. This paper proposes that a vigorous campaign for the uphold of the fashion consumer rights must take place now and continue until it has gathered enough data to bring about profound change. With the help of consumers, industry, academia, scientists and governing bodies, this paper asserts that it is possible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is a matter of social and environmental justice worth pursuing.
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