Fashion is a great form of expression - from helping us depict our individualism to showcasing our sense of belonging to a certain group or community, fashion has become the perfect apparatus to unveil aspects of our personality and dissimulate others.
But what happens when the very thing that allows you to simultaneously embrace and exteriorise your identity, begins to defy all of your core beliefs in basic human rights and catapults the ecosystem you live in into a torturous descent towards annihilation?
“Ethical fashion” has been a buzzword for the last few years and, frankly, I’m glad it is. Fashion is a passion of mine, and nature helps me keep things into perspective, but that those two could be interlocked in a deadly battle of swords never occurred to me.
Stumbling upon and reading about ethical fashion was like having a rose-tinted veil lifted from my face and, with it, a dawning feeling of disgust and disappointment sank in. Those feelings now galvanise the flutter of my fingertips on this keyboard. Like me, there are millions of fashion enthusiasts out there who have yet to have the full horrifying realisation of ‘fast fashion’ awash over them.
To me, ethical fashion is a movement, a shout against the lies and deceit that we’re fed as customers, a revolt against the atrocities that others suffer because of our frantic chase for materialism and an understanding that as consumers we have the power to demand that brands adopt new methods of production, forge and live by stronger codes of ethics and open their eyes to a more sustainable approach towards fashion.
I’m not saying ethical fashion is easy. Loin de là. If anything, it is the several stumbling blocks that you will probably fall upon your journey towards ethical fashion that impels me to dedicate a whole section of this blog to it - with tips, tricks and nuggets of knowledge to help you arm yourself against fast fashion and embrace ethical fashion as an alternative way of expressing your identity.
What is Ethical Fashion?
First and foremost, let’s understand what ethical fashion means.
Generally speaking, ethical fashion covers all the stages and processes that the fashion industry undertakes such as the culling of raw materials as well as the design, production, advertisement and sale of the clothes.
Ethical Fashion advocates an approach towards fashion that is honest, clear and transparent whilst preserving the rights of the individuals involved in the fashion industry, respecting the fauna and flora of the environment and focusing on quality instead of quantity.
As you might have picked up, ethical fashion is a broad term and because ‘ethics’ are in nature subjective, a definition of ethical fashion cannot be nailed down like a mathematical equation.
However, ethical fashion tends to focus on certain aspects of the fashion industry in particular and it is those that we will discuss in this article.
Ethical fashion is a broad term and because ‘ethics’ are in nature subjective, a definition of ethical fashion cannot be nailed down like a mathematical equation.
Ethical Fashion v/s Fast Fashion
Ethical fashion is the arch-enemy of fast fashion. Like the name suggests, fast fashion is just as immediately gratifying, cheap, lethal, unsustainable and lacking in quality as fast food.
Fast fashion is an approach towards fashion which is usually up-to-date with the latest trends and fads (mostly because those fads are created by the fast fashion companies themselves). In order to provide for those trends, clothes are usually mass-produced in a scaringly short lapse of time. Such fashion tends to populate our high-streets and most fashion shops.
If Fast Fashion is Cheap and Trendy, Why is it Wrong?
For the very reasons that it is cheap and trendy. Let’s bring our magnifying glasses in and focus on the words ‘cheap’ and ‘trendy’ and ask ourselves what that entails.
The Social and Economic Impact of Fast Fashion
Since those brands are selling in huge quantities, surely they can afford to have smaller profit margins per sale, right? If you honestly think that big brands are cutting their profit margins to bring us cheaper clothes, you are living the capitalist delusion.
Yes, it did start with the great concept of globalised production and its intentions to make a better and more equitable world. Outsourcing raw materials and labour would help us achieve our fashionista fantasies whilst, allegedly, giving jobs to people in great need and helping the economies of poorer countries flourish. Unfortunately, it did not pan out quite as predicted. Sure, clothes are cheaper, mind-bogglingly cheaper, but the fact that you are paying £5 for a cute top is not the results of a sustainable and holistic way of looking at the world.
Competition is harsh within the fashion industry and our expectations for cheap clothes keep on rising. To keep up with our demands as consumers, without impacting their profit margins negatively, brands have to cut costs. Within the chain of distribution, it is usually those at the early stages of clothes production who suffer the most. Because there are no proper laws to protect people from developing countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, factory workers are made to live in unbearable conditions of squalor, are often beaten and mistreated, are exposed to chemicals and diseases and are paid peanuts (as little as £1 a day). The list goes on and on.
Farmers in India are known to have an especially hard life and the number of farmer suicides keep on increasing every year. Fast fashion brands are not made accountable for the fate of those people because governments are ready to put up with their demands to have at least some form of business happening within the economy.
To keep up with the trends that they themselves have instigated, fast fashion brands have to produce at phenomenal speeds and in phenomenal quantities which leads to a chain of pressure and stress which ultimately boils down to the factory worker who has the supervisor at their back with a stick.
The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
Environmentally speaking, the impact of fashion is just as disastrous. After the oil industry, the fashion industry is deemed to be the most exploitative and environmentally damaging industry globally. By nature, clothes borne out of fast fashion are meant to have a short lifespan, the whole idea being that a certain pattern will be this week’s fad before going obsolete and being thrown away without second thought. This works hand in hand with the fact that cheap clothes tantamount to low-quality fabrics and are, therefore, less durable; meaning you [as a consumer] can indulge in some new trendy pieces without a guilt-ridden mind. Yearly, it is believed that the UK alone throws away 1 million tonnes of clothing every year. (Waste Online). Imagine the numbers for bigger countries like America.
By nature, clothes borne out of fast fashion are meant to have a short lifespan, the whole idea being that a certain pattern will be this week’s fad before going obsolete and being thrown away without second thought.
Because those clothes are made from mostly inorganic materials they lie in the landfills for centuries, releasing harmful gases and methane. These do nothing but tremendous harm to the fauna and flora.
Pesticides during the production of cotton, exhaust fumes from factories, water filled with chemicals and dye do not only put the workers who are in direct contact at risk, but also affect the local areas’ natural resources and their essential food sources such as river water, fish, animals and agriculture. This leads to children being born with extreme malformations, having diseases such as jaundice or cancer and, ultimately, having a very short lifespan.
How Does Ethical Fashion Aim to Be Different?
Ethical fashion aims to acknowledge, and actively improve, the impact fashion has on the environment, its workers and consumers. There are several characteristics out there which demark ethical fashion from other types of fashion.
Animal Welfare (being cruelty-free)
The fashion industry relies heavily on animal-derived raw materials such as Merino wool and leather to produce garments and shoes. However, the industry does not always have the best interest of those animals at heart. ‘Mulesing’ is a common process where huge chunks of skin and flesh from lambs’ backsides are carved out in an attempt to remove/prevent an infection called ‘flystrike’. However, there are alternatives to ‘mulesing’ and interestingly enough, flystrike does not occur in wild sheep, but only farmed sheep. The manufacture of wool, leather and fur are all processes filled with acts of animal cruelty.
Therefore, ethical fashion has an obligation to make sure that none of its products are the result of harm to animals.
Now, as I mentioned before, ethics are subjective. Whilst some people advocate that any use of leather is wrong, I haven’t had any qualms about vintage leather, thrifted leather and second-hand stores. Leather derived from the by-products of the meat industry is not necessarily an issue, but then again the ethics of the meat industry is itself a whole new can of worms, and the process of turning animal skins to leather has highly questionable effects on the environment.
Environmentally Responsible/ Eco-Friendly
Moreover, ethical fashion actively tries to control the amount of pollution and wastage during the creation and production of fashion commodities. Advocating energy and water efficiency is a step towards a cleaner and safer environment. Facilitating this process for consumers and encouraging recycling are also steps that ethical brands should strive towards.
Clothes are made from raw materials like cotton. Those are often grown artificially- by genetically modifying the plant or dowsing them with pesticides. This, as mentioned before, has many harmful effects. Some ethical clothes brands have decided to take the organic route. ‘Organic’ means that the land was not covered in pesticides, the farmer was therefore not exposed to unbelievably toxic chemicals, rivers were not infected with chemicals which would have made their way into different life forms before being consumed by us.
Sustainability is another key term you might have heard of when referring to ethical fashion. 'Sustainable’ does not always mean ethical but it certainly is a significant part of it. The need for sustainability stems from two facts: our resources are prone to depletion; our desires aren’t. Thinking ahead is therefore essential, and yes, it is important to think of future generations, but why can’t we simply hold values akin to that of the South American Indians such as respect for the earth and its resources and gratitude for everything the soil yields? I do realise the full 'cheesiness' of this sentence, but I also realise that most of us take our commodities for granted and that's because we are made to think they are.
'Sustainable’ does not always mean ethical but it certainly is a significant part of it. The need for sustainability stems from two facts: our resources are prone to depletion; our desires aren’t.
The Rights of Workers
When it comes to the treatment of its workforce, the fashion industry should have the means of to ascertain that all of its employees’ basic rights are being protected; from receiving a decent minimum wage, having reasonable working hours, being treated with respect, being safe at work and receiving appropriate training. It is the responsibility of the brand to take accountability for its employees, regardless of which country they are in and which factory, agency or organisation they are employed by.
In an ideal world, fashion would encourage craftsmanship, artisanship and creativity; thus allowing the worker to actually derive satisfaction from their occupation. However, high demand often prevents these slower methods of production from happening.
Honesty and Transparency to Customers
If there are any winners from this industry, it is the brand owners and, to a certain extent, the customer. Nevertheless, customers are also victims of the exploitative nature of the fast fashion industry; albeit in a less noticeable way.
If consumers were fully aware of the atrocities that other humans endure in order for them to wear the trendiest jumper, would they continue to support this rapacious industry? I think for a vast majority of us, the answer would be no.
As you can imagine, brands spare no effort to hide their current methods of clothes production to consumers and having a generic 'our code of ethics' page where a brand can claim that they do not condone child labour or any forced labour is just another tactic to do so.
However, as consumers, we have the right to information and transparency. Having a clear code of ethics, showing that they perform in-depth audits and backing their proclamations with facts, statistics and regular reports (both internal and external), are the prerequisites of an ethical brand, and we should expect and demand nothing less.