The fashion industry has often come under fire from environmental groups or other organizations over dubious practices that have been carried out by some companies. There have been allegations of sweatshops being used by big-name brands and of poor wages and working conditions.
As the public becomes more aware of the damage done to the planet and they think about social responsibility they are changing their shopping habits. Manufacturers are having to change their processes and practices or risk literally being left on the shelf while their competitor’s products are snatched up.
The fashion industry is showing a willingness to change and here are some areas that need to be considered by consumers and manufacturers alike.
What is ethical fashion?
Ethical fashion is a term you will hear bandied about but perhaps without much explanation. It covers all aspects of the production process from design to purchase. The areas of concern are the following:
- Exploitation of children
- Poor working conditions and safety
- Low wages
- Unsustainable growing practices for textiles
- Environmental damage
- Animal cruelty
These are all incredibly important areas and they have often been overlooked and hidden away from consumers. Here is some brief detail on each area.
Child labor in the workforce
All manufacturers attempt to make their products as cheaply as possible to keep costs down. This has two knock-on effects, one is a lower price to the consumer and a bigger profit to the manufacturer. The problem is when a business chooses a manufacturer overseas that is trying to increase their profits through cheap labor including children. It is not enough for the design companies to say they were unaware of these practices but luckily now many of these sweatshops are being closed down.
Poor working conditions and safety
In many countries, there are strict health and safety rules in place to protect employees and consumers alike. Not all regions enjoy such practices. Dangerous machinery and non-existent maintenance and safety checks can lead to injury and death. It is up to the fashion companies to check the facilities they use and ensure that employees are working in a safe environment.
As in the case of child labor, some manufacturers cut costs by not paying their staff fairly. This can be caused by unscrupulous manufacturers or by the client (the fashion designer) driving too hard a bargain in their contracts necessitating cutting costs elsewhere.
Unsustainable growing practices
Cotton has to be grown and that takes water, lots of it. New methods of growing natural textiles will need to be found before more man-made disasters occur. The current practices are so bad they are destroying whole seas.
Not only does growing textiles consume water and damage the environment but the chemicals used during different processes are also harmful. Pesticides used on cotton harm the land and the farmers who grow the plants. Other chemicals used to soften and then dye materials can damage waterways and the environment. Many of them are also potentially bad for the people who purchase and wear these garments too.
A subject that has been at the forefront of fashion discussions for years. Many designers refuse to use fur or leather in their products and many people would never wear animal fur. However, animals are still being farmed purely for their furs. These animals can be held in poor conditions and then slaughtered just for the sake of fashion.
What can be done to promote sustainability and be more ethical?
All the above points can be looked at for improvements but there are areas that consumers can look at as well as the manufacturers. Here are some areas that both the buyer and seller should consider.
Recycling and donating
Every year millions of clothing items are banished to the landfill. In the US this equates to nearly 20 million tonnes of clothing being thrown away and burnt instead of being reused. This means that all the textiles grown for manufacture along with the energy and water used to make them are just binned. In the UK it is estimated there could be £3 billion saving a year if people just considered ways to reuse their old garments. Garage sales, eBay, non-profit organizations, and charity shops are all ways that you can sell or donate your unwanted clothing as long as it is still in good condition.
As many areas in life are turning to on-demand business styles to be more eco-friendly so can the fashion industry. The current formula for cheap clothes has led to a throw-away mindset where the low purchase price makes the consumer think it is ok to discard the clothing. If people started to consider buying custom clothing then mass production would be reduced and garments would be seen as something to look after and keep rather than discard after a few uses.
It is simple to say that man-made products are not good for the environment. Think of all the plastic in the oceans and straws and water bottles clogging up landfills. However, just buying natural materials isn’t the only improvement you can make. You can look for organically grown textiles so you know that there were no harmful chemicals used. This helps the farmers, the environment, and yourself by not wearing chemicals on your body.
Look for eco-friendly credentials
On many garments, you will find hang tags. All labels on clothes will carry information about the products but hang tags can offer something more. These little pieces of card may carry info about the company and the clothes were made. An ethical company will be keen to show you that they consider the planet and the people that live on it including the ones who made that lovely dress you are looking at.
Checking these tags can give you information about being carbon-neutral, organic materials, or perhaps charitable donations. It may be that the manufacturer builds village wells for every x amount of clothes sold. There are many ethical aspects that the industry can help with.
Buying recyclable materials
Recycling is important but also the products being purchased matter too. Textiles can be recycled through various processes but it is easy to purchase something that will have to be binned. This might be as simple as what the buttons are made from or the tags. Designers will use fashionable hang tags to attract your attention and they can have custom made ones from all sorts of materials. For you, the consumer, it is important you buy an item with a recyclable hang tag. Normally this would be a card attached by a string. If you buy an item with a plastic tag then that will end up in a landfill.
What happens now?
The future of the fashion industry is surely heading towards a more sustainable business model. Current textile growing processes cannot continue and the general public will not part cash for a product that is using child labor or forcing the poor of the world to work in dangerous conditions. There are things that you can do to help. Shop locally to reduce emissions. Look for green credentials and certification. Buy from designers who are committed to fair practices and care about their workforce.