On any given day, wearing your t-shirt inside-out is just sloppy -- unless that day was yesterday, in which case it may have been emblematic of your elevated social consciousness. On the inaugural Fashion Revolution Day, thousands of people around the world turned their clothes inside-out in a symbolic call to action for more ethical fashion practices.
By turning a fashion faux pas into a fashion statement, the creators of the ethical apparel movement gave consumers a collective voice for the voiceless, including thousands of third-world workers that have perished in recent factory fires and collapses. After reporting on outsourcing injustice in apparel in 2012, I was dismayed when less than a year later, the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed 1,135 garment workers in the Savar district of Bangladesh capital Dhaka.
Progress is slow. Systemic and supply chain issues have no simple fix, but a groundswell of grassroots consumer interest marks a defining moment. And it's fitting that Fashion Revolution Day comes on the heels of the Earth Day, celebrated each year on April 22. Both events give regular people a way to rally around social and environmental issues. The only catch is sustaining that interest after the party dies.
"We're really having more of a green party than a green revolution," author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told Fareed Zakaria. While fashion consumers are big into statements, they can also be short on commitment.
If you ask the socially conscious among us, we'll insist that we care enough to hold our ground against what amounts to modern-day slavery. But then a sale happens, and sometimes the dress is too pretty to pass up. (I'm talking to myself here.)
Even well-intentioned consumers find that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. But should the responsibility for ethical fashion rest with consumers? Isn't it a bit hypocritical for industry and retailers to ask shoppers to assume the burden of sustainable manufacturing and fair labor practices as they relentlessly tempt us with advertising and marketing?
We're all implicit in this. In lieu of regulations, corporate social responsibility may be the only way for industry to mitigate the damage done by shifting labor to the developing world. A good CSR strategy is not "green-washing" but an on-going process for stewarding natural, financial and human resources.
"It's best for brands to start in the design and development phase," said Debora Annino, president of Common Project and the creative director who launched Matthew McConaughey's new brand JKL. Just back from the 2014 Sustainatopia conference on ethical fashion, Annino describes her work philosophy as the "theology" of sustainability.
"While we might all believe in the same truth of what sustainability in fashion means, we believe there are different ways to achieve those end truths," said Annino. "Some common beliefs are that we believe fabric should be made ethically, and that transparency and authenticity are very important."
"But there can be doctrinal differences," she adds, explaining that the means by which companies display transparency in the supply chain can vary. (Annino laid out considerations for integrating sustainability into clothing in our recent interview.)
The fashion revolution is a battle with many fronts. Starting a revolution takes passion, but keeping it going takes conviction, if not a sort of religious zeal. Speaking of theology, the Greek word for "repent" is metanoia, which means "to change." The impetus for change can happen in a flash, but sustaining it involves habitual action. It's really a way of seeing and being differently.
Take my closet, a microcosm of a decade-long evolutionary process. I still have some suits and a few Gucci bags I bought at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. And then, after a pile of consumer debt kept me from continuing my high-end indulgences, there are those cheapy tops and jackets from Target. Then there's that gaping hole in my wardrobe that represents several years of buying nothing at all.
My closet today contains more long-lasting classics, some "recycled" vintage pieces, some eco-friendly outfits, and a few really nice things, too. Altogether, there's less clutter and more quality. It's a different closet than it was a decade ago, as I am a different person. Although it's less fashion-forward, I think it's a better wardrobe.
What happens when a society decides to change for the better, when metanoia happens at scale? That's the promise of Fashion Revolution Day. We've seen it happen before with Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970. This year Earth Day Texas 2014 will be the "world's largest" weekend celebration of its kind. And it's happening in none other than Dallas, the consumer capital of the world. If our city can become a rising sustainability leader, change is possible anywhere.
But whether change is probable still depends on the choices we make on our own each day. It happens after the party dies down, in the small decisions we make when nobody else is looking. Social consciousness may not be the boldest fashion statement, but it finally has some real traction now. Let's hope it's one trend that does not go out of style.