The problem with “conscientious” capitalism

June 13, 2016

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I’ve been thinking about writing this post for quite some time now. “Conscientious” capitalism has created “mindful” shopping, a new breed of consumerism that I’m happy is growing in popularity, but that I’m also wary of. Ever since the first sustainable fashion clothing appeared on the market in the 1980s, people have questioned whether or not fashion – a product of a capitalist system – can ever truly be socially and environmentally sustainable.

It’s a fair question and one that I’ve considered a lot in the planning of EITHER/OR. Capitalism is an economic system with the sole purpose of making money. Conscientious capitalism is the production, selling and consumption of products that still make money for the producer, but that are supposed to have some sort of inherent social or environmentally responsible quality.

Yes, green-washed products are awfully close by definition. “Buy this t-shirt – never mind that it was made in a sweatshop – and we’ll donate $1 dollar to a local charity so you feel good about your purchase.” See that? That’s greenwashing or making a product appear to be more ethical than it really is. It’s a quick way to make more money without really making any changes to a system.

This is what makes me wary of conscientious capitalism. I’m wary of the pretenders, the fakers who prey on peoples’ desires to do good and to be more responsible. This is not what EITHER/OR is about and this is not what our featured designers do.

Piñatex is a textile made out of pineapple fibre that was developed by a company called Ananas Anam. Several designers have made prototypes out of the material to show its versatility.

Piñatex is a textile made out of pineapple fibre that was developed by a company called Ananas Anam. Several designers have made prototypes out of the material to show its versatility.

Fashion can and will be socially and environmentally sustainable, one day. I truly do believe this. It’s only a matter of time before manufacturers figure out how to produce textiles and hardware within a closed-loop system or before the realities of climate change force us to stop looking at fashion as a disposable commodity. But before any of these changes can take place, capitalism has to redefine the bottom line.

Right now, the fashion world exists within an endless, unsustainable cycle of production, exploitation, consumption, waste, rinse and repeat. It was designed this way to make sure that companies can continue to make money, and more of it. It isn’t enough to keep making the same amount of money each year either. Companies have to make more and more. The only way to do this is to keep cutting costs. Companies can’t ask their textile manufacturers to cut much more, nor their distributors or advertisers, so they rely on cheap labour in corrupt countries to keep them afloat. This is why, even though energy costs have made manufacturing clothing more expensive, our clothing has never been cheaper.

Clothing companies continue to produce clothing to make a profit, because that’s their job – to make money for themselves. This doesn’t make them bad, it’s just the reality of the system. They use advertising to convince us that we need to keep buying their new collections, even though we’ve already bought enough clothing to last us a lifetime – ignore the fact that most fast fashion won’t last longer than six months without needing repairs.

We keep buying these clothes because of trends, because we want to stay “fashionable”, because we’ve been raised within a system that has taught us to value “new”. Unfortunately, things don’t stay new for long, hence the huge amounts of clothing waste that appear in landfills every year. We have to continually buy new to experience the euphoria of it. Like a drug, we’ll sacrifice almost anything to get new, cheap clothing. We’ll even go so far as turn a blind eye to the people who are exploited to give us what we want.

In order for fashion to truly be socially and environmentally sustainable, capitalism has to redefine profit not as more money for them, but more good for people and planet. They have to recognize that wealth is not in money but in health, peace and happiness. I know many of you might think I sound like a dreamer, well I am. I envision an industry in which clothing is valued based on how little it takes from the Earth and how much it gives back to it and to people.

Vancouver-based, award-winning designer Sans Soucie makes her innovative pieces out of second-hand hosiery.

Vancouver-based, award-winning designer Sans Soucie makes her innovative pieces out of second-hand hosiery.

Picture clothing that is not only made out of 100 per cent plant-based materials, but is biodegradable AND can monitor your biological functions to remind you when to take your vitamins or to alert the hospital if you’re ill. Imagine clothing that changes shape, colour or texture based on your mood or the weather. Smart textiles will make it possible for clothing to conduct energy and even grow. There are endless possibilities for the future of fashion, but they will only come to fruition if the system in which fashion exists redefines profit.

What do we do until then? We can certainly contribute to making this shift happen. And we can resort to a handful of ways to shop more sustainably in the meantime. We can buy second-hand, we can buy less in general, and we can buy from companies that adhere to strict social and environmental codes of conduct.

This is why I’m launching EITHER/OR – to make it that much easier for you, for other people, to buy ethically made, sustainable fashion. The six Canadian clothing designers we’ve chosen to feature this fall approach sustainability from different angles. Some source organic textiles, others focus on designing versatile pieces. Some put emphasis on local production while others are slow, one-person shops that value craftsmanship. What they all have in common is an emphasis on ethical production, local production and quality products that last.

I can’t wait to launch the site in September. Until then, subscribe to EITHER/OR‘s bi-weekly newsletter for updates and futur exclusive sales or follow us on Instagram and Twitter. Stay in touch and tell me what you think about sustainable fashion. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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