Inside Story: Design Ethics

This I Wear | Design Ethics

When we speak about ethical fashion, usually we refer to what went into the item – how it was made, who made it, and with what. But what about the ethics of design?

Not too long ago, a friend shared with me the story of how a New York-based designer, a true champion in the current “Save the Garment Center” initiative, had mistakenly labeled a fabric print as Aztec when in reality, it was a classic design from the South Pacific cultures including Fiji. I don’t have the full story and I don’t know if the matter has yet been resolved with an apology or a renaming of the product in order to give proper credit. However, as soon as this was brought to my attention, I realized how much of an issue this is today.

The “issue” is intellectual property, in this case patterns and designs, of indigenous peoples around the world. And as the fashion industry (as well as the home goods industry) increasingly expresses interest in “artisan” goods, it’s important to ask if the goods were actually made by artisans or just inspired by their designs. And if they were just inspired, the next question to ask is if the company paid the artisans for the licensing of the designs.

Because in reality, there is no shortage of examples of the fashion industry stealing from artisans, indigenous peoples, and small makers.

One of the most prominent cases is of the Maasai, a tribe in Africa known for their speed and agility as well as their beaded crafts. In 2011, The Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative was established to pursue legal action against companies that use their tribe name to describe their products without asking for permission or giving payment for the licensing. It truly is a sign of the times when the goals of the initiative include talk of a “cultural brand”, but at the very heart of the issue is that 80% of the Maasai are living in poverty, and major brands from Jaguar to Nike have been vastly profiting off of the reputation of the Maasai in branding their products.

The first time this struck me, though, was reading about artist Tanya Aguiniga’s interest in helping bring clarification to the distinction between Native American-inspired and Native American-designed and –made through her “Artists Helping Artisans” program. The distinction made headlines when Urban Outfitters used Navajo-inspired prints in their collections and labeled them as Navajo and then claimed they weren’t doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, at least at the time, the Navajo designs weren’t copyrighted, though they could press Urban Outfitters to remove their name from the offending products.

I think of this often when I see jewelry or other accessories commonly produced by artisans in bigger mainstream shops and wonder if they were actually made by artisans or if they were copied without any acknowledgment (or payment!) given to the original artist. You only have to watch a few episodes of “Man Shops Globe” following Anthropologie’s buyer Keith Johnson to see that there is a fine line between supporting global craftspeople and going home to mass produce something “inspired” by the designs seen during travels. But you can also see something on Etsy or at a local craft fair only to see it in replicated in a major retailer’s costume jewelry line the following season to know that this problem is not exclusive to the global handicraft market.

If major designers can sue for counterfeit handbags and designs stolen and produced by mass retailers like Forever21, it’s time to protect the little guys too.

With current trends in artisan goods skyrocketing, make sure you’re buying artisan made and not artisan inspired. When you see an ethnic print, ask questions about the origin. And let’s make ethical design, just as important as ethical production and trade.

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2 comments

  1. Kristian

    Oh boy. This was a truly interesting topic and one I had not really been aware of before. I’ve always been a bit wary of the rather nondescript, touristy “Indian Goods” sold in my Western towns gift shops, preferring to know more about the goods, but I’d not really stopped to think about how patterns etc are used by major companies all the time!

    • Rebecca

      Hi Kristian, it’s a tricky topic. I think there are definitely cases when you’ll find handicrafts in traditional Indian style that if you flipped them over, they’d say “Made in China”. And even if they are made in India, the question of whether its maker was paid a fair wage is an important one. It is great however to see indigenous peoples from Fiji to Kenya to here in the US (like the Navajo) being able to organize themselves around protecting their arts. It will be great to see if this can extend to other less defined groups as well.

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