Over a century ago a company sold thread deceptively labeled as “cilk” and the Federal Trade Commission, “FTC” published their first law enforcement action. Fast forward to today and the FTC is still citing manufacturers, importers, distributors and advertisers that misrepresent. If you are interested, the FTC website is full of examples. Some of the companies that have been charged over the years are big retailers and popular brands. One that resonated for me was a popular bamboo line that sold super soft “eco-fashion” apparel a few years ago. They were charged with advertising 100% bamboo products made using sustainable practices to “retain antimicrobial properties” but instead sold rayon, a chemically processed cellouse. Today you might see that same clothing line listing their rayon products as, “rayon made from bamboo” & would you know the difference? I suspect most of us, particularly busy parents who can barely keep up with the growth spurts, would not.
So what is a consumer to do? How do I size up a label?
First of all, don’t leave it to the FTC to give you all the information you need. The FTC has added many important updates and continues to do so in an effort to keep up with the changing market but the information that is required to provide consumers in the USA is minimal. There are 4 pieces of information that must be tagged on your apparel:
- Generic name and % of fiber
- Where the item was processed or manufactured
- Manufacturer or marketers registered identification number (“RN”, you can look up any RN on the FTC website)
- Care instructions
This is not a lot of information to understand the garment’s quality and history. Where is the fabric sourced? Agricultural practices, manufacturing, labor, trade? I can’t help but think if a brand doesn’t provide any additional information they are shirking from responsibility. I assume if there is nothing to share, there is something to hide.
The fashion apparel market is huge and complicated.
Theres no doubt the approximately 3 trillion dollar global apparel business has a complicated supply chain with multiple intermediaries that can make transparency difficult. It is a BIG business. The most promising recent innovation that I’ve come across is the effort by the Sustainable Apparel Coalitions (SAC) to add barcode identifiers on labels that provide information about the product’s history as it relates to ecological and social impact. The SAC includes more than 30% of industry participants and growing so certainly impact IS possible.
Awareness is growing.
Some market insiders wonder if providing information will make a difference with consumers. I think it will. The industry has not made information enough of a priority so we are in a place with little accountability on either side of the trade. There are numerous organizations that provide certifications of sustainability but most consumers won’t recognize the marks or what they mean. Many consumers, (including me) have needed a “quick guide” to catch up and keep up.
As I go through the journey to launch a clothing line, one thing I’ve found for certain is that there is only one healthy fashion forward. As consumers and designers confront the information gaps, prices will fall and the privileged choice to buy “green” will increasingly become more accessible for all.
Interested in learning more? Read this: