Social Sustainability: Think Globally and Act Locally

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Reading Time: 4 min

Fashion is beautiful, aspirational, and it can be an empowering force in influencing people’s lives. The fashion industry, however, is in desperate need of an update.

Its negative environmental impact and poor record on labour rights make it old-fashioned and far removed from what consumers are looking for.

According to a survey done by Fashion Revolution, an organisation advocating change in the industry, consumers want companies to be transparent about their materials and packaging, and two-thirds of those surveyed also want to know what kind of social impact a brand makes.

As individual consumers, we can identify a brand’s commitment to environmental sustainability by researching things like the origin of their fabrics and other materials, or the kind of chemicals they use in working with those materials. For a fashion brand, claiming to be environmentally conscious is a great marketing plan because shoppers want to buy more sustainable products. The demand is there to support new eco brands popping up with Instagram accounts, but in their rush to sell they have forgot the social aspect of sustainability.

Determining whether or not a brand is also committed to social sustainability, and figuring out how to incorporate that into our own personal habits, is a bit more complicated. The results are not as immediately satisfying as switching from plastic to bamboo, and ethics don’t photograph as well as a linen jumpsuit. The foundation of social sustainability is the abstract practice of putting community before the individual.

The concept of social sustainability can seem vague, but it becomes more straightforward when split into two categories: the broad perspective of government and corporate policies on human rights, and the very local activity of creating a thriving community.

Respecting employees’ human rights is a crucial aspect of any company and it generally means that all workers are paid a fair wage and given a safe working environment. Governments are responsible for creating these standards and companies are responsible for implementing them at all points in the supply chain. At this level of policy-making it can be hard for an individual consumer to feel like their actions can affect real change.

What we can do is ask companies to highlight information on their human rights commitments and to be transparent regarding the policies of other companies in their supply chain. If that information is not available from the brand itself there are resources like the Good On You directory that give brands a labour rating based on these factors. And we can communicate our support by spending money with brands that share our values.

When it comes to the local aspect of social sustainability this is where we as individual consumers can work with brands in our actual neighbourhoods to build and maintain a healthy, stable community. Brands who are socially responsible in this way focus on the well-being of their community when making business decisions, they appreciate the cultural traditions of the community, and they foster relationships between community members. As consumers we can contribute by shopping with such brands and getting to know the people behind the shop-front.

Paradise Row is a great practical example of a brand operating with social sustainability at the heart of their business. The social impact of their decisions informs their business practices as well as their creative designs. For example, they manufacture their leather goods in their neighbourhood by pairing local artisans with local designers to help revive the diverse culture of textile manufacturing that neighbourhood used to be known for. Their respect for cultural heritage as well as their consideration of human psychology is evident in the design of their handbags: one collection reflects the distinct social groups that comprised the historical culture of East London, and their second collection was inspired by human emotions.

In finding and supporting local trade chains like Paradise Row consumers can help facilitate the kind of fashion industry that we want, one that is both trendy and sustainable. Such brands operate within social and environmental principles, making them perfect for the modern, conscious consumer. And they embody the old phrase you may have seen printed on a canvas tote, wandering around a farmers market at the weekend: Think Globally, Act Locally.  

#ParadiseRowCurates

Words: Rachel B Velebny