Friday, August 29, 2008

What is Ethical Fashion

Photo credit: Kuyichi organic fair trade jeans.

Ethical fashion means fashion which takes into consideration the people behind the clothes we wear, as well as the environment. When you buy a piece of clothing, you may not think twice about where it was originally made, by whom and under what conditions.

The clothing industry is a complex one - and all the clothes we wear have a story behind them. It is quite common for one piece of clothing - say a pair of jeans - to be made up of components from five or more countries, often thousands of miles away, before they end up in our high street store.

All the steps in the production of this pair of jeans affect the people working to grow cotton, to weave the denim and to make the jeans. These steps also affect the environment we live in.
The journey of a pair of jeans from cotton plant to rubbish tip
  • Growing the cotton - Cotton provides nearly half of the worlds textile needs and it is often seen as a natural or environmentally friendly product. In fact cotton uses nearly a quarter of all the world's insecticides. These are harmful both to the farmers growing the cotton, who may suffer from blood poisoning as a result of using them, and to the environment.
  • Weaving, dying, bleaching, and softening the fabric - If you have ever borrowed any of your parents old clothes from the 60's and 70's for a fancy dress party you might notice how rough and itchy they were. Nowadays fabrics used for clothing are much softer on the skin. That includes denim. This has a lot to do with the chemicals used to soften the fabric they are made from. As well as softening agents, dyes and bleaches are an important part of making your jeans look and feel the way they do. Many of these chemicals, if not used or disposed of properly, can be very toxic to people and to the environment and even to the person who wears the jeans when they are complete!
  • Sewing the jeans - Because labour costs are cheaper, clothing is often made in some of the poorest parts of the world; for example in Asia, Africa, and South America. Although this can bring real benefits to communities through providing work and steady incomes, in many parts of the world it means unfair and unsafe working conditions, long hours, and pay which is so low that it does not allow workers enough income to pay for food, healthcare, or other basic needs.
  • Transporting the jeans to the UK - Because most clothing is made in poorer parts of the world and the markets where it is bought are in richer parts of the world (eg. Europe and the USA), it often needs to travel thousands of miles before reaching its destination. This involves transportation by sea, by road and even by air: all of which is dependent upon the use of oil, petrol and diesel. The use of these fuels pollutes the environment we live in, and is responsible for global warming.
  • Buying the jeans from a high street store - Over the last twenty years, the costs of the clothes we can buy on our high streets has gone down and down. In fact you can probably buy a pair of jeans for as little as £4 in some UK high street stores. Prices this low mean that less and less money is going to the people who make the clothes on the other side of the world.
  • Throwing away the jeans - Low prices also mean that we, as consumers, are buying more clothes than ever before. We have more clothes than we need and this means we are also throwing away more clothes than ever before. When you throw away a pair of jeans, it will probably end up on a rubbish tip or a landfill site. Unfortunately this is not the end of the story; clothing made from synthetic fabrics will not decompose, while any chemicals used as part of the garment process can leach into surrounding soil.

An ethical fashion industry

The fashion industry does not need to be this way. Many companies are trying to find ways to overcome the problems at each step in the chain, and to produce clothes in a way which benefits people and does not damage the environment. As somebody who buys fashion, you can do a lot by supporting companies which are taking a more ethical approach, or by customising and re-using your own clothes.

Here are some of the things to look out for or consider:
  1. Organic standards - Organic clothing is made without the use of toxic chemicals. See article on organic and eco fashion for more details. 2. Fair trade standards - Fair trade means paying a fair wage to workers and making sure they get a fair deal. See article on fair trade and fashion for more details.
  2. Recycling and customisation - Many designers and companies are now making clothes from recycled clothing or fabrics. You could also consider transforming your own clothes by customising them.