Carmen Artigas a Catalyst for Sustainable Fashion Brands

The Fashionbi Magazine No.3 Issue “Fashion Conscious or Conscience of Fashion” is just a few days away from being officially released. At Fashionbi our mission is to offer readers the most interesting insights and set the spotlight on the most sensitive topics in the industry: the ecological and social impact.

Through this commitment to find the most recognized experts in the field, it was such a pleasure to get in touch with Carmen Artigas. She is a consultant, sustainable designer, speaker and an expert in integrating ethical practices within the fashion industry. A catalyst for sustainable brands, Carmen works with start-ups, established brands and trade organizations, to help them create profitable businesses while reducing their human and environmental impact.

Not only she is working to create sustainable fashion companies, but also she’s building the future fashion professionals, in 2011 she develop the sustainable design curricula and undergraduate programs in the top three design universities in the United States: Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons the New School for Design and Pratt Institute.

At one point Carmen worked with the El Cereso Prison Craft Program in Mexico City to create handmade accessories sold under the name Viva La Vida. The program teaches residents crafting skills they can use to support themselves and their families when they return to society. The program is known for producing a range of beautiful, high-quality products that bring a message of hope. There is a zero waste policy since polyethylene is 100% recyclable and has 6 life-cycles. Through this collection she was able to generate a positive social and ecological impact, since she was able to develop a profitable business and at the same time changing people’s life.

Carmen was born in Mexico City and moved to San Diego with her family when she was a teen. She received a grant to study fashion in Milan and was hired right after graduation by Romeo Gigli, the hottest designer at the time. There she met and worked side by side with the young Alexander McQueen. She later designed for Donna Karan and had the opportunity to showcase her own line in New York. She has studied traditional indigo dying techniques while in India and designed a loungewear collection using certified organic cotton.

In the following interview Carmen helps us understand what “ethical fashion” is really about, gives us her perception about consumer behavior towards this topic, and if the fashion industry’s business model will evolve to integrate ethical practices.

Fashionbi- Many definitions can be found to describe what the ethical practices of the fashion industry are. There are different terms and perspectives to approaching this subject, from the academic field to the business side of the industry. Consequently, we want you to explain to our audience, what exactly are the ethical practices implemented in the fashion industry?

Carmen Artigas- The ethical fashion movement currently addresses the human and environmental impact of developing products, while pursuing a thoughtful and innovative approach to sustainable sourcing and manufacturing. Education also plays an important role, it should provide the tools, awareness and mindset to young designers to apply responsible design practices and that requires them to push the industry towards efficient and resilient systems.

Fashionbi- Nowadays the end fashion consumer is proud to purchase cheap apparel items without questioning how fashion companies are able to generate revenues with such low prices. On account of your, work with high-end and mass-market brands, what can you tell us about this behavior? Do you believe there will be a moment when people will care and be more conscious about the triggers behind the low costs of their fashion items?

Carmen Artigas- I think we are striving for an era of “guilt-free shopping”, and that can be achieved through clear labeling. At present smart tags are allowing us to trace a product to the source, and by that I mean; a specific bale of cotton in Texas or even the sheep in New Zealand. This is happening at a very small scale but it is leading the way for other brands to follow suit. Our choices will be made easier! Hopefully in a near future, next time you check the tags on a new garment you will have a biography of that piece.

For instance, there is the case of the Bangladesh disaster, which made society have a moment of reflection and greater understanding of the true cost of cheap fashion. The good news is that we are experiencing a boom of young designers launching brands with sustainable concepts, and even the US government has it in their agenda to bring back the MADE IN USA stamp. On the other hand we are fighting a battle with inflation and a poor job market, which will remain a problem when it comes to affordable fashion, but I believe the younger consumers are also developing a moral compass and an increased awareness to figure out what’s “cool vs not cool”.

Fashionbi- On a daily basis we see fashion and luxury brands supporting different social causes, or implementing sustainable actions in different kinds of campaigns, products or collaborations, where they claim to support causes, help bring awareness and make people conscious about these problems. Nevertheless fashion companies don’t use their social media power to create strong campaigns about it. Do you think this is a strategy they are following or do you think it is because they haven’t realized how important it is to spread this information through their social media channels?

Carmen- I think brands and corporations could do a better job at driving behavior change, by engaging and listening to the consumers through social media, also by increasing transparency in their practices. Perhaps, it is better not to antagonize fast fashion brands, but rather engage in conversation with them…

In the case of H&M, it claims their Conscious Collection can make sustainable fashion democratic, but anyone that works in fashion knows that it is impossible to make a long skirt in organic cotton at a $19.95 price point. To me that means that someone is not getting paid. I would prefer to see H&M present a cost breakdown of that skirt to justify their retail price, instead of just launching expensive campaign without any hard facts on their sourcing practices and development of that collection.

On the other hand H&M is making concerted efforts. They published their entire factory list, they signed the Bangladesh Accord, initiated a collaboration with I:CO to recycle apparel from their customers with high yielding results (7.7 million lbs in 2013), and developed a recent line of recycled denim in an effort to continue using recycled materials in their collections.

When big scale companies make small changes, such as reducing water, chemicals and energy consumption, it can have a huge positive impact and the good news is that this is actually happening! Companies are now joining forces at pre-competitive level to tackle these issues through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Fashionbi- There is this perception, in the industry, that the concern for ethical practices is no more than a marketing trend and consequently the attention will disappear. What are your thoughts on this?

Carmen Artigas-The fashion industry has been showing cracks for a while and is in a fragile state. Frankly the next trend in fashion should be the reduction of water, energy and chemicals. I can only say, things are not going to improve until we understand the POWER OF LIMITS.

The world is experiencing erratic weather patterns, unprecedented pollution of water, land and air, political and economic instability... and very soon we will experience scarcity in some way or another, that means supply chains and sales can easily be disrupted. We are also in midst of worldwide labor disputes and workers in Cambodia are risking their lives fighting for fair "living wages”, while others toil in unimaginable working conditions.

It has been predicted that fast fashion will hit a wall in a couple of years, due to fiber shortages, increased costs in shipping, raw material shortages, manufacturing, energy to name a few. I recommend the Sourcing Journal Online if you are interested in the temperature of global sourcing and supply chain issues.

The Greenpeace Detox campaign points this out in a great video by highlighting the polluting effects of our clothes during the manufacturing process. Worth watching!