Unless you’ve been living under a fashion rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard something about ethical fashion – or at least of some unethical things that fashion has been associated with. For many people, their first inkling that the people who make their clothes may not be treated as they would expect came in 2013, when Rana Plaza in Bangladesh – home to factories making clothes from some of the best known high street brands – collapsed, killing 1,129 people who worked there.
Since then some things have changed and others haven’t. More people than ever before are interested in shopping ethically, but don’t quite know how to start. Never fear – we’ll be your ethical agony aunt, helping you navigate shopping with a clear conscience (and looking great while doing it).
What does ethical clothing mean?
Consider the differences between the fashion industry today and when your mum was your age: you have, on average, four times the clothes she did and you’ll have paid a lot less for them. Today, the lead time from a high street designer's sketchbook to your closet is mere weeks. We want more clothes, and we want them faster and cheaper. To meet this demand, most production happens overseas: nearly 97% of our clothes are made by 40 million garment workers, most of them women in the developing world, bringing home less than $3 per day.
Ethical fashion means different things to different people, but generally it’s fashion that tries to avoid this complex system where low wages, forced or child labour, and harsh environmental impacts are more common than you might think. An ethical fashion brand might, to paraphrase the Ethical Fashion Forum, look at their entire operation – from the design of a dress down to the sourcing of the cotton – and try to have a positive impact on people with minimal environmental impact.
In practice, ethical fashion could be a lot of different things: clothing that is fair trade, or made from organic cotton; companies that ensure everyone that works for them makes a living wage; your neighbour’s Etsy shop. What ties them together is a commitment to the people who make our clothes and the environment around us all.
Once you start looking, you can find ethical fashion everywhere – you no longer have to compromise your style to keep your conscience happy.
How ethical is the fashion industry?
It’s hard to say – most brands still share very little about who makes our clothes. While researching Not My Style (available to download now ) our app that rates high street fashion brands on how much they share, we looked at 105 stores. More than a quarter shared absolutely nothing – not even an acknowledgment that their clothes were being made by someone, somewhere – on their website.
For quite some time, brands didn’t share that information because they don’t actually know it. For some, that’s still the case. It may sound crazy, but it’s been a fairly recent development that big fashion brands have even mapped their entire supply chain. Fewer still share that with the public.
While the best way to shop ethically is to buy from a brand that tells you everything you want to know about where your clothes are made and by whom, not all high street brands are created equal. In fact, quite a few of the brands that get the worst rap in the media are sharing the most information and trying to push the high street to higher standards.
The only real way to find out whether or not a brand shares your ethics is to ask them. Visit their website or ask in store or on social media. But you have to engage – if you don’t push them to share with you, they won’t.
Why is ethical clothing important?
One of the things we hear most from women who care about these issues is “it doesn’t matter what I do; I’m only one person.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Your pound has power and where you choose to spend it matters. It’s been shown time and time again (Blackfish, anyone?) that when consumers demand more information and better practices, consistently and collectively, companies answer.
You’re not alone on your ethical fashion journey! To get you started, check out our three favourite brands this month:
American brand Reformation is having a moment – you can try on all their gorgeous wares at their London pop-up, open until March.
We fell in love with Nudie Jeans who offer stellar fitting unisex styles made from 100% organic cotton. They offer a lifetime repair warranty on their product, and take back jeans you’re tired of for a 20% discount on a new pair.
Manchester-based Beaumont Organic makes lots of lovely things, but it’s their chunky wool jumpers keeping us warm this winter.
Download the Not My Style app now for free to find out more about where your clothes come from.