ETHCIAL FASHION 101: WHERE DO I START?

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FASHION MANUFACTURING: WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS?

Handmade vs Mass Manufacture

The mass manufacturing of commercial clothing requires an enormous amount of energy, produces both toxic and material/textile waste, and, more often than not, ignores international labour and fair-wage standards. All this to produce low quality garbs that will be discarded after one or two seasons, and end up in a landfill, where they will likely remain for the rest of time. The faster the production and disposal process, the faster that of environmental degradation.

In contrast, handmade/crafted garments and accessories are generally one-of-a-kind creations, made out of high quality materials, by skilled artisans who use, and are thus preserving, traditional crafts and processes that have been passed down over hundreds of years. Such practices require higher levels of personal attention, so items are made in smaller batches. This reduces the amount of excess merchandise and decelerates the fashion cycle. The environmental impact of machine-driven assembly lines is thus avoided.

Made in a Developed Country

In recent years, two decades after the emergence of low-cost garment manufacturing in China and the Indian sub-continent, there has been a growing demand in the developed world, on the part of both consumers and fashion companies, for the resurgence of local textile and garment production. With the rising prominence of labour rights concerns and environmental issues surrounding the fashion industry, consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethical sourcing of their clothes. For retailers, with overseas workers calling for higher wages, and the ever-increasing demand for new stock more often, it is the rising cost of offshore production and speed-to-market that has prompted the desire to ‘go local’.

This by no means signals the end of garment and textile production outsourcing. With the demand for fast fashion, it would be impossible for the UK, for example, to produce the large volumes of commoditised goods that roll off production lines in lower-cost countries. The idea that clothes that are produced in a developed country are automatically more ethical and sustainable, though, is one that is worth exploring.

Manufacturing locally lowers the overall amounts of energy consumed, and emissions produced, by the supply chain. This not only reduces the total production cost of each garment, but the cost to the environment as well. Additionally, developed counties have a better track record when it comes to the enforcement of labour standards and environmental regulations. This means that workers are more likely to be empowered rather than exploited, especially because of the prominence of trade unions, and companies are less likely to obscure information regarding their supply chains. This being said, at various points over the years, a number of sweatshops have been discovered in the UK. Most recently it was reported that factories in Leicester, producing for high street brands including New Look and River Island, were paying their workers £3/ hr. Additionally, the fact that fashion companies are bringing production back to the UK so that they can meet the fast fashion demand of more new trends, more often, is in itself troubling, and counterproductive.

In a similar vein, it is not required by law in the UK to include a label of origin on any product that is not food. There are regulations stipulating what is required of a garment and its production process if it is to be labelled ‘Made in the UK’, but even these do not guarantee that it is entirely British, and they certainly do not guarantee anything about its ethics or sustainability. It is possible that for developed countries such as the UK, localising textile and garment production is one viable step towards ensuring supply chain sustainability, ethicality, and transparency, and ‘buying local’ is certainly something that we as consumers can do to combat many of the grievances of the fast fashion industry. However, as has been mentioned over again, it is still important to be aware of exactly where our garments have been produced, even if their labels tell us that they have been constructed close to home.

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WHAT IS RECYCLED FASHION?

An estimated 1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away per year in the UK alone. At least 50% of these are recyclable. The proportion of textile wastes that are actually recycled annually, however, is only around 25%.

Textile recovery and recycling provide important environmental benefits:

  • It reduces the need for landfill space. Textiles in landfill are problematic, as synthetic products will not decompose, while woolen garments do decompose but they produce methane, which contributes to global warming.
  • It reduces the pressure on virgin resources, and it avoids the environmental damage normally done in the manufacturing of textiles and garments.
  • It saves water, and reduces the amount of chemical dyestuffs used, which lessens wastewater pollution. Additionally, landfills pose a threat to local ground water reserves. When it rains, water drains through the rubbish, picking up chemicals and toxic materials, such as dyes and bleaches used in clothing, and collects at the bottom. These pools can be up to 200 times as toxic as raw sewerage.

Many fashion companies are incorporating recycled fibres, fabrics, and clothes into their products. There are three ways of recycling fashion:

  • New fabrics and textiles can be made from recycled fibres or products, i.e. recycled polyester made from used plastic bottles, or fabrics made from recycled yarns.
  • Using discarded factory surpluses, offcuts or materials, which would otherwise go to landfill (zero-waste manufacturing).
  • Repairing, re-purposing, re-fashioning, or customising existing clothing so that it is given a second life (upcycling).

The end goal for recycling is to create zero waste, or establish a ‘closed loop system’ in which all discarded materials are used as the resources. In this way, garments could have an infinite number of lives. The rapid rate at which the world population is growing means that more resources will be needed in the future, aiming for zero waste is therefore crucial, not only for the fashion industry, but for all supply chains.

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WHAT DOES GREENWASHING MEAN?

With the rise of apparel manufacturing processes that seek to fight the business model known as fast fashion, the concepts of ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are often used interchangeably.

A unanimous definition of anything ethical is nigh on impossible because such a valuation depends on a subjective assessment of what constitutes as morally satisfactory behaviour. However, the word is largely attached to anything related to human rights in the workplace and working conditions, as well as the living conditions of workers, their families, and their communities. Ethical fashion then, would be anything made under an agreed set of standards regarding such. Likewise, sustainable fashion is defined as a separate category of clothing production whose methods and processes are less polluting, or help counter the environmental effects of the garment industry. At the end of the day, however, you cannot separate ethical from sustainable fashion – as the well known anecdote goes: it is a sustainability issue that rivers are being poisoned, and an ethical one that people are thus being denied fresh water. Holistically then, the slow fashion movement consists of all things ethical – from environmental concerns to labour rights and supply chain transparency, and even the humane treatment of animals. As said by the Ethical Fashion Forum, it “represents an approach to the design, sourcing, and manufactur[ing] of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimizing [negative] impact on the environment.”

For those of us with the buying power, slow fashion means being more mindful about our purchases and shopping practices – it is about buying less, but buying better. Being a conscious consumer entails being aware of both the positive and negative impacts of what we buy. However, due to the comprehensiveness of all that has been defined above, and with the acknowledgement that deeming anything as ethical comes with a set of implied values, cultural perceptions, and highly subjective points of view, it essentially falls to the consumer to assess whether or not something is ethical, or to pick their battles, so to speak, based on their personal values.

Foremost, though, it is equally imperative to discuss what does not constitute as ethical or sustainable fashion. Alongside the rise of the slow fashion movement has been that of the green-washing movement – when companies make environmental or ethical claims about their products that are either untruthful, or that obscure other less desirable business practices, usually as a marketing stunt to improve their sales and overall image. Examples include:

  • Philanthropy

Charitable brands can still sell cheap, toxic, low-quality clothes that are made in a sweatshop in South East Asia, and no amount of philanthropy makes that ok.

  • Product raises awareness for/ promotes an idea or cause

Similarly to brands that attempt to compensate for their supply chain maladies, garments or accessories highlighting an important ideal or cause may still have dubious supply chains, which cannot simply be forgotten about.

  • Supply chain transparency

This point is slightly contentious. While supply chain transparency is certainly one (hugely important) part of practicing ethical and sustainable fashion, it is rendered useless if it shows a supply chain to be riddled with environmental and labour law abuses. Thus, alone, it cannot be constituted as ethical or sustainable fashion.  However, in the same way that for alcoholism the first step to recovery is to admit that it is a problem, it is a good place to start.

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IS SECOND-HAND CLOTHING THE ANSWER?

With the rise of apparel manufacturing processes that seek to fight the business model known as fast fashion, the concepts of ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are often used interchangeably.

A unanimous definition of anything ethical is nigh on impossible because such a valuation depends on a subjective assessment of what constitutes as morally satisfactory behaviour. However, the word is largely attached to anything related to human rights in the workplace and working conditions, as well as the living conditions of workers, their families, and their communities. Ethical fashion then, would be anything made under an agreed set of standards regarding such. Likewise, sustainable fashion is defined as a separate category of clothing production whose methods and processes are less polluting, or help counter the environmental effects of the garment industry. At the end of the day, however, you cannot separate ethical from sustainable fashion – as the well known anecdote goes: it is a sustainability issue that rivers are being poisoned, and an ethical one that people are thus being denied fresh water. Holistically then, the slow fashion movement consists of all things ethical – from environmental concerns to labour rights and supply chain transparency, and even the humane treatment of animals. As said by the Ethical Fashion Forum, it “represents an approach to the design, sourcing, and manufactur[ing] of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimizing [negative] impact on the environment.”

For those of us with the buying power, slow fashion means being more mindful about our purchases and shopping practices – it is about buying less, but buying better. Being a conscious consumer entails being aware of both the positive and negative impacts of what we buy. However, due to the comprehensiveness of all that has been defined above, and with the acknowledgement that deeming anything as ethical comes with a set of implied values, cultural perceptions, and highly subjective points of view, it essentially falls to the consumer to assess whether or not something is ethical, or to pick their battles, so to speak, based on their personal values.

Foremost, though, it is equally imperative to discuss what does not constitute as ethical or sustainable fashion. Alongside the rise of the slow fashion movement has been that of the green-washing movement – when companies make environmental or ethical claims about their products that are either untruthful, or that obscure other less desirable business practices, usually as a marketing stunt to improve their sales and overall image. Examples include:

  • Philanthropy

Charitable brands can still sell cheap, toxic, low-quality clothes that are made in a sweatshop in South East Asia, and no amount of philanthropy makes that ok.

  • Product raises awareness for/ promotes an idea or cause

Similarly to brands that attempt to compensate for their supply chain maladies, garments or accessories highlighting an important ideal or cause may still have dubious supply chains, which cannot simply be forgotten about.

  • Supply chain transparency

This point is slightly contentious. While supply chain transparency is certainly one (hugely important) part of practicing ethical and sustainable fashion, it is rendered useless if it shows a supply chain to be riddled with environmental and labour law abuses. Thus, alone, it cannot be constituted as ethical or sustainable fashion.  However, in the same way that for alcoholism the first step to recovery is to admit that it is a problem, it is a good place to start.

 

Ruth MacGilpComment