How do we build trust in a complex multi-stakeholder relationship where the product is based on price?
Apparel matters. We wear clothes throughout our life, yet little thought is given to modern garment making except for the cost. Despite well-meant laws, international trade policies, and CSR audit reporting, a mistrust gap exists between makers and end users on whether garments are sweatshop-free, endorse fair trade, or are relatively more or less sustainable. The session explored the systems of production and disposal of Catholic school uniforms, which bear a unique responsibility to their buyers to ensure equity and sustainability. Uniforms are mandated and bought by individual families have little say in ensuring that the people who made their clothes have worker equity and safety.
Kelly Okamura organized this design inquiry into sustainable product design held at Nuvango Gallery for the April 2016 DwD. With a group of 25 particpants and industry stakeholders, we took a deep dive into what she calls Flourishing Fashion. The group explored the problem of how to build product trust and ensure that mandated school uniforms – first purchased through a tendered bid process that includes CSR policy – are made with worker equity.
Contemporary ethical garment making is difficult and the garment industry is extremely competitive. It’s very hard to make a profit if you do it right – made with worker equity and respect for the planet throughout the entire process. Buying garments in a transparent global market is equally tough when mistrust has been built based on evidence that is hearsay. And for mandated Catholic school uniforms, this make-take relationship compounds when a wearer doesn’t have a choice to vote with their purchasing dollars or mindlessly buy fast fashion.
Don Officer followed up with Kelly with a brief interview following the event. Kelly describes in her own words what “flourishing fashion” represents:
“Flourishing Fashion addresses the desire to make sell and buy in a modern world where our purchasing choices impact living beings and planet. It addresses a major systemic equilibrium shift that impacts all of us as consumers of goods. In this broad sense, the reference to fashion is not just about clothing but fashion is a reflection of our times. It requires a new systemic understanding for the need to support more 3P (Profit with respect for People and Planet) goods for a finite planet if we want humanity to flourish.”
Q: As far as you know, who accepts and values that notion?
They identify as the fastest growing consumer group – the Aspirationals – who still want to buy ‘fashion’ but want to know their product’s origin and are willing to pay more for products that better align with their ethical values.
Q: Why should we care?
We all wear clothes and make purchasing choices. If we all keep buying stuff, consumers responsibility begins with purchasing goods, and we all have to better understand our roles as consumers in the purchasing system.
Q: Did you find the DwD group curious about flourishing fashion?
Since we all consume the immediate understanding is we are all active participants, not observers so the dialogues were engaging even if the wicked problem focused on mandated school uniforms. It was challenging to contain the dialogue and even bring the session to a timely close. The discussion continued after the event with both participants and later with others who expressed interest in future dialogues on the subject but did not attend.
Q: How did they engage on the topic?
I showed a short film clip to create a personal awareness that most consumers don’t think beyond the price tag about of their purchases. So the attendee engagement was both on a conceptual level with the wicked problem focused on mandated school uniforms as well as on more personal relationships with their clothing. For example, pointing out other required information on all textile products prompted some attendees to look up information on the clothes they wore to the session. Stephen, my session collaborator, gained insight on information beyond the price tag, and began looking at clothing in a more informed way even before the DwD session took place.
Q: Did you detect any consensus or streams of thought?
There wasn’t consensus on a solution for the wicked problem presented. But that’s understandable since our small group dialogues focused on segments of the apparel loop. On reflection, comments noted when we reconvened in full circle, could be encapsulated as a need for transparency. And generally, the take-away was a greater understanding there are no easy answers to establishing trust in global supply chains. As individuals, attendees recognized more clearly how we are all active consumers in the modern apparel system.
Q: What was your biggest takeaway?
My biggest take-away was a confirmation that consumers are interested in being more informed about their purchasing choices beyond the price tag. Apparel is a useful metaphor for our consuming habits and validating the high ratio of consumers who are not indifferent to the impact that their purchasing makes once they are informed, matters. I also immediately gained great content for my gooderGoods podcast #14 – Mis-Trust. You can hear it on rabble.ca or on soundcloud. Note the visual for Mis-Trust was not a piece of clothing but the case of water purchased for the event.
Q: How might FF relate to design thinking?
Fashion is an applied art. Design thinking is outcome driven vs. purely creative thought. Often fashion is considered frivolous or on an esthetical level but for most of us, the retail price is a constraint to sell through or textile waste. And combined with a respect for people and planet make it a wicked problem that is solvable but requires an equilibrium system shift. Solutions to parts can contribute to the problem but to scale it needs greater accountability throughout the system that includes with consumers. Educating consumers on both their power and how they contribute to keeping the status quo is an important part of creating the shift. That’s why I’m chasing Flourishing vs. Sustainable Fashion. We want to continue to make sell and buy desirable products with holistic growth NOT sustain the purchasing process we have now.
Q: Where might the FF transformation come from?
I love Frances Westley’s insight that change is hard but can also happen in the blink of an eye. With clothing, it is something that literally touches us daily, and we are generally in control of what we choose to purchase, or not.
See the recent event on Fair Labour and the Living Wage with Kelly Okamura and Auret van Heerden at The Fashion Institute of Technology, March 2016.
Idea Convener – Kelly Okamura
Kelly is a product designer and design strategist who is exploring the opportunities for flourishing business thinking in the fast-moving world of fashion and textiles. She is currently investigating the complexity of the purchasing system to provide solutions for transformative change. You can check out her gooderGoods podcasts on conscious consumption at rabble.ca or Soundcloud.