Even as an avid buyer of clothing, I have not put much thought into where the clothes come from or whether they are ethically produced or not. Even when I do begin to consider the idea, it is difficult for me to research as I’m afraid of what I might find: whether my morals will suddenly come into question or not when I’m shopping in my local high street haunts. Does ethical fashion consider the implications of business on the environment, but also the human aspect?
Fashion and the clothing industry is creating trends at an alarming rate, with the shops attempting to keep up. The rise of ‘fast fashion’ has led to cheaper clothing and the disposal of old clothes that are not ‘in style’ anymore. As clothes are now so inexpensive, I do not tend to feel guilty about not wearing something as often as I maybe should, if I wear it at all. Many items I have bought in the spur of the moment in a sale still have the price tag on them, still lying in the back of my wardrobe. Never mind the money wasted, so many other things need to be put into perspective: the labour involved in making that one item, the transportation costs, and the environmental impact of the production and transportation involved.
Back in the day (or my parents’ day at least) clothes were considered more of a necessity than a want. Clothes also seemed to be far more expensive back then. A good pair of jeans was supposed to last you for years, not just a few months or weeks. For those interested in fashion today, it has never been easier to buy more and more: you don’t even have to leave the house. To look ‘fashionable’ these days does not entail buying the most expensive or designer/ high end clothing. The high end trends are mimicked and quickly reproduced for high street brands in record timing.
If you pay more for an item, though, are you guaranteed that it will be ethically produced? There is an assumption circulating that because you are paying a couple of euro for an item that it can not possibly be produced thoroughly ethically. Many luxury brands still source their manufacturing in the same buildings as high street brands.
Many clothing websites now have a section declaring that they are an ethical company with regards to the working conditions of their workers. Many adhere to the ‘Ethical Trading Initiative’s (Respect for Workers Worldwide) base code, which outlines nine key points:
No forced labour, freedom of association, healthy and safe working conditions, no child labour, living wages are paid, working hours are not excessive, no discrimination is practised, regular employment is provided, and no harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed
Issues of ethical fashion came to the attention of world news in 2013 with the collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh, known as the ‘Rana Plaza Collapse’. The factory manufactured clothes for many high street brands. Workers from other manufacturing companies began to demand safer working conditions in the industrial areas of Dhaka, Chittagong and Gazipur. Despite its high profile status at the time, issues surrounding the safety of workers has not been circulated in mainstream media.
In terms of the environment, Greenpeace argues that fast fashion is having a detrimental impact. From the water needed to make clothes to the hazardous chemicals used to dye them, ‘Every piece of clothing we buy has had an impact on our planet before we even bring it home’ (Greenpeace 2016).
It is difficult to research the working conditions of labourers creating the clothes for many of our beloved shops. Do we trust the statements given by these companies? Or even worse, do we care? And if we do care how do we, on an individual level, begin to help solve these problems?