After the devastating garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh earlier this year, consumers began asking questions about the transparency, sustainability, and ethics of the global fashion industry. They wanted to know who made the clothing they wear and under what conditions. A smaller yet growing segment of the consumer population – some 2.5 billion “aspirational” consumers – is taking it one step further and wants to not only look good in their clothing, but also have a positive social impact with their purchases. Is this possible or simply naive?
I believe that technology is one of the best tools to promote sustainable fashion. In our increasingly interconnected world, it is more possible than ever to utilize technology for social impact, especially in the typically non-transparent and unsustainable fashion industry. The five main ways I think technology can promote sustainable (or ethical, fair trade, organic, handmade, etc.) fashion are to: 1) Educate Consumers, 2) Empower Consumers, 3) Foster Connections, 4) Promote Transparency in Supply Chains, and 5) Reduce Waste.
Technology can raise awareness about the global fashion industry by sharing producers’ stories with consumers. The Fair TRACE TOOL™ by Indigenous Designs and Worldways Social Marketing is a prime example of how technology can be used to educate consumers about where their purchases come from and how the makers of the items are impacted. Using simple QR scanning technology, the tool can connect consumers with the story of how their purchases were made, showing the face and name of the producer and emphasizing the impact of the purchase. Indigenous and Worldways are currently hosting an Indiegogo campaign to launch the tool and offer it at low or no cost to other social businesses.
Technology can empower consumers to make educated, conscious decisions about their purchases and to communicate their support or dissatisfaction with companies. Americans are expected to spend $8 billion on Halloween this year. From the costumes to the candy, Halloween is one of the major shopping events during the year after Black Friday and holiday gifts. Yet the vast majority of constumes and candy (especially chocolate) are produced in ways that are more “trick” than “treat.” Other bloggers such as Tsh Oxenreider of Simple Mom and Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan have already written about the not so savory flavor of the global cocoa industry due to instances of child labor and human trafficking. Both Tsh and Kristen offered two main solutions: buy only fair trade or direct trade chocolate, and boycott (buycott?) chocolate companies with less stellar labor practices. While I agree with their recommendations, I would suggest one more solution: tell these companies how you feel. The Free 2 Work app by Not for Sale is a helpful mobile technology tool that can not only educate consumers on how to align their values with their purchases, but also share the company ratings with the company (e.g., Hershey’s has a D+ whereas as Divine Chocolate has an A; Lacoste has an F whereas EILEEN FISHER has a B+). Companies will act when they see that consumers demand change.
Technology can more directly connect the producers and consumers of fashion. Soko, which means marketplace in Swahili, is the first sustainable fashion social enterprise that directly connects its producers with consumers. Their helpful, Girl Effect-esque introductory video explains how Soko works: women artisans photograph their handmade goods via simple mobile phones, then send the photograph through SMS (text) messages to Soko’s simple digital storefront. No more hauling their handmade jewelry to the local marketplace and striking out. Now women entrepreneurs can bypass the middlemen – shipping, distributing, product placement, etc. – and simply connect with consumers around the world who are interested in purchasing fair trade jewelry.
PROMOTE TRANSPARENCY IN SUPPLY CHAINS
Technology can collect, track, and aggregate data from global supply chains to promote transparency and accountability in supply chains. For the last few decades, consumers and companies gradually have become more aware and committed to transparency and accountability in global supply chains. Yet, the traditional mechanisms for assessing compliance and fair labor practices such as audits have not been largely successful. An auditor can check a box off that workers can exit the factory safely in the event of a fire, but what if the factory manager locks the doors after the auditor leaves, preventing workers from actually being able to escape? Labor Link solves this issue by enabling workers to respond to anonymous, simple surveys about their factory’s conditions and labor practices. Workers can use their own or another’s mobile phone to call into a safe number, listen to simple multiple-choice questions in their native language, and then respond using the dial pad on their phone. Labor Link can then aggregate and analyze this data to back up recommendations to factory owners and the companies that use these factories before another Rana Plaza tragedy happens.
Crowdsourcing technology can collect data on which styles are most in demand before items are produced, thereby reducing waste from unwanted and unused garments. Sustainable fashion companies such as Vividly has the power to send only what people really want to production. That means that items that are not in high demand will not go into production and therefore aren’t contributing to waste. On Vividly’s platform, emerging artists, textile designers, or art lovers upload their designs to the platform. Consumers then can click to preorder items. If a minimum number of consumers preorder the item (i.e. 10 or more), then it goes into production. In other words, it’s like the Groupon of art-inspired fashion.
What are some of the ways you think technology can promote sustainable fashion? Are there other tools or apps that you have used or would like to be created?