Ethical fashion and sustainability: baby steps to take
A couple of days ago, I shared an article on my Facebook page about ethical fashion – or, rather, lack thereof. It details how factories in Myanmar have been discovered to be employing children and underpaying them, and it's definitely worth a read. But raising any issues around ethical fashion and sustainability is tricky, for so many different reasons – starting with the fact that it's so difficult to know which brands are and aren't operating ethically. (My personal rule is – if the item costs less than €20, strong ethical practice is unlikely.) Then there's the hypocrisy of the whole thing – it's so incredibly difficult to be an ethical shopper while also enjoying fashion and clothes and consuming all of the spoils of our capitalist culture.
After I shared that feature, for example, my sister texted me. "How can you care about ethical fashion while also encouraging people to buy a €45 coat?*" She has a point.
It is almost impossible to consume fashion without muddying the ethical fashion waters somehow. And, even if brands tell us that they're "committed to ethical fashion practices", it's tough to know if they're telling the truth. While they may be contracting one factory – which pays a "living wage" and doesn't employ children – they often turn a blind eye to the fact that said factory is sub-contracting to another, with somewhat less favourable working conditions.
In short, I don't know the answer – I'm not sure if anyone does! But here are just a few little things that we can all do to ease not only our own consciences but the burden that our obsession with fashion (the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil) is placing on our planet.
This is such a simple solution – and, in a way, seems trite. But in ethical fashion terms, it makes sense. I read a book a few years back (that I can't remember the name of, which really bothers me) about fast fashion. The author claimed that, in the 1950s, we spent around 30% of our wages on clothing and owned, on average, 20 items. By 2010, we were spending 10% of our annual wages on clothing – and we owned, on average, 100-odd items.
When you think about it, we don't need the vast majority of the things we buy. Maybe I'm talking about myself here; I definitely don't need a lot of the things I buy. So I really am trying to cut that down. Consumption is fun, but only when it's in some way meaningful to me, I find.
The value we place on fashion items is dwindling – and we're continually expecting more for less. The drive for cheaper fashion – and, therefore, cheaper labour and cheaper manufacturing processes – is coming from the consumer. Why is it that we're so enthralled with the idea of an €8 T-shirt or a €15 pair of jeans?
This isn't even about fast fashion vs high fashion – because I know that some high-fashion (that is, very expensive) brands have been shown to do very badly on the ethical fashion index, too. It's about the value that we're placing on items and the fact that, the cheaper the item, the more likely it is to be disposable to us. We'll wear it once and bin it; would you do that if it cost four times that much?
Do your ethical fashion research
Like I said, it's hard to know what's what – which is why it's up to us to educate ourselves. The True Cost, if you haven't seen it already, is a good place to start; it's a documentary that tells the story of the incredibly low-paid and mistreated workers who are making our fast fashion.
Figure out who's making an effort and who's not – there are countless lists and indexes out there if you take to Google – but don't forget to ask questions. There's a really stunning moment in The True Cost when a fast fashion head honcho says something like, "we've committed to paying all of our workers a living wage by 2020" and the journalist interviewing her says, "why not now? That's not good enough."
When you think about it, it's genuinely not good enough that human beings slave away in factories so that we can buy clothes we don't need at prices far lower than we can really afford. How can we justify it?
I'm not just talking about consigning your clothes, or bringing them to secondhand shops – both of which, don't get me wrong, are good options. But recycling fashion is about taking a look at the fabric; what can be done? Can you keep cheap printed sundresses and make 'em into a quilt? Can someone else you know?
A huge amount of our donated clothes will end up in landfill as far away as Jamaica (just another True Cost fact there, kids) – so before you pass that €2 skirt on to your local Oxfam shop, ask if anyone's gonna buy it and, if not, can you repurpose it?
Like I said, I don't have all the answers. I'm just trying to become a better shopper (and human!). The days of pretending we don't know whose blood has gone into our clothes are long gone. For more information, check out the Clean Clothes Campaign; the Ethical Fashion Forum and The Good Trade.
*This is an affiliate link. What does that mean? If you click through and buy something, I’ll get a small percentage (because if you're gonna buy that €45 jacket and feck the ethics of it, I want a cut). It won’t cost you anything extra, but it will help me continue to create content on rosemarymaccabe.com and beyond. I will always disclose if a post is sponsored or contains affiliate links; for more, check out my disclaimer.