The fashion industry is a trade that touches on every household in the world. One is either a consumer of fashion or a producer of fashion. According to Sollars and Englander (2016), the fashion industry has continued to experience exponential growth with the US market alone employing millions of people and generating approximately a trillion dollars in 2015. This expansive industry does not simply refer to what people consume as fashion but is connected to other fields such as the production of raw materials, advertising, manufacturing, transportation and retailing (Ahn, 2016). These connections are rather complex; thus, creating a range of ethical issues that include environmental impact, working conditions, issues of labor, the use of fur among others (Marosszeky, 2014). Due to the tremendous profits that operators stand to gain from the fashion industry, particularly the fast fashion, the temptation to engage in unethical behavior becomes almost inevitable for some of them. This means that consumers have no choice but to be on the lookout for unethical behavior. Considering the advancements in consumer ethics in the West, which is home to popular designer labels such as Victorias Secret, Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch, as well as Ralph Lauren, it is not automatic that a company that a company with good products attracts customers in a whim (Sen, 2008) Informed consumers are likely to boycott products from companies that engage in unethical behavior in the process of production and retailing. The ethics of Western consumers are embedded in ethical consumerism, an aspect of empowering consumers to go for ethically produced merchandises that are neither harmful to the society nor the environment (Sen, 2008). An ethical consumer understands the consequences of production, distribution, consumption, and mode of disposal of the products they go for. In that case, consumer ethics are key in determining the direction that the fashion industry in the West takes. This paper explores and explains how the ethics of the Western consumer affects the fashion industry. An ethical consumer expects a business corporation to behave in a manner that conforms to the fundamental ethical standards.
One of the consumer ethics that has a massive impact on the fashion industry is in regard to the working conditions of those who are employed in the fashion industry. The western consumers are well aware of the existence of sweatshops. The US Department of Labor defines a sweatshop as a factory which has violated two or more labor laws by subjecting its workers to poor working conditions that include, but are not limited to, unreasonable working hours, child labor and unfair wages (Sollars, & Englander, 2016). Information on the ethical concerns in relation to working conditions in the fashion industry has had an impact on the fashion industry. According to Sollars and Englander (2016), most of the fashionable clothes are produced by children and people who are working under dangerous and difficult working conditions. Armed with this information, Western consumers have formed protest movements such as the Tighty Whitey Rally that seeks to pressure the main players in the fashion industry to produce its fashionable items under fair conditions (Ahn, 2016). It is surprising to note that despite the strong labor laws, America is not free of sweatshops. On average, sweatshops force workers to lose an approximate $2634 per year (Sollars & Englander, 2016). The impact of these sweatshop conditions is that many ethical consumers would be willing to pay more for an item that is not produced in a sweatshop. In fact, many are willing to pay 15% more for an item as long as they know that it has not been produced in a sweatshop (Sollars & Englander, 2016). This means that due to consumer ethics, fashion items produced in sweatshops may not enjoy as wide a market in the West as those produced ethically. As long as a consumer is aware of the production process of the item, they will choose either to buy it or not. This obviously affects the fashion industry.
In relation to the ethics of production, the raw materials used to produce these fashion items is also an issue of concern. The issue of raw materials forms the basis of another ethical matter that impacts on the fashion industry. One particular issue that has caused considerable controversy is the use of fur as a raw material to in the fashion industry. The use of fur to produce fashion items, especially clothing items, in the fashion industry had lost favor in the 1980s but seemed to have picked up again in the 21st century, with two of the most popular furs used being taken from mink and fox (Marosszeky, 2014). Ethical consumers in the West are particularly concerned with the use of fur because it amounts to mistreatment of animals. In consideration of the fact that human beings do not consume mink and fox meat, this raises ethical issues because it means the animals are either trapped and skinned or domestically raised for their fur. Such treatment is considered by the Western consumer as unethical, and to discourage it, some consumers keep off items made of fur. In the recent past, however, real fur has been substituted with faux fur in an effort to woo ethical consumers (Ahn, 2016). Many fashion retailers seem to have realized that consumers prefer faux to real fur. In its website, The Federal Trade Commission has included real fur as a major ethical issue in the fashion industry and goes ahead to explain to consumers on how to differentiate between real and fake fur. Unfortunately, some companies go as far as advertising fashion items as containing fake fur yet they are made of real fur. In 2013, a scandal was reported by the New York Times about a fashion store in the USA named Neiman Marcus that was reported to have been selling various items made of real fur but had labeled them as faux fur (Marosszeky, 2014). This sparked controversy in the industry whereby ethical consumers felt cheated. With the public in the West increasingly becoming aware of animal rights, it would be shocking for a consumer to learn that what they have all along thought to be fake fur is actually real. This is because the use of real fur means that an animal has been hunted down, not for meat but for its fur: a violation of animal rights. Such consumer ethics and standards determine whether a fashion item attracts more clients or not.
As human rights advocates decry the abuse of animal rights by the fashion industry players who manufacture their items using fox and mink fur, environmentalists have been complaining about the negative impact that the fashion industry has had on the environment. The process of fashion production right from the collection of raw materials to transport, production and distribution affect the environment in various ways. The manufacturing of garments, in particular, raises a lot of ethical concerns among consumers. Apart from most of the synthetic materials being derivatives of petroleum, the natural materials, such as cotton, require the use of heavy pesticides (Sen, 2008). This obviously takes a toll on the environment. The worst of them is fast fashion, a variety of low-priced clothes that cater for the latest trends in fashion but fade out within a short period after introduction into the market since they are continuously replenished with trendy ones. Fast fashion is mainly made from synthetic polyester fabric whose production yields byproducts such as toxic solvents, hydrogen chloride, and organic compounds, all of which pose a big danger to the environment (Marosszeky, 2014). Additionally, harmful carbons are emitted into the air and some toxic chemicals into water sources during production. The disposal of these items also become a problem to the environment since they do not undergo natural degradation thus end up being accumulated in landfills. The result is massive pollution of the environment. This means that although fashion items, especially the fast fashion, are popular in many fashion retail stores, they are dangerous to the environment. Informed ethical consumers in the West have continuously raised this as a very serious ethical issue. Consequently, many ethical consumers are trying out the possibility of digging deeper into their pockets for Eco-friendly items or those that use organic fiber. Apart from lasting for long due to the superior quality, such items help in preserving the environment. In that case, the fashion industry is negatively affected since the consumers do not buy as frequently as they ought to do. Ethical consumers, however, who are still attracted to the fast fashion, normally donate the clothes and other fashion items they no longer need. In so doing, apart from helping conserve the environment, such consumers make the demand for fashion items reduce since the recipients of the donations do not need to buy the items. All this has a major impact on the fashion industry.
Apart from contributing to the degradation of the environment, the fashion industry sets the stage for ethical concerns as many producers seek to evade safety rules. In a bid to cut on costs, some fashion businesses set up their factories in countries where there is little or no strict laws governing the conduct of such factories in regard to safety rules. The Gap and Walmart, for instance, which are American, have their cheaply priced fashion items manufactured in Bangladesh where the labor is cheap, and safety rules are non-existent (Ahn, 2016). Surprisingly, it is in Bangladesh that Tazreen Fashion, a garment factory, caught fire in 2012 killing 112 women who had been employed as seamstresses (Marosszeky, 2014). While slightly over ten management team members were able to escape, the 112 women were engulfed in the inferno. Since fire safety laws did not exist in Bangladesh, Tazreen Fashion was neither obligated nor did it find the need to provide fire exits or smoke alarms, leave alone conducting fire drills. Following the tragedy, the best Walmart, a company that gets a lot of its wares from Tazreen Fashion, did was issue a statement in The New York Times claiming that its stores that are run in the United States consider fire safety as a very serious measure and that the company would try to educate their counterparts in Bangladesh (Ahn, 2016). The most unfortunate thing is that it was not until more fashion industry workers died that Bangladesh started creating standards for safety in the industry. The ethical question that Western consumers would wish answered is why a reputable company would be so quick to make huge profits at the expense of its production workers safety. When such questions go unanswered, the fashion industry is, of course, affected. No sensible ethical consumer in the West would be willing to buy an item whose production mode is questionable. This clearly has an impact on the industry.
As a global business, the fashion industry has undoubtedly attracted people from all walks of life. These people play various roles from designing to manufacturing, transporting, merchandising and retailing. For it to succeed, the industry involves the collaboration of all from designing to consumption. It is important to note that this industry is mainly characterized by abundant product variety, erratic consumer demand, a short life cycle of the product, and supply chains that are complex. This is the mark of fast fashion. Throughout the history of humanity, fashion has remained a core determiner of social class. In the west, fashion greatly influences what people do and say, and who they are in the society. However, the fashion industry has often been cumbered with challenges that have raised more ethical questions than answers. Issues such as working conditio...
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