The perks and pitfalls of ethical fashion: an interview with Vaute Couture founder Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart

Posted by Charles Colman

In order to provide readers with more diverse perspectives on fashion law, LAW OF FASHION is going to start running occasional interviews with notable people in the fashion industry.  Since this writer will be taking the lead on eco-fashion issues at the New York City Bar Association's Fashion Law Committee, it seemed appropriate to post a Q&A with the fantastic and admirable Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, founder of the vegan fashion label Vaute Couture.

Leanne indulged LAW OF FASHION as it posed questions about the importance -- and the pitfalls -- of ethical, sustainable, and humane fashion [most hyperlinks supplied by LOF]:

LOF: Relatively recently, I've noticed that the general public is becoming more aware of the immense waste generated by the fashion industry.  This seems to have led to more visible efforts to do something about the problem.  For example, Women's Wear Daily recently reported on a fashion show produced by Redress Hong Kong ("a city that throws away 253 metric tons of textiles per day") featuring the work of 15 local designers, done entirely in "second-hand material."  But how much of the current emphasis on so-called "eco-fashion" is just lip service?  What percentage of the fashion industry is doing anything meaningful on the environmental and/or humane front?

LH: Doing
a couture show featuring designs made from “upcycled” fabric is useful for sparking conversation about how much waste is created by the fashion industry, but it's important to note, it's just for show: it's really not meant to be an example of a practical way to reduce waste for apparel manufacturers.  Redress HK (not to be confused with ReDress NYC, another wonderful conscientious fashion organization) is a great organization that works towards real processes and habits that will minimize waste, use remnant fabrics, and reuse garments. 

Waste must be viewed from two perspectives: the wearer's and the manufacturer's.  As far as the wearer goes, it's fantastic that vintage fashion is in style in some cutting-edge fashion cities, where value is placed on finding special pieces that show quality workmanship and individualism, and with an emphasis on the wearer's own personal take on mixing vintage with modern.  For example is a showcase of fashion tastemakers wearing their favorite vintage pieces, run and written by TreeHugger fashion expert and Brooklyn transplant Emma Grady.  But in places like Hong Kong and the American Midwest, vintage fashion still connotes something “used” or “low class.”  I can personally attest to this: while on a family vacation to Holland, Michigan last year, while trying on gorgeous 1920's hats, the owner said to me with a completely serious face, "Those look great!  What are you going to wear them for, Halloween?"  I said, "No, Brooklyn."  This view of preworn clothing has to change to get more people wanting to purchase it.

With that said, while it's important for our society to reduce and recycle consumer waste, it’s industrial waste that is the biggest contributor -- by far -- to filling up our landfills with goods that could be reused, recycled, or reworked into something new.  Manufacturers can make a huge difference by restructuring their production processes to minimize waste (which is financially beneficial to them as well) and find useful outlets for unavoidable waste (whether for other designers, design students, etc.)  Ideally we will all move toward closed-loop fabric production; in this sort of system, when there is an error in the quality or quantity of fabric made, it can be immediately recycled back into fiber to use for the next run, so there is no waste at the production level.  As far as how much of the industry is actually doing this, I don't know of any statistics on how many fabric and apparel manufacturers are zero-waste, but I’d say it’s only a small handful.

Talk to us about
local production as a component of sustainable/ethical design.
LH: It's a very important component.  The main obstacle is that it is a lot more expensive to produce locally, and many customers resist this added expense a first.  However, there is a shift in mentality that is slowly gaining speed, where people are transitioning from wanting a large quantity of thoughtless throwaway pieces that are made poorly by workers not paid or treated fairly, toward a more carefully curated collection of quality fashion pieces that are made with pride and express one's personal style and beliefs.  For example, when I put out my first collection, a woman from Detroit wrote and told me that on her salary, she couldn’t afford my coats, the lowest of which was priced at $298 -- definitely not cheap.  I explained that the price was set at that level for many reasons; generally speaking, I developed the line to create change through each element of the production process, without compromising on ethics or design, and in order to do that, I had to pay the workers who made the coats a wage that would enable them to make a living themselves.  The idea that the person making her coat should be paid fairly, just like the woman who contacted me wanted to be paid fairly, made sense to her.  Later, when I had an opportunity to offer the coats on sale (for preorder), she was able to purchase one.

I tell this story to show that a shift is needed: we can’t look at the price of fashion without considering the supply chain, and we can't approach fashion as a raft of items to be purchased each season and then thrown away.  We must reclaim pride in our wardrobe, by cultivating an appreciation and reverence for fewer items that are made locally or are vintage.  We should be selective about the items we choose to add to our closets, picking high-quality pieces that speak to who we are as individuals, and can be worn and repaired for years to come.  If we think of fashion in this way, the value of one thoughtfully chosen, high-quality, but potentially more expensive, fashion item is worth the price of a handful of thoughtless throwaway items.

The shift I'm describing hasn't happened yet on a wide scale; most consumers still view the "cost" of fashion through the traditional lens.  So unfortunately (while I haven't done formal research on this), from discussions with my cut-and-sew team in New York City's fashion district, local production actually seems to be declining.  Based just on my experience, it seems that it is mostly high-end labels that can afford to manufacture locally, because the higher price to the consumer can support the increased costs of local and fair production.

LOF: What are the cutting-edge issues in ethical fashion right now?  A couple of years ago, for example, people seemed to be very focused on reducing the use of harmful dyes.

LH: Well, I say this as the owner of a vegan fashion label, but I do believe veganism is on the cutting edge of “conscientious” fashion right now; many people have moved beyond just caring about the environment to caring about all of the ways a garment affects the world, including the environment, the people in it, and yes -- the animals.  [Ed. Just today, WWD ran an article on socialite Cornelia Guest's launch of a vegan handbag line.]  People are realizing that how we treat animals matters, too, and that if we are going to care about how our clothes are made, we should be concerned about creating them in a nonviolent way, with respect for all involved.

Another popular issue right now is finding ways to reduce waste, like the closed-loop fabric production processes we discussed earlier, and methods to create apparel from upcycled materials (like a wallet made from old tires from English Retreats, given the appearance of leather) or used clothes (like dresses and tops made of used clothing from Canadian label Preloved, or the Urban Outfitters-owned label Urban Renewal) -- which don’t look like tires or used clothes. 

Finally, many people have begun working with communities in third-world countries (like 31 Bits, which makes necklaces from beads handmade by women in Northern Uganda) to create work for them that shows respect for their local arts and pays them a fair wage so that they can put money back into their communities.  Again, it's about the ethics of the entire design process -- not just caring about one aspect -- that we're heading toward as a movement.  We're realizing that everything is interconnected, that we cannot harm one without harming another, and likewise, that we can't help one without helping another.

LOF: What governmental, quasi-governmental, or non-governmental certification organizations purport to monitor for environmental consciousness and humaneness in fashion?  In your opinion, are their certifications meaningful?

LH: It seems to me that most of these certifications are for products like food, cleaning supplies, and beauty.  When it comes to fashion, this is an arena that is just starting to be explored, and since there are developments all the time, it’d be tough to create guidelines that would encompass these fabrics and processes properly.  That said, I think it'd be best if fashion-oriented certification providers focused on waste reduction (through recycling, reusing, and sourcing of materials), omission of animal products and materials, omission of chemicals and pesticides, and the use of renewable materials and energy.  I'm sure I'm missing some things, but these are the first things that come to mind...

LOF: Let's talk about the legal landscape for the ethical designer.  The Federal Trade Commission has its "Green Guides," and recently proposed updates to the Guides, which would include new provisions governing advertising claims about "renewable materials," use of "renewable energy," and "carbon offset."  Do you think smaller designers, without internal "Compliance Departments" are aware of such requirements and are able to comply with them?

LH: If you are a conscientious business, fashion-related or not, you probably believe in honesty, transparency, and modesty.  A business that fears the Green Guides probably isn't conscientious, as the Guides seem to focus on holding companies accountable for using deceptive language in advertising.  For example, if a product advertisement claimed it contained "50% more recycled content," but this meant in reality that the content had increased from 2 to 3%, consumers might be misled.  My view is that if you're proud of the real advancements and efforts you're making for the environment or animals, then there's no need to try to inflate or deceive, right?  Transparency is a crucial element of conscientious fashion, so it's likely that only those trying to "greenwash" and jump on the bandwagon or gain cred by inflating their eco-consciousness would need to worry too much about getting in trouble for not following the Green Guides.  I just don’t see this being a large issue for small conscientious labels, even though they may not have an internal “Compliance Department.”  As long as a business is stating factual information and keeping it clear which parts of each product or design they are referring to, I can't see much room for error.  It's like Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything.”  To those new conscientious labels, I'd say that while it's always possible -- especially in a new area like "eco-fashion" -- to get tripped up in language, just remember that honesty really is the best policy, and that modesty goes a long way, too.  Just don't overstate or make suggestive claims that can't be proven.

LOF: Only the FTC can enforce the provisions in the Green Guides, but private-plaintiff false advertising suits hinging on environmental claims seem to be increasing in frequency.  For example, in the last couple of years, Fiji Water has been hit with multiple lawsuits brought under California consumer protection laws.  In one case, the plaintiffs alleged that Fiji used a "green drop" image on its labels that would mislead consumers into believing its product had been certified as environmentally friendly.  In another, the plaintiffs accused Fiji of fraudulently inducing consumers into buying Fiji water through false claims about “carbon negativity."  What are your thoughts about the implications of cases like this for companies in the fashion industry?

LH: It's important to remember to look at a product as a whole when considering how eco-friendly it is.  The first question must be whether an item is inherently doing more good or more harm to the environment.  Bottled water is not, and can never be, truly eco-conscious, no matter the particular method of its production, since the product itself is detrimental to the Earth.  I say this because it is, innately, a disposable alternative to using a reusable bottle; water bottles create frivolous disposal of, and thus over-production of, more bottles.  Therefore, most eco-conscious claims made by a water bottler will necessarily involve only the details, like how much recycled content the bottle contains, the type of ink used, etc.  This all seems a bit trivial when consumers could just use one reusable bottle in the first place.

The lawsuits you mentioned remind me of the so-called “Fur is Green” campaign, which seeks to characterize fur as a “natural” product that is good for the Earth.  Joshua Katcher, founder of PINNACLE: Reinvent The Icon, took an in-depth look at the claims made in the "Fur is Green" marketing campaign.  Is fur really the perfect wardrobe staple for the environmental activist, as the campaign would hope you'd believe?  PINNACLE reported that, even apart from the incredible cruelty behind the fur industry, "[p]roducing a fur coat from ranch raised animals takes more than 15 times as much energy as it does to make a faux fur coat . . . .  In addition, runoff waste from fur farms destroys waterways, and the toxic chemicals used to preserve the skins are also harming the environment."  So in my view, any of these products labeling themselves as "green" just because they are using more environmentally friendly processes is like an SUV being sold as "eco-friendly" because it has hemp seat covers.  A wolf in sheep's clothing is still a wolf.  (And incidentally, the sheep's clothing, wool, isn't so eco-friendly, either.)

Sure, eco-consciousness and ethical fashion raise complex issues, and no fabric or process is perfect.  But what matters is that a company is doing its best to make honest strides toward less waste and pollution, treating people kindly and with respect, and not harming animals in the process.  What matters is that a business, to be considered "conscientious" itself (rather than just using conscientious or eco-friendly practices) sees doing good as a requirement -- as an end in itself, not as an "extra" or a marketing scheme.  While every little bit counts, it's just not enough to say, "I'm using a different ink on my packaging," if your product itself is moving our society backwards.

We must really take a look at how what we make affects everyone touched by the process at every step of production, how what we wear reflects what we believe, and what we want to support through our choices.  I named my label Vaute Couture, not just to reflect our core-value crossover between high fashion ("haute couture") and ethics (the "V" is for "vegan"), but also because it sounds like "Vote," which is what everyone does with every single purchase, whether we are aware of it or not.  People often talk about veganism as if it's all about what we can't have ("Oh, you can't eat this, this and this, right?") -- as if it's a sacrifice -- but this couldn't be further from the truth.  Being vegan is a form of empowerment, a way of reclaiming control over how one interacts with the world, choosing what one supports, and not being a complacent accessory to unethical decisions that others have made, which consumers may inadvertently endorse with their purchasing power. 

Running an ethical business is the same thing.  I wouldn't have started a business if it didn't have the capability to create good in itself, by pushing the industry forward with new animal-friendly, eco-friendly options that are equal to or better than traditional options, and speaking up for those who have no voice for themselves.  Owners of businesses that aim only to make money miss out on the biggest opportunity -- truly a gift -- to create positive change.  Every business, through its daily operation, touches so many things: the environment, animals, people.  Failure to take advantage of opportunities to do good in all of a business's interactions is a shame of wasted potential.  There's so much to be done using business as a vehicle for good, and so many opportunities to do it.

[The attorney behind LAW OF FASHION thanks Leanne for taking the time to share her insight with us.  Please note that any views expressed in this post are solely those of the person expressing such views.  This post is for entertainment and informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship among any individuals or entities.]