Sustained effort

November 2008

Eco fashion has well and truly arrived - so where is it going? We peer into the future of ethical fashion

The British spend an average of £780 a year on 2.15 million tonnes of clothing. But, aside from helping us look hot to trot, where's this serious shopping habit taking us?

A growing passion for ethical fashion
In the last few years ethical fashion has come out of its 'hair-shirty' closet, moving from ethnic grunge to high street high style. Inspired by icons such as Katherine Hamnett (T-shirts from her collection pictured left), campaigns and events like those run by the Ethical Fashion Forum and Anti Apathy, and even the mainstream fashion courses' coverage of sustainability issues, there's been a dramatic increase in the labels producing high-quality sustainably sourced clothing for all tastes and budgets. And ethical fashion's hit the mainstream press in a big way - from Vogue to Grazia to newspapers. Now nearly 72% of us believe the ethical production of the clothes we buy is important¹.

Are we all ethical now?
Despite the growing demand for ethical fashion, it's still early days for an industry that's got used to selling fast-fashion regardless of the cost to the producers and the environment it relies on.

Workers' rights
There's been a lot of focus on unfair working conditions in clothes production. But Labour Behind the Label's annual 'Let's Clean Up Fashion' survey reveals that, while some forward-looking companies are addressing poverty wages and poor working conditions, many others (often popular high street names) are effectively ignoring the need for a living wage. They overlook basic labour issues and generally fail to meet the International Labour Organisation's conventions on minimum standards for wages, health and safety and letters of employment.

Birds and bees' rights
Nature often gets a similarly raw deal – whether it be animals kept in barbaric conditions for leather or fur production, or ecosystems affected by the chemicals used to produce and process cotton and other fabrics. While more high-street chains are featuring 'green' lines, these are often a tiny proportion of their overall sales, and environmental laws are regularly flouted in the name of fashion.

Setting standards
At its simplest, ethical fashion respects basic national and international labour and environmental laws. Beyond this, organic certification guarantees the absence of damaging chemicals. Fair Trade fashion goes further in creating a development tool for extremely disadvantaged people using traditional techniques such as hand weaving, embroidery, block prints and natural dyes. Such initiatives add value and give people the opportunity to work.

A sustainable trend?
While some brands clearly need to do better, the fashion industry's already a leader in sustainability within the economy as a whole. The sector's unique in getting together to work systematically towards increased sustainability, through initiatives such as the Ethical Fashion Forum and the RE:Fashion Awards, which aim to transform social and environmental standards in the fashion industry within a decade. Stella McCartney says: 'This is not about the new colour for spring. It's actually about the new direction of our industry.' Let's hope so!

¹ TNS Worldpanel Fashion Ethical Clothing Report, June 2008

Joanna Yarrow is a broadcaster, writer and consultant specialising in green living. She's GMTV's eco expert and presented BBC Three's Outrageous Wasters

Models wearing slogan T-shirts by Katherine Hamnett
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