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