Wednesday, October 29, 2008

what is ethical fashion

We’ve talked a bit about the fashion industry in previous posts, and about the high cost of our cheap clothes. What we haven’t explored is where you can get ethical clothes from. That’s mainly because I didn’t know at the time, and I’ve been on a bit of a hunt.

Firstly though, what is ethical fashion?

I’d say there are two areas to look at - the people, and the environment. Or, if you prefer, fairtrade standards and organic standards.

Fartrade standards

Fairtrade standards are about the workers - both those who sew the clothes, and those who produce the raw materials. There are 30 million cotton farmers worldwide, in 90 different countries. Much of the crop comes from developing countries. Fairtrade cotton ensures that the growers are paid a living wage, and that women and children are not exploited in the harvesting of cotton.

It’s also about the people who make the clothes. Do they get a fair wage? What are their working conditions? What kinds of hours do they have to work? Do they get holidays and time off? Can they form unions to represent their views to their employers? Sweatshops are normal, but that does not make them right. Look up clean up fashion to find out more about this.

Organic standards

Secondly, ethical fashion respects the earth. Growing cotton is a polluting business. Cotton accounts for 3% of all cultivated land, but uses 20% of all chemical pesticides. Eight times more chemicals are used on cotton than on an average food crop. This pollutes rivers and soils, and it also has serious effects on the people working in the fields. A large percentage of the 20,000 deaths attributed every year to pesticides, are in the cotton fields of the developing world. A lot of these pesticides are unnecessary - cotton can be protected from pests with chilli, soap, or garlic. Further chemicals are used in processing and dyeing the cotton. One company estimates that 8000 different chemicals are used in producing a t-shirt.

Ideally then, ethical fashion is clothing that has been made with fairtrade organic cotton, in sweatshop-free conditions.

So where can you find those kinds of clothes? Well, they’re not as easy to find as they should be, but it is a growth market and it’s slowly making its way onto the high street. Here are some brands I’ve found - apologies for the menswear bias. Please add any more you know in the comments.

Marks and Spencer - M+S are leading the way in fairtrade cotton. They don’t use it in everything, so ask if you’re not sure. I believe they plan to use it in their entire range within five years.

Howies - this is a great little outdoor-wear company based in Wales, doing unpretentious high quality clothing with a sense of humour.

American Apparel - made in LA and setting a standard for the US clothing industry. They have a store in London, just across the way from Howies’ on Carnaby Street.

People Tree - a pioneering company making their clothes in co-ops in the developing world. I have a hand-sewn shirt from them and it feels unique and special.

Seasalt - a Cornish company making colourful organic clothing. I found them on holiday over the summer.

THTC - The Hemp Trading Company. There are lots of good reasons why hemp is a great sustainable crop - it grows so fast it doesn’t give weeds a chance, it needs almost no pesticides, and can be grown on marginal land. THTC specialise in music industry t-shirts and sweatshirts.

Kuyichi - streetwise organic denim, named after the Peruvian God of the rainbow, in case you were wondering.

Patagonia - outdoor and hiking company with a genuine passion for the environment.

Timberland - a bigger company taking responsibility, in a lumberjack kind of way.

Gossypium - a good range of environmentally sound and people-friendly clothing.

Ascension - fairtrade organic jeans, trousers and t-shirts for men and women.

Equop - vote for your favourite t-shirt designs.

Little green radicals - ethical babywear

That ought to do you for starters. There are loads more little companies doing interesting things on a smaller scale. Check out Inhabitat’s fashion category for some more quirky suggestions, including belts from recycled fire hoses, and handbags with solar panels, and some sensible things too. The Guardian’s ethical clothing galleries are great too, particularly for women’s wear and more fashionable stuff, and for accessories and shoes too.

What is Ethical Fashion

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forget Hippy — Ethical Fashion is Hip

Retailer interest in apparel brands that guarantee workers' rights and are environmentally friendly has reached such a peak that manufacturers now worry whether they can keep up with demand.

Until recently relegated to the fringes of the fashion world, ethical brands are fast becoming more mainstream. Widespread media coverage of the movement — plus platforms at events like Paris's Prêt-à-Porter trade show and London Fashion Week — have raised the profile of ethical fashion, so designers are becoming less concerned about how to find distribution than how to manage big orders.

"I don't know how we'll do the quantities," said Peruvian-born designer Judith Condor-Vidal, whose clothing and accessories made by 26 fair-trade cooperatives in South America and Asia will feature in PPR-owned La Redoute's winter 2007 catalogue.

"In the same way as people want to know where their chicken is from, they want to know where their clothes come from."
Averyl Oates, Harvey Nichols

As well as La Redoute, the ethical fashion movement has succeeded in capturing the attention of a broad spectrum of retailers, including high-end specialty chains.

"We've been watching this movement, looking at eco-type brands which have a strong fashion statement first," said Barbara Atkin, fashion director at Canada's Holt Renfrew, which has picked up Danish socially conscious brand Noir for spring.

"We're of the opinion that you can be fashionable and care about the world," added Averyl Oates, buying director at Harvey Nichols. The British retailer is hunting for other brands to stock alongside Noir, which it has carried for two seasons, and Edun, which it picked up this year. Edun is the socially conscious clothing brand created by Ali Hewson, Bono and designer Rogan Gregory.

"Provenance is key for consumers," Oates said. "We're finding that like the food market, in the same way as people want to know where their chicken is from, they want to know where their clothes come from."

Sales of ethically sourced clothing, which includes organic cotton, fair-trade clothes and recycled items, grew 30 percent in the U.K. to 43 million pounds, or $81 million at current exchange, in 2004, according to the Co-operative Bank's Ethical Consumerism report. Meanwhile, ethically motivated secondhand clothing purchases increased 42 percent to 383 million pounds, or $718 million.

While more recent statistics are not yet available, this year's Ethical Fashion Show, which took place in Paris from Oct. 13 to 16, suggests that growth isn't likely to slow anytime soon. More than 4,000 visitors, including scores of international media, attended the four-day event, a 54 percent jump over 2005. Featuring 60 brands from five continents, the third edition of the trade fair demonstrated how much the ethical category has diversified over the last year. Literally combining grassroots and high-end, designers ranged from newcomers like Yagan, a Chilean jewelry brand made from woven grass reeds, to better-known names such as Edun.

In addition to carrying ethical brands, major retailers are recruiting designers to make collections exclusively for them. La Redoute, for example, has carried its own fair-trade collection for two seasons and this year awarded two designers at the Ethical Fashion Show the opportunity to develop items for its winter 2007-2008 catalogue. Items by the winners, Brazilian brand Tudo Bom and Judith Condor-Vidal, will be available to La Redoute's 13 million subscribers next June. While Condor-Vidal had initial concerns about how she'll manage the orders, the designer, who is a member of the International Fairtrade Association and the U.K.'s Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF), is also an economist.

"It's an amazing opportunity. If big companies buy it, there is a much bigger impact," she said. "If I can help more people, well, that's my role."

Condor-Vidal has begun another partnership with hot U.K. retailer Topshop. The chain will take a collection of Bolivian waistcoats shunned by other retailers that have been redesigned by fashion students to create a line of handbags for spring-summer.

And Topshop announced at the Ethical Fashion Show that the winning designs of a Design4Life Ghana competition it supported are to be retailed at the chain. The competition was run by EFF in collaboration with the nongovernmental organization Tabeisa. The two winners' batik dresses, produced by Women in Progress, a Ghana-based fair-trade cooperative, will be available this spring.

"EFF on this occasion brought Topshop buyers to the table initially as judges," explained Elizabeth Laskar, director of global communications and events at EFF. "Through dialogue, this led to an even more positive outcome."

The backing of the fast-fashion retailer has lent kudos to the term "ethical" and given new confidence to aspiring designers hoping to tap into demand for fashion-forward yet ethical clothing and accessories.

"Brands need to tell a compelling story," said Holt Renfrew's Atkin. "But consumers have to love it and be drawn it to first. Then when they find out that by buying [a brand] they are making a difference, they feel great."

Those were the motivations behind Numanu Label of Love, a collection created using fair-trade and organic silk, cotton and wool, which will open a freestanding boutique in Paris's lively Marais neighborhood next month.

Founded by Anglo-French couple Olivia Lalonde and Emmanuel Walliser, the brand is designed "to attract people who are maybe less informed about fair trade who just like the clothes," according to Lalonde.

Consumers then find out that by buying a silk top, they have helped support marginalized communities in India and Cambodia. Lalonde's former career as a children's rights campaigner and Walliser's as an international banker makes for a formidable business objective: "To create as big a commercial base for Numanu as possible in order to maintain sustainable incomes for the largest number of people," Lalonde explained. The brand, which won the Ethical Fashion Show 2006 award, donated two-thirds of its prize money to its cooperatives.

Likewise Les Racines du Ciel (The Roots of the Sky, in English), a year-old brand, takes its name from a 1956 novel by Romain Gary about the environment. The moniker is meant to highlight its commitment to environmental issues. Yet the quality and softness of the recycled kimonos, silk and organic cotton tops, in soft pinks and grays, are designed to draw a fashion-conscious customer who might be surprised to learn the items are naturally dyed with sweet potatoes and mud.

Nathalie Goyette, the brand's development manager, first saw the natural dyeing techniques when on a trip to China years ago. She kept some material, and a chance meeting with a Chinese student in France connected her to a supplier who helped create the environmentally sound collection. Demand has since boomed. "I started out ordering 50 meters of fabric, and now it's more than 1,000," she said.

Similarly, the founders of six-month-old brand Fées de Bengale (Fairies of Bengal in English) place fashion and ethics on a level footing. Their feminine collection of organic silk and cotton tops targets concept stores and ethically focused boutiques, yet the brand's name conjures up images of the women who hand-sew the collection in India.

"It's a mutual exchange. We wanted to make the most of the women's savoir faire," said Elodie Le Derf, the brand's stylist who previously worked at Vanessa Bruno, explaining the couturiers give them feedback and ideas for designs.

Art. 23, founded by the French Fair Trade Co. in September, is also aiming for a chic yet caring image. The trendy collection of minimalist shirtdresses and tuxedo-inspired shirts was designed by Adam Love, who has worked with Karl Lagerfeld and Antik Batik, yet its name pays homage to its social commitments, providing a decent living for the disadvantaged women who make it in India. Referring to Article 23, the universal declaration of human rights, "immediately prompts consumers to think of the respect of human rights," said Art. 23 commercial director Marie Mamgioglou.

As ethical brands multiply both in number and in style, not to mention marketing savvy, so do calls for greater transparency across the entire supply chain. Participants at this year's Ethical Fashion Show had to answer a nine-page questionnaire covering environmental issues and workers' rights, as well as social and business objectives. Each brand's ethical claims were then identified for buyers, either fair trade, traditional skills, recycling, organic or social projects.

Show organizer Isabelle Quéhé said deciding on a definition of what is in fact ethical is problematic. For Quéhé, pure silk ready-to-wear pieces and evening gowns from designer Torgo based on traditional Mongolian costumes epitomize what is ethical.

"It's about promoting the traditions in less-wealthy southern countries, where the older generation is dying — and that savoir faire with them," she said.

Equally, designers using recycled materials, such as Bilum, which makes funky bags from advertising posters and seat belts, fit her definition. And for the first time the show featured a Canadian designer who employs recycled fur. Quéhé's reasoning: "If it wasn't reused, it would be thrown away in land-fill sites. It's less polluting to recycle it."

The more the ethical clothing category continues to grow, the less it seems another passing fad.

"[Ethics] are part and parcel of modern life," said Harvey Nichols' Oates, pointing to the popularity of Al Gore's documentary on the environment, "An Inconvenient Truth," as evidence of growing sensibilities. "We are not saying that fashion is going to change the world," said Quéhé, "but these amazing stories are just many more drops in the ocean.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ethical, Organic, Sustainable

Ethical, organic, sustainable – you’ve heard these terms but what do they really mean?

Bamboo – the panda’s favourite food can be used instead of cotton to make clothes. Bamboo grass grows fast without chemicals, so provides a ready supply of material.

But the process of turning bamboo into yarn and cloth can involve chemicals and may use a lot of water – some factories are better than others. To make sure the bamboo has been sourced environmentally, it’s a good idea to ask where the raw bamboo comes from and how it’s processed.

Cotton – needs lots of water and fertiliser to grow. Traditionally, farmers use chemical fertiliser and pesticides to grow cotton. The chemicals can damage farmers’ health and pollute the water supply. Growing cotton can spoil the soil quality, leaving it open to erosion, which leads to areas of land around the globe becoming unusable. Organic cotton is better for the environment because the farmers don’t use chemical pesticides.

Ethical fashion – fashion that has been made, worn and passed on in a way that looks after people, animals and the environment.

Fairtrade – the Fairtrade Mark is an independent, consumer label administered by the UK's Fairtrade Foundation and its international partners. If produce carries the Fairtrade Mark, it means the producer’s been inspected, certified and operates to international environmental and social standards. In return, the producer is guaranteed a fair price for their produce. The price includes extra money to invest in community projects such as schools.

Fair trade – the fair trade movement is about making sure producers in developing countries get paid a fair price for their goods. It’s also about improving working conditions for those who produce them. But the words 'fair trade' are not an official brand and have no certification behind them.

Fast fashion – clothing made quickly and sold cheaply in bulk. It means we can afford a new outfit each week but the clothes may not last long and soon end up in the bin.

Hemp – from the cannabis family, hemp can be used instead of cotton to make clothes. Hemp grows easily without heavy use of chemicals and is not as harsh on the soil as cotton. It needs less water than cotton to grow but it does take more energy to process and can involve chemicals. As it’s anti-bacterial, you don’t need to wash hemp clothes as often as cotton ones – better for the environment.

Labour rights – the rights of people who work in the clothing industry from raw material to finished garment. In developing countries, people often don’t get fair wages and have fewer rights. They may be in short-term contracts so may not get sick pay or holiday pay. Many people find themselves working under conditions that may be harmful to their health. One way of safeguarding workers' rights is through a union, but these are often officially or unofficially banned.

Landfill – aka the dump or tip. When you chuck out clothes, they take up valuable space in landfill and chemicals from them can leach into surrounding soil.

Organic – clothes made from materials grown without chemicals or similar.

Pesticide – a chemical that kills the insects and diseases that damage plants. Pesticides are harmful to the farmers growing the cotton - they can cause illness and even death among cotton farmers if they’re exposed to them every day. Pesticides also affect local eco-systems, killing certain plants and animals and causing an imbalance.

Recycled – old clothes or scraps of materials that are turned into new items. Many ethical designers create new clothes from recycled ones or use industry remnants and off-cuts. Hand-me-downs and second hand/charity shop clothes all count as recycled too.

Refashioned/Restyled – wearing an old garment in a new way, perhaps by customising it. This keeps it in circulation and out of landfill.

Sustainable – producing clothes in a way that’s less damaging to the environment. For example, cotton farmers can reduce the amount of pesticides they use, by using natural methods of controlling the insects that damage their crops. Sustainability also includes a social aspect. For example, small co-operatives can employ people from local communities, helping to prevent migration to cities to find work.

Swishing/Swapping/Shwopping – parties or websites where people exchange clothes they no longer wear.

Vintage – fashionable second-hand clothing from yesteryear, be it a 1960s dress or 1970s chunky platform shoes. Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Kiera Knightly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are all fans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Issues and Trends in the Fashion Industry

The following is a summary of key issues and needs in the fashion industry and a brief overview of some recent trends in responding to these.

A Political Issue
Sustainable trading remains a political issue for the fashion industry despite the soaring levels of ethical consumerism in the UK and the rising spend on ethical fashion.

Proliferation of Tools
To address consumers’ ethical concerns many companies have developed policies, codes of conduct and standards which their suppliers are expected to meet.

No Unified Approach
However, to date no commonly recognised mechanism or unified approach has been developed resulting in low levels of consumer confidence and decelerated development of the ethical fashion market.

Complex & Interconnected
The social and environmental challenges faced by the fashion industry are characterised by their complexity and interconnectedness.

Lateral Thinking
Lateral and innovative thinking is needed to address complex sustainability and corporate responsibility issues on an industry level.

Industry Best Practice
As the demand for ethically sourced products continues to increase, so too does the need to promote industry best practice and commonality of approach in order to achieve greater economic, social and environmental impact.

Networked Learning and Action
Many organizations have begun to think outside the box and appreciate the commercial, social and environmental benefits of networked learning and action (e.g. Nike: the Organic Exchange at, November 2004; GlaxosmithKline’s Hospice care network).

A significant number of companies are making a conscious choice to overcome their organizational differences by convening or joining multistakeholder partnerships.

New Capabilities
Despite the challenges that interorganizational collaboration brings, it is becoming a popular option among those looking to reduce transaction costs, aiming at new positioning in markets and seeking access to new knowledge and capabilities.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How ethical is your fashion?

Police prevented a crush when Primark's Oxford St store opened Ethical fashion
What was YOUR reaction to those pictures of the new flagship Primark store in Oxford Street being mobbed by hungry shoppers?

Did you wish you were there bagging a bargain? Or did you find the whole thing an extraordinary example of Britain's obsession with shopping?

If your answer is the latter, you are in influential company.

Jane Shepherdson, the woman who turned around Top Shop, believes the whole thing is proof we have become a nation that's gone nuts about throwaway clothes.

"It feels like something that has gone too far", she told me.

"It feels like people are addicted to shopping and consuming and having new things all the time. I think it has become really boring. Things are so accessible, you can look like a celebrity immediately and for a fiver."

And does she think people look good on fast fashion?

"Not particularly, no."


But Shepherdson, who became chief executive of the Whistles womenswear chain last week, reckons things are about to change radically.

Ahead of the 2008 London Fashion Week, and in her first television interview since leaving Philip Green's empire, she told Newsnight: "Things go in cycles. I feel we are about to come to an end of a cycle and go somewhere different. I think people have become a bit bored with the idea of 'isn't it great, it is so cheap', I am hoping people will start to want to be a bit more individual again."

We need to be tempted into buying beautiful, ethical, sustainable clothes
Jane Shepherdson
So what are people going to start buying instead? Shepherdson has been doing her own research over the last year, and reckons there is a gap in the market for quality, beautifully designed pieces that last.

In the end, they offer more value than all those fast fashion pieces that fall apart after a few months as a result.


"Buy less!" is just the clarion call that campaigners for a greener and more sustainable fashion industry have been waiting to hear.

We are buying a third more clothes than we were a decade ago. Every year we buy around 2m tonnes, and about 1.5m tonnes end up in landfill. The clothing industry is a close rival to the chemical industry in its levels of pollution.

We recycle only a fraction of our wardrobes. And clothes are now so cheap because we pay so little to the people who make them in developing countries far from our gaze.

Key voices within the industry are starting to call for a rethink on our extraordinary levels of clothes consumption.

The head of the London College of Fashion, Dr Frances Corner, sets out her stall: "We have to think more carefully before we buy, we have to buy fewer clothes anyway, and pay more for them - and not subsidise people who're living sometimes on 15p a week so we can change our image all the time."

Dissolving clothes

We are spending a third more on clothes than we were a decade ago
Dr Frances Corner, London College of Fashion
Some of the big high street retailers are making efforts to tackle this, but it doesn't change the fact that people ultimately need to buy fewer clothes.

Sainsbury's is helping fund an innovative project at the London College of Fashion: making clothes that dissolve over time. The practical applications are not yet clear.

For now, the point is to promote a debate on sustainable fashion.

Dr Corner is calling for a return to the way we used to dress in Britain - buy classic pieces that last, and develop your individuality through your clothes.

It doesn't mean returning to austerity times - instead it's about finding the fun in holding onto your clothes for longer.

"Customise them," she suggests, "exchange them with other people, eventually recycle them into something different. I think it will be much more fulfilling for people in the end than the throwaway frenzy we have now."

Democratisation of clothes

Everyone agrees it means clothes will have to cost a bit more if they are going to reflect their toll on the environment - and ensure the people who make them are paid properly.

But the argument that low-income shoppers will be excluded from sustainable fashion gets short shrift from Dr Corner: "We are spending a third more on clothes than we were a decade ago, so the money is there."

In other words, the much lauded "democratisation" of clothes is really about everyone now being able to buy LOTS of clothes.

Jane Shepherdson thinks that in a quality market there's scope for sustainable fashion - with one big caveat: it has to look great.

"The whole ethical clothing market has got a long way to go," she says, "We don't want hair shirts, very few people are doing anything interesting and design is critical. We need to be tempted into buying beautiful, ethical, sustainable clothes; not being made to feel guilty… At the end of the day the consumer dictates. The best way to encourage her to buy is to make it as beautiful as you can."

So bury the morals - a depressing message, but doubtless commercially savvy.

Something else that would help is government legislation - for example targets and indirect taxation - to make non-ethical clothes less competitive.

In the words of Britain's first professor of sustainability, Tim Jackson, of the University of Surrey: "All the studies find that even people with strong pro-environmental values find it very difficult to maintain those values. They struggle to lead the lives they want to lead. That is where legislation can help."

By Madeleine Holt