Euromonitor International Ethical Fashion Series: Interview with Vanessa Friedman, Financial Times Fashion Editor

Vanessa Friedman has held the role of Financial Times Fashion Editor since 2002 and is responsible for the blog, Material World, giving an authoritative voice on the world of luxury fashion. In this interview, Friedman gives her view about the limitations of the definitions and perceptions surrounding the terms ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’, and suggests how these issues can be clarified.

In your blog, have you covered many brands that have a particular commitment to environmental or social principles (eg fair wage policies)? Which ones and what stood out?

I’m aware of People Tree and Stella McCartney, among others, and get emails all the time from brands with some sort of eco claim. I cover global luxury brands, and most global luxury brands would define themselves as sustainable, since their goods last for a very long time. Some of them have more systemic environmental or ethical programs. However, I am not an environmental reporter. I won’t do a story on someone just because they say they’re eco – I think brands should be systemically sensitive to all of these issues because it is simply good business, period, no matter what size they are, no matter what level they are but covering that is not necessarily part of my remit. But a brand that is a good business will do well.

Do you think it is easier for large luxury brands to implement environmentally friendly and good working conditions than it is for mass market brands? Which are best able to absorb additional costs?

Most luxury brands have good working conditions in factories but do I think it’s easy to change a business model? No. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. I don’t think the issue is necessarily simply mass brands versus luxury brands, but also public verses private. Assuming a larger expense may be easier for a private company because a public company would have to justify it to shareholders, who don’t necessarily have the same investment horizon line.

Do you think more luxury brands will introduce ‘eco’ such as Alberta Feretti and Emma Watson’s Pure Threads capsule collection?

I can imagine more doing so, but think it may be the wrong approach – at least for consumers who care deeply about these issues, and possibly for the brands’ own futures. The terms ‘eco’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ should be part of the main business, and shouldn’t be a niche thing on the side with five t-shirts.

You mentioned the terms ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘ethical’ can be confusing. What can be done to simplify these ideals and make them clearer?

It’s very difficult and I am not sure how to fix it. The definitions have to be simple as now they are quite complicated. It’s very hard to enforce. Maybe if the CFDA (USA) , Chambre Syndicale (France), Alta Gamma (Italy), and BFC (UK) created a definition they all agreed on would be useful. I think that might be more effective than a definition created by trade bodies such as the cotton growers association, which can be too technical and specific.

What are your predictions in the future with regards to these issues?

I truly believe we are at the beginning of what will be a systemic change, but you have to distinguish high end, mass high street, things produced in China, things produced in Italy, things produced by luxury brands in China and things produced by Nike in China when you are talking about what that change is and when it will happen. You can’t lump all these things together – they are different industries with different cost structures. To talk about this issue you have to be specific about what you are discussing. The term ‘green’ has 50,000 different definitions depending on who you are talking about, where, volumes, how global a company is, how much do they fly things around, where is it made, where is it sent to. It is very complicated and it is very specific to the brand and you can’t generalise.

You say luxury brands already have good practices….

Generally, people who buy luxury brands have the luxury of time and choice, so their reasons for buying are different to those who buy because they have to, or for reasons motivated by economic factors, so there is more consumer pressure on the high end for companies to behave ethically. As a result they may be more motivated to think through what they stand for than someone who is buying US$20 jeans. When you produce something that requires a huge amount of care and time and perfection, the better your working conditions, generally, the better the product. I don’t think it matters where it is produced geographically, as long as the company is responsible for the factories and the working conditions there. The responsibility and onus is on the brand and not the country.

Is there anything extra that you would like to add?

People have to be very careful about how they use words and they have to be clear about what they are talking about both in term of the industries and the companies they are discussing and what their expectations are when they say something is green/ethical. A lot of people don’t understand the trade offs involved – for example how it’s great to produce something down the road, but depending on water consumption, pollutants, how it’s flown around, it may be better to do something in Brazil – and cotton is not necessarily better than man-made fibres.