There are people involved in the production of fashion garments from the harvesting of raw materials such as cotton, all the way through to the sewing on of buttons of the final garment. Most of these people are hidden from the view of designers, spread across the world working in a variety of conditions and contexts. How can we bring these people closer to the designer and encourage designers to see their position as being the intermediary between the makers of the clothes and textiles and the people who wear them?
To design or produce fashion with sustainability in mind requires an awareness of the complete lifecycle of garments, taking account of the environmental and social impacts at each stage of the lifecycle. From a sustainability perspective, equal weight is always given to all three pillars of economic prosperity, environmental stewardship and social well-being. In most industries, businesses find it easiest to engage with the financial and environmental elements of sustainability, as they are easier to measure and involve less reputational risk, whereas the social element often poses the greatest challenges. The fashion industry is different. Shocking stories in the last decade of poor working conditions in the supply chains of several leading fashion brands has forced the industry to focus on the social elements.
Zooming out to a broader view, the ‘social well-being’ of stakeholders involved in the supply chain could also include the impact on communities living near factories and even the ‘size zero’ impacts on consumers and their body image. However, in these articles I will focus on the people involved in textile and garment production, either factory, small workshop or individual workers. This is the stage where the majority of negative attention has been focused, with little attention given to design-led solutions.
So what influence does a designer have in ensuring that the people involved in the production of their designs can be treated fairly and respectfully? Some designers may argue that these issues are not their responsibility and are symptomatic of the larger system of high-speed fashion and the behaviours of the companies they work for. Designing for ethical production asks designers to consider the ethics of their decisions, and ultimately the ethics of being a designer. What are those personal and often long-lasting beliefs and values we each hold and should we bring our personal value system into our working lives as designers? Although the potential for ethical actions by a designer working for a large fashion brand will be very different to a designer working independently, in both contexts designers are being asked to take responsibility for who produces their designs and how those people are paid and treated.
While ‘human–centred design’ encourages designers to consider the user first, here I am proposing ‘human-centred production’, that encourages designers to consider not only the user or person who purchases the garments and wears them, but the people who were involved in the making of the garment. The designer is the intermediary between the makers of the clothes and textiles and the people who wear them.
The design and production processes are deeply interconnected, and the decisions made by designers will have impacts on people working in production at all stages of the supply chain. The type of garment being designed will determine in which country production occurs; the type of fabric or yarn chosen will have impacts on the people involved in extracting the raw materials, such as cotton farmers; the finishing and dye treatments may affect the water ways and rivers used by local communities; and any surface decorations such as embroidery embellishments may involve unmonitored or low paid labour.
Currently, the most common actions for ethical production by fashion designers include: at the garment level, choosing fibres and materials that are FairTrade certified or non-commodity fibres (non-cotton fibres including Tencel, Bamboo) (Image 1); and at the production level, include engaging suppliers who abide by codes of conduct and co-operate in monitoring labour conditions, choosing vertically integrated production (Image 2); or working with artisanal producer groups (Image 3).
So how do designers unpick this over whelming array of impacts and choices? There are such things as Lifecycle Assessments (LCA), which tell us the environmental and social impacts of a garment, but these tools do not tell designers how to reduce these impacts or even much about the people that are involved in the supply chain. Ideally there would exist a tool to help designers in their studios to make the right decisions for both the design brief and the people involved in production. But this doesn’t exist yet and developing such a tool is one of the long term aims of my research.
In the meantime, I will investigate some of the key issues facing designers when considering ethical production with two people who understand the context from different perspectives - a specialist in international human and workers’ rights issues in garment factories, and a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) manager for a fashion brand. Together we will explore the barriers that are stopping designers from engaging in ethical production issues and look at the potential for new ways of designing that ask the designer to not only bring their ethical beliefs to work, but also to consider an expanded role for themselves, as facilitators, activists and entrepreneurs.
 (Fletcher & Grose 2012)