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Sustainable fabrics

Ethical Fashion

What is ethical fashion and why is it important?

Image © Terry Russell taken at Hasting’s Ethical Fashion show.

An overview of Ethical Fashion and how it is important

There are two ways in which one might come to shun high street fashion. On the one hand is the desire for individuality, on the other are moral objections about the sweatshop labour used by well-known fashion labels. If you make your own clothes already then you may rarely consider buying clothes from high street chains. You may find the clothes on offer too similar to the rest of the market or you may have started making your own clothes or supporting fair trade as a reaction to sweatshop labour.

If you haven’t considered alternatives to the high street, there are good reasons for doing so. The main reasons why one should consider sustainable fashion are human rights and environmental impact. These two reasons interlink and overlap, as changing one has an impact on the other.

For example, it is cheaper to produce cotton that has been sprayed with chemicals, due to higher yields. However, in the long-term the crops need to be sprayed with more pesticides as the insects become immune to them. The chemicals used in these pesticides damage the environment by disrupting ecosystems and contaminating water supplies. Health is also an important issue; the World Health Organisation estimates that 20,000 farmers die a year due to the agricultural pesticide usage in developing countries.

Paying workers better wages means they do not have to use short term cheaper solutions, which ultimately damage the environment. Fair trade not only offers better wages for both men and women, it puts in place secure ways for communities to live by allowing them to become self-sufficient and involved with their organisation and trade role. It means they are not driven to the cities for work, long-held skills are kept alive, ensures safe working conditions, and no child labour.

So cheap fashion from the high street has hidden costs that someone along the line of production is paying for. A t-shirt for a couple of pounds from Primark will have gone from seed to store – planted, spun, and sewn – being only a few of the stages of production. Lee Holdstock, from Soil Association says ‘There is no such thing as a cheap product. The consumer may not be paying at point of sale but there are hidden environmental and human costs’.  As demonstrated by the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.

It is questionable whether any of the bigger companies are enforcing ethical trading poicies. Most claim to, but it can be difficult to track the product from the seed to the final garment with so many stages in between, whereas fair trade establishes a working relationship with its employees. High street fashion often has a lack of transparency around the provenance of its production, allowing us to ignore and the companies to claim ignorance of such things as child labour, sweatshops, and the significant damage to the environment and to workers’ health.

These companies have policies on their trading ethics but they can be misleading. Asda claims that they keep all their prices low by asking their staff to do the ‘little things’, like switching off light bulbs, which allows them to pass on the low costs to the customer. Primark has no stand-out ethical lines but concentrate on all their clothing being ‘ethically’ made and therefore don’t offer a fair trade/organic range. They have a very clear tab on their website for ethical trading and one of the ways they claim to keep their costs low is by not advertising.

Reports from EJF state that Tesco, among others, is committed to knowing the source of its products, which is important for monitoring the labour and production. Currently, they have a range of organic cotton jeans, though no fair trade clothes as this is covered by their ethical policy.

For every article that appears about a new organic cotton t-shirt from Tesco or a fair trade range by Asda, there is another exposing the failings of the companies to uphold workers’ rights.

As such, the small offerings can be viewed as the big companies trying to cash in on the ‘green pound’, as the policies are not supported on a large scale. It can be argued that the consumer needs to support such initiatives to encourage and show these companies that there is a demand for ethical products, and by doing so make this the norm. With the global trade in cotton being dominated by 10 private companies, which together control over 60% of the  cotton trade, this is important.

There are now many companies whose ethical policy is an integral and essential part of their working practice. Some companies only focus on the basic range of essentials. However other well-known names, such as People Tree, now offer a full fashion range.

An ‘eco-chic’ book, Green is the New Black, claims that designer clothes are an ethical option due to the high wages skilled workers receive. If you opt for a classic design it is the ultimate in slow fashion, as the garment will be made to last (and to fit you exactly), you will not tire of it too easily and it will not need to be changed with the season. Taking this down a level, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have some wardrobe classics tailored to fit you, made by yourself or your local dressmaker. This offers individuality and lasting quality, which is either free (if you make it yourself) or at a cheaper rate than the above. The appeal of a handmade item can be stronger than that of a haute couture garment. If you have it made by someone else then you may know them and value their work, or simply want to support a local business. If it has been made by you, then you have the added satisfaction of completing an item that should now be treasured due to the hours of work put in.

There is the option of recycling garments into new ones (there are tips on customising your clothing here). These can be bought from your local charity shop or vintage shop, swapped or salvaged from friends’ collections, or unearthed from the bottom of your chest of drawers.  

This should be a consideration because over one million tonnes of textiles are discarded every year and nearly half of that could have been recycled. This is a problem due to the fact that synthetic fibres do not decompose, and when wool breaks down it produces methane gas, which contributes to global warming. Recycling also helps preserve the world’s resources by not placing strain on water supplies, and the production of chemicals used in dyes and pesticides. It takes over 2000 litres to produce an average t-shirt; organic and fair trade farming have helped to reduce this by enabling farmers to invest in drip irrigation. And a comforting fact is that only 6% of materials donated to charity are estimated to end up in landfill. So why not try it out? Refashioning has become extremely popular over recent years. Or how about taking a garment and making something from scratch out of the plentiful folds of a full-length skirt or a double duvet cover. If you aren’t sure of how to do it yourself there are now many business that use only ‘upcycled’ textiles in their garments.

So if handmade is better than high street, then ethically sourced materials used for handmade are another step up. There is now a significant range of organic and fair trade fabrics, though nothing like the amount that is available through normal production methods. This is expanding though, and the more that is purchased, the more demand will show that is what the consumer prefers and what the consumer cares about.

Further reading:

By Hand by Safia Minney, founder of People Tree

Green is the New Black by Tamsin Blanchard

EJF reports ‘White Gold’, ‘Unravelling the Supply Chain’ and others can be found on their website   

How ethical are supermarket clothes?‘ by Sanjida O’Connell

Article written by Kerrie Curzon.