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, it has become the perfect apparatus to help us 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 in 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.
Ethical Fashion is a subject that concerns itself with all the processes that the fashion industry gets involved in and scrutinises the morals with which those processes are undertaken.
It can cover more well-known aspects of the fashion industry such as marketing, modelling or the design process, but it tends to pay special attention to the more obscure parts of this industry which usually include the culling of raw materials (how fabrics and skins are obtained) and the production of clothes.
Ethical Fashion advocates an approach towards fashion that preserves the rights of workers (fair trade fashion), respects the fauna and flora of the environment (eco-fashion) and focuses on quality instead of quantity (slow fashion). In order to achieve all of this, we need transparency.
Transparency is a key term in the ethical fashion industry as it helps us keep brands accountable for their actions. You'll find ethical fashion organisations like Fashion Revolution constantly emphasising on transparency. They even have a yearly report called "The Transparency Index"; a very good read for those who are new to ethical fashion.
As you've read from the description above, 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.
This tends to make it even more difficult to engage people's interest in this important movement because they're just not sure what exactly it's about. Is this about the environment? the labour force? consumerism? capitalism?
Well, it encompasses all of that. Ethical Fashion is involved in all those matters because its main aim is to protect people (both workers and consumers) and nature.
If ethical fashion includes all of those things, then what does sustainable fashion and slow fashion mean? You'll want to read this article for that: Are ethical fashion, sustainable fashion and slow fashion the same thing?
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.
Fast Fashion v/s Ethical Fashion
Fast fashion is the arch-enemy of ethical fashion. They are, in effect, polar opposites in terms of method of clothes production.
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 keeps up with the latest trends and fads. The reason they're able to do that so well is because a lot of those trends are instigated by fast fashion brands themselves.
There was a time (about 60 years ago) when we used to align our wardrobes with the seasons. So designers would bring out a new collection every season and we'd spruce up our wardrobes then.
Noawadays, there are 52 micro-seasons in a year. Collections are coming out every week.
This puts an unbearable amount of pressure on designers who have to bring out collections that feel fresh and unique one after the other. Consumers feel the pressure of dressing to the latest fads too. Peer pressure, wanting to abide by a certain fashion community's trends in order to belong, chasing status or thinking that owning more will bring us more happiness are all factors which push us consumers towards updating our wardrobes constantly.
So in this overwhelmingly fast and unhealthy system, only one party is truly benefitting. Fast fashion brands.
The Social and Economic Impact of Fast Fashion
There is the misconception out there that the reason brands can afford to place a cheap price tag on their clothes is because they're selling huge quantities of clothes. So the logic of this goes along the line that they make a smaller profit margin per sale, but because it's cheap, more people can afford to buy that item, and they therefore manage to make a decent profit from selling a huge number of clothes.
That's what I used to think.
Fact is, believing that a brand is cutting back on their profits to bring us cheaper clothes tantamounts to living the capitalist delusion.
So if the brand is not cutting its profit margin, who is?
The garment worker is.
The garment worker really does take the brunt of this unhealthy system. They are paid peanuts (as little as £1 a day sometimes) and can work up to 140 hours per week sometimes. They can be made to work overtime to meet deadlines (remember those trends coming out every week?) without being given any extra pay.
"The True Cost of Fashion" is one of the most brilliant documentaries ever made on the plight of garment workers and there is a piece in particular where one garment worker explains how she and other collegues decided to create a trade union to express their needs and rights as workers. As a result of this, the managers and supervisors ensued to close the doors and beat them.
In the UK and the US, a trade union is a perfectly normal institution. In fact, its an important part of a democracy. So snatching this right from garment workers with brutal force tantamounts to nothing less than a dictatorship; to slavery. Another key concept of ethical fashion is modern slavery.
The reason brands can get away with such behaviour, is because there are very little laws to protect workers in developing countries. This is exactly why brands decide to go to those countries to produce their clothes.
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.
When it comes to sourcing materials for the fast fashion industry, there is not much good to tell either. Cotton farmers in India are known to have an especially hard life. Cotton farmers will mortgage their land to buy a particular type of seed that is said to deliver beautiful results. However, the seeds end up not delivering the results that it claims to be capable of. Farmers end up in a lot of debt, get their lands taken away from them and often go to the extent of suicide. In fact, since 1995, there has been over 270,000 cotton farmer suicides in India.
The Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion
Environmentally speaking, the impact of fast fashion is just as disastrous.
After the oil industry, the fashion industry is deemed by The Guardian to be the most polluting industry globally.
By nature, clothes borne out of fast fashion are meant to have a short lifespan, the whole idea being that a certain style or 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, not durable.
Yearly, it is believed that the UK alone throws away 1 million tonnes of clothing every year. 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 synthetic 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, dyes infiltrating our water sources 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.
Fabrics such as polyester release microfibers when washed. Those microfibers end up in the oceans where they contribute to the high levels of microplastics that currently float around and end up being gulped by our lovely sea creatures. Not to mention that those microplastics ultimately end up in our plates. According to Eco Watch, we eat more than 100 plastic fibers every meal.
From space, it might look like Earth has an abundunce of water to offer. The blue planet. What a beautifully poetic name. The fact is, only 1% of Earth's surface water is fresh water and, therefore, drinkable. By 2040, most of the world won't have enough water to meet demand year-round.
Yet, we are currently spending 7,600 litres of water to make ONE pair of jeans and 2,700 litres of water to make ONE t-shirt. Currently, 80 billion new clothes are being made every year. That's 400% more than we used to 2 decades ago.
Fast fashion is making a huge dent in our natural resources. One thing I did manage to learn in my Economics classes, is that natural resources are limited and human desires aren't.
Fast fashion is galvanising those desires by showing a mirage; a mirage that all of our materialistic desires can be fulfilled cheaply.
But not learning to look at commodities for what they truly are and not having a different approach to our wardrobes will have disastrous consequences for our beautiful planet.
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 fast 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, shoes and accessories.
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 occurs mostly in farmed animals because they are gathered in small areas where humidity breeds.
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, not using the skins would result in a considerable amount of wastage, but then again the ethics of the meat industry is itself a whole new can of worms.
Moreover, the process of turning animal skins to leather has highly questionable effects on the environment, but sureprise, surprise, so does vegetarian leathers! Vegan leather, while having the advantage of not being derived from animals, also has some dire consequences on the environment.
However, some great breakthroughs are being made in the ethical fashion industry with some sustainable brands making leather from oranges, pineapple, fennel and mushrooms. Isn't that incredible?
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. Brands like Reformation will give you an approximation of how much water and carbon emissions were involved in the making of one of their items and will compare this against the industry's standards to show how it's actively reducing its environmental impact.
Advocating energy and water efficiency is a step towards better planet, but the focus has to be all areas of the fashion industry.
Clothes are made from raw materials like cotton and hemp. Those are often grown artificially- by genetically modifying the plant or dowsing them with pesticides. Pesticides contibute to global warming and destroy the ozone layer and our fresh water sources.
To counteract this, 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.
'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 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 being the norm.
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.