"Can I tell you a secret?” Jake Bronstein says in the opening seconds of his 10 year hoodie Kickstarter video. “The clothes you wear were designed to fall apart.” He goes on to explain the definition of ‘planned obsolescence’—the concept used by clothing manufacturers to build a product that will break so you have to buy another. In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline writes about how 50 years ago, the clothes we bought accounted for a much higher percentage of our income, yet we had less stuff. Today, our clothing purchases add up to a smaller percentage, but we own a lot more. Yes, certain technologies have improved, but there are still real costs to making a great garment. What is the honest truth? The stuff we buy is not made well, and the people making it overseas are barely making enough to survive.
We are addicted to cheap fashion. We want stuff for budget prices, and we don’t want to think about the conditions that our clothes are made in. Instead of solving the systemic problems of an industry that doesn't pay its workers enough, we have twisted the problem into a half-baked solution of the ‘one for one model.’
It is admirable to use the power of consumer culture to also benefit the poor, but it misses the point. Social entrepreneurship has been white-washed by the simplicity of a one for one model that continues to create cheap products which end up adding more waste to the textile stream. There are a lot of definitions for social entrepreneurship, but at its core, it’s about solving problems while also creating a sustainable market solution. Its important to distinguish marketing from social impact.
Companies like Warby Parker and TOMS Shoes have created powerful, and sticky brands. When a consumer buys one of their products, they feel good sharing the brand with others, because they say, “They donate a pair for every one bought.” While Warby Parker has a more sophisticated model than simply one for one, they still manufacture in China, where the average manufacturing hourly wage is $1.36. But what about where that shoe or pair of glasses is made? How much are manufacturers in the Far East getting paid if a company can grow, and also give a product away for free? Would they still give away or donate if they had to pay U.S. wages?
What if, instead of giving stuff away for free, we talked more about who makes it? Rather than use it as a marketing tactic, let’s ask companies to actually incorporate the social side of their business into the actual business.
In Why Nations Fail Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the wealthiest countires create “incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities.” In other words, if you work hard, you should have opportunities to make more money.
Business has great influence in our communities, with the purchasing power to make a huge economic and social impact here at home. It’s time that we talk more about the costs of goods sold—meaning how much money something actually costs—versus what we are giving away. There is no doubt that outside the U.S. there are many problems that need to be solved, but for many entrepreneurs here, we feel our greatest impact is to find opportunities to create fair wage jobs, and make a product responsibly that American consumers can feel good about purchasing.
We know marketing is about maxims, but it's also about making people feel like they're part of a movement and lifestyle. It may not happen overnight, but the American consumer is demanding more from fashion companies: just look at how well Jake Bronstein’s Kickstarter project is doing. What if every brand told the story of its manufacturing partners, instead of telling us that it is donating a percentage of proceeds? This can lead to big changes. The next wave of “social entrepreneurship” could be a movement of economic empowerment for the makers, rather than incorporating a charity component. That way Jake won’t have to start his next video telling us a secret, because in the future, how something is made will be right out there in the open.
Related: Vivienne Westwood Calls for a Climate Revolution: Will the Fashion Industry Listen?
Clothing image via Shutterstock