In the first posting of our series “Ethical Clothing, Ethical Shopping", we examined ethics in the garment manufacturing industry and factors leading to the rise of domestic and global sweatshops. Our second posting explored ethics involved in clothes shopping and fair trade. In this third posting we will examine the edges and boundaries of thinking about what constitutes ethical clothing. For each of us, our ethics are personal, subjective and changing.
One way to review your thoughts is to examine the edges and boundaries surrounding ethical shopping and ethical clothing for what makes sense to you and what might challenge your views and feelings. Proponents of veganism have been challenging views about ethical clothing and ethical eating for millennium. The term ‘vegan’ (from VEGetariAN) was coined in November 1944 at the founding of The Vegan Society in London by six non-dairy vegetarians. The underlying concept of “promoting ways of living free of animal products for the benefit of people, animals and the environment” has been found in many sects throughout history and cultures. To avoid taking a life, some yogis in ancient India would eat only old, dried grasses and refused to eat vegetables and plants that had been sacrificed on the cook’s chopping block.
Closely aligned with animal rights, veganism is promoted as a cruelty-free lifestyle that does not exploit animals in any way. Vegans do not eat eggs, dairy products including milk, honey or a wide variety of products derived from animals and insects for health reasons and because they believe that using these products exploits other species. Vegan clothing does not use leather (because leather can only come from a dead animal), wool (because raising and shearing sheep is sometimes exploitive and cruel), down (because of the harsh way that down feathers are plucked from live geese), or silk (because silk comes from the cocoons of silkworms which are killed when the silkworm cocoon and the larva inside are dropped in boiling water to unravel the silkworm cocoon for silk fiber).
Scientific research suggesting that plants have awareness, consciousness, rudimentary emotions and feel pain has many vegans performing contorted grammatical parsing about the meaning of “cruelty-free”. There is no reason to believe that plants are life forms any less deserving of respect than other life forms which share this planet. Many vegan justifications for eating vegetables, even though plants obviously have awareness and are sensitive to their environment, begin to sound remarkably similar to meat-eaters justifications for munching on Ol' Bossy.
Wool is avoided by many vegans because of a practice called mulesing on young lambs in Australia and because of animal rights concerns about the raising of animals being exploitive. Mulesing is the nasty practice of cutting away the folds of skin, without the use of anesthetics, around the anal area of sheep to prevent flies from laying eggs (which become maggots) in these folds of skin. The fly maggots would then infest and sicken the sheep. This is a problem and practice unique to Australia. About 25% of the world’s wool and almost 50% of the fine merino wool come from Australia. About 60% of the global wool supply is used in manufacturing clothing. Responding to pressure from a PeTA campaign (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), clothing retailers Abercombie & Fitch, Gap Inc, and Nordstrom began boycotting Australian merino wool in Fall 2004. The Australian wool industry agreed to phase out the practice of mulesing in Australia by 2010.
The manufacturing of wool garments and apparel from sheep, llamas and alpacas is central to the economies and livelihoods of many small farmers, weavers, artisans and textile workers throughout the world and especially among indigenous peoples in South America. Small farmers have a tradition of ethical animal husbandry. Their love and caring is rooted in a deep appreciation for the symbiotic relationship that they share with their flocks. To call the care of many small farmers toward their flock as being ‘exploitive’ is to be uninformed, unappreciative of the natural relationships that exist between species, and slightly arrogant to assume knowing what is in the heart of peoples unmet. Boycotting the wool products of many small farmers and indigenous peoples also needlessly robs them of the economic means to live a traditional lifestyle more in harmony with nature.
Vegan ethics are slinking onto the catwalks of major fashion houses such as the Paris couture house Chloe and companies in the Gucci Group. Long time vegetarian and international celebrity fashion designer Stella McCartney infuses vegan compassion into her pricey collections and refuses to design clothing or accessories using leather, furs or other animal products. An active crusader in the fight against the maltreatment of animals, Stella teamed up with PeTA to produce a video championing animal rights. While staying true to her principles of fashion with compassion, Stella McCartney cornered the VH1/Vogue Fashion and Music Designer of the Year award in 2000. While her clothes have been coveted for their youthful, flirty, funky, foxy, feminine, and floaty designs, Stella McCartney has been working with Adidas on a new line of women’s running shoe. Big label running shoes are typically about 50% styling, 50% engineering and 300% price. Stella’s design includes an asymmetrical lacing system and a “muted feminine color scheme including the signature Stella McCartney color of dusty rose.” The McCartney Adidas a3 Flyride will be in stores in May and will sell for a swift $205 … which will have you panting for breath before you even leave the store.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the major sport shoe companies – Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Fila, Puma, and ASICS – faced a barrage of public outrage over the sweatshop conditions in many of the factories in developing countries which manufacture sport shoes for these large corporations. Public pressure, bad press, and boycotts helped force these large corporations to acknowledge the labor abuses, such as wages below a subsistence living, 60+ hour work weeks, no overtime pay, unhealthy work conditions, poor and overcrowded living conditions, verbal and sexual abuse from supervisors, and a lack of any health benefits.
All of the major sport shoe companies and large corporations such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart that have fostered sweatshop conditions in developing countries have adopted policies and standards that fall under the wonderfully reassuring umbrella of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies to encourage their manufacturing suppliers to operate factories that are safe and fair workplaces. These corporate giants rely on external and internal auditors to monitor factory labor conditions. Nike, Adidas and Gang are also members of the Fair Labor Association which contracts with independent auditors. Sport shoes are manufactured at hundreds of factories in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries where there is a plentiful supply of cheap, and often desperate, workers. Monitors and external auditors have reported that conditions have improved in many factories but are still far below providing for a fair, safe and just life for their workers. The Nikes, Starbucks, Wal-Marts, and Adidas of the corporate jungle often use their Corporate Social Responsibility policies to deflect criticism and to smokescreen their minimal improvements for impoverished workers. We can only hope that Stella McCartney will extend her compassion for animal rights to influence her large sport wear collaborators to push for more just worker rights.
Stella McCartney is not the only haute couture designer to incorporate vegan principles in their fashion with animal compassion. Hemant Trevedi might not be found in the celebrity spotlights but he has become a fashion icon in his homeland of India and his deliciously rich gowns have swept down the high fashion runways of Munich, Milan, Paris, Delhi and London. Hemandt Trevedi’s creations have captured the rich, elaborate, and complex culture of Indian tradition in timelessly modern and elegant gowns. His creations have lent ease and sophistication to Miss India contestants in Miss World and Miss Universe contests for the last half dozen years. Hemandt Trevedi is also the creative consultant at the internationally recognized Sheetal Design Studio in Mumbai, India. To my simple eye, his gowns – especially his wedding gowns – transcend cultures and time giving an eternal elegance and grace to the wearer.
But perhaps the most provocative (and relevant to ethical clothing) is Hemandt Trevedi’s Veggie Collection which he designed for a PeTA campaign. Long flowing and masculine banana leaves for him, strategically placed broccoli that flatter the natural curves for her form the core of this animal-friendly, cruelty-free (unless you happen to be a broccoli) collection from Hemandt Trevedi. At your local Art Museum Charity Ball, you will provide the center of attention … and also the munchies if someone else brings the dip. While his new Veggie Collection might be more appropriate on the cow trail than the catwalk, it certainly does have a peel.
The motivation behind his quirky, but totally eco-friendly and sustainable, green collection for PeTA’s publicity campaign, was Hemandt Trevedi’s desire to avoid using any materials, accessories and fabrics, such as fur, leather, wools, that might have caused animals to suffer. Upon learning of the cruel and sometimes illegal trafficking of cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep and other animals for their skins, Trevedi renounced his position as director and choreographer of the fashion show at the prestigious annual International Leather Fair in Chennai, India. He also started boycotting the use of wool when he learned about the cruel practice of mulesing on sheep. Much of the wool in India is imported from Australia.
Even Pamela Anderson – former Playboy Playmate, Baywatch Babe, deep thinker, home movie buff and ethical purist – has joined the animal rights and ethical clothing parade with her new fashion line of cruelty-free clothing. Pamela Anderson’s fashion collection consists of non-leather shoes and Ugg-style boots, sexy all-natural fiber lingerie, and clothing made without hurting animals. Anderson is also designing what she calls “sexy, California-style” sweaters and jeans that fit snug to the knee and “made to fit a woman’s body.” Hmmm ... is that a natural or enhanced body? “It’s basically clothes that I want to wear,” Pamela confessed. The lettuce-entertain-you bikini was her design for another PeTA ad campaign.
While different in their focus, ethical clothing, organic clothing and sustainable clothing are united in their fundamental respect for the earth and all creatures. The ethical shopper will seek out natural, organic clothing that was grown or raised lightly and sustainably upon the earth without poisonous and toxic pesticides or herbicides, by farm and garment workers who received a fair and livable wage under safe and healthy working conditions, using ecologically-friendly manufacturing processes. And the easiest way to shop ethically? At your locally-owned shops or use your mouse … this is one ‘animal’ that you can exploit without guilt.
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