Ethical consumerism doesn’t have to be an oxymoron

Last Friday marked the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, which with a death toll exceeding 1000 people is considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history. Remembering the lives lost in this disaster has once again brought the issue of fast fashion and the ethical practice, or otherwise, of the garment industry to the forefront.

Just some of the blog posts that have caught my eye in recent weeks are Charlotte of english girl at home’s post about a few missed stitches she found in a RTW garment, and how it reminded her that the clothes we don’t make ourselves are made by people and not machines, and the 2015 launch of So, Zo…’s Me-Made-May campaign, which encourages people who make their own clothes to wear and love them. Some brave souls even commit to getting by all month without wearing any shop-bought garments.

Around this time last year, my workplace nominated me to take part in the Young Programme and I was asked to prepare an argument that I would deliver to the audience as a speech. I decided to tackle the topic of ethical fashion, expecting that my research would lead me to argue that in a world obsessed with fast fashion, ethics would always be compromised. In fact, I discovered that there are many promising initiatives and business models out there that ultimately mean the wants and needs of today’s consumer can be met, while the destructive impact that this currently has on people’s lives and the environment is mitigated.

Of course, there is a big difference between identifying these best practice models and initiatives and them being widely implemented, and there is still a long road ahead. That said, by virtue of them being possible, if not yet probable, my hope is that a more ethical fashion industry will soon be on the horizon.

This is the piece I wrote in May 2014:

Ethical consumerism doesn’t have to be an oxymoron

Roll up, roll up! For the bargain price of just £16.95, you too can learn how to operate your fashion business ethically. This is how much a monthly subscription to SOURCE, a social enterprise launched by the Ethical Fashion Forum will set you back. But with an estimated 30 billion pounds worth of clothes squirrelled away in UK wardrobes, are initiatives like this really an indication that ethical consumerism doesn’t have to be an oxymoron?

The fashion industry is worth 20 billion pounds to the UK economy every year, so there really is no denying that as a nation we devour new clothes like they’re…well, like they’re going out of fashion, but at what price? On 24 April last year 1,129 workers lost their lives in Bangladesh during the collapse of the eight storey Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories. In the aftermath, a long overdue spotlight was shone on the sustainability of an industry that provides employment for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Further development of a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable mainstream fashion industry hinges on ethical issues being addressed at all levels of, often complex, supply chains; integration of sustainability with commercial business goals; policy makers making space for these issues on the agenda and committing resources to solving these problems and perhaps above all, consumer demand.

Organic cotton farming makes sense. Pesticides used during the farming of conventional cotton result in the accidental deaths of 20,000 people every year. Around 130ml of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are used to grow enough cotton for a T-shirt – that’s about the same as a small glass of wine required for every single T-shirt. Organic cotton is now grown in 22 countries worldwide and year on year the growth of this industry is around 30%. This means more of the raw materials entering the fashion industry supply chain are sourced both socially and environmentally responsibly.

When one thinks of sustainable manufacturing processes, cottage industries might spring to mind, and while there are Fair Trade artisans and farmers throughout the developing world contributing garments to UK clothes rails via brands like PeopleTree, known for their ethical stance, there are also some factories manufacturing on a larger scale who are getting it right, too. Russell Spiller, director of Mantis World, a distributor of cotton jersey clothing, tells of how every Tuesday around 200 people gather outside the gates of their factory in Tanzania. Word has spread about the excellent employment conditions, which include committees that give workers a voice when it comes to health and safety issues, and each of these people are seeking to join the workforce. Issues of sustainability encountered at all levels of the supply chain are now being addressed and momentum is gathering.

Understandably, companies at the customer-facing end of the supply chain are concerned that a shift towards more ethical practices won’t provide solutions that are either cheap enough, or fast enough to meet demand. These concerns are increasingly being proved unfounded. Mass upcycling, using waste material, is just one example of an environmentally sustainable initiative that compares favourably with conventional fabrics on the financial front. Additionally, UK companies are also now reporting that better working conditions have increased certainty within the supply chain, resulting in better quality garments, so less re-work is required, and this is one of the ways that costs are being minimised and production schedules are been adhered to without compromising workers’ rights.

In the days after the Rana Plaza disaster, Nick Clegg said “…there’s more we could do to talk about what goes on behind the scenes and this terrible catastrophe might well prompt people to think again”. Marking the one year anniversary of this tragedy, British High Commissioner, Robert Gibson described the events as: “a wake up call”. Practically, this has resulted in the UK government providing £4.8 million for the International Labour Organisation programme, and a commitment of £18 million to improve the skills of garment workers.

Market research has shown that 50% of Marks and Spencer customers are concerned about the ethics of fashion. 30% declared themselves conscientious abstainers, which means that they have chosen to vote with their feet, seeking out more sustainable products. For years the waters have been muddied by the fashion industry; consumers have been bamboozled by labelling (or the lack thereof): ‘Fair trade’, ‘eco’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘organic’, but the information that’s really needed to make an informed decision has been sorely lacking. What do these labels mean? For example, Fair Trade describes the source of the fabric, yet tells the consumer nothing about the conditions under which it was manufactured. However, the tide is turning and consumer awareness is increasing.

The Me-Made-May initiative started by blogger Zoe, whose tagline is ‘sewing sustainability with style’, is one example of people shunning ‘fast fashion’. Throughout the month of May amateur dressmakers all over the world pledge to wear at least one item of clothing they have sewn themselves every day. Many showcase their efforts on their own blogs, and so the word is spread. Thus is the power of the consumer in this digital age. While industry has to sell, consumers do not have to buy.

There is still much work to be done before mainstream fashion can wear its sustainability badge with pride, but the building blocks are there and sustainable practices are becoming more commonplace. When the Ethical Fashion Forum first held an event to bring together industry professionals in 2005, there were 5 attendees. More than 250 people are expected at their next event in July this year and this clearly signals a commitment to change. As one of the primary catalysts for change, it seems fitting to conclude with a few words from one of the Rana Plaza survivors: “At the back of my mind I always have this fear: what if the building collapses again? I can’t sleep at night because of this thought.”

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