Increasing numbers of people are now trying to live a more ethical lifestyle, but what can we do about our clothes? Clothes cost money wherever we buy them, and the ethical companies are sometimes more expensive. When money is short it can be hard to shop with ethical principles in mind. But it is not just price that drives the market in ethical consumerism but a desire not to invest in companies that mistreat the planet, their employees and the animals who are used as products.
On 2nd June, we published a news piece by Mike Stanton about the collapse of Missguided. The article looked at the shoddy treatment of the Missguided workforce and the impact of the fashion companies. “Fashion is big business. There is massive pressure to get the latest styles to market ahead of your competitors. And corners are cut. It’s not just about customer service and workers’ rights. Environmental targets for pollution and carbon emissions are also missed.”
The environmental impact
According to the i newspaper fashion is our fifth most polluting industry. The i article states that the fashion industry produces 10% of all greenhouse gases, and these could increase by more than 50% by 2030. It uses 93 billion cubic metres of water, and the equivalent of three million barrels of oil are dumped into our seas every year. More than half our clothing purchases are discarded and end up in landfill. These are damning statistics. Unfortunately, they are difficult to verify. Nobody is arguing that a $620 billion industry is good for the environment but many of these statistics depend on exactly what is being counted as fashion. Alden Wicker, writing for Racked, had this to say about the 10% claim:
“That was pulled from a 2010 Textile World article, written by an Italian salesman of textile equipment. But it is actually referencing the entire textile industry, not just fashion, which could include rugs, bed linens, engine belts, automotive carpets, and all manner of other very unfashionable things. And there’s no way to know if it’s true..”
But surely the reports of many workers in various parts of the world creating garments in sweatshop conditions which may well be hazardous are true. They may work extremely long hours without regular contracts and often for very low wages. They are usually denied the right to join a trade union and regularly suffer from exhaustion and poor health. The Clean Clothes Campaign exists to protect these workers and fight for their rights. For those of us in the west, often the beneficiaries of this cheap labour, it seems obvious that children should be in school or playing. But often their labour is essential to the family income. As the Global Dimension website notes:
“Where families struggle to make ends meet in poorer countries, their work is a vital source of income that helps everyone in the family.”
The fact is that simply preventing child labour without developing an alternative is not necessarily the answer. That said, as socialists we must be opposed to the forced labour of young people and exploitative practices wherever they occur. At the same time simply opposing child labour without extensive unionisation could well leave many families worse off. The issue here is not how much a fashion garment costs us but the organisation of labour in a globalised industry.
An additional reason for avoiding mainstream fashion companies is the impact on animals, as billions of animals are caught up in a cruel system of farming, trapping, skinning and slaughter each year. A great deal of brutality has been discovered in the trade in leather, wool, down, cashmere, mohair and fur. The fashion industry makes use of rabbits, mink, goats, foxes, crocodiles, alpacas, llamas, kangaroos, dogs and cats.
What can we do to avoid waste, avoid the environmental costs and avoid adding to the profits of the giants of the fashion industry?
Ethical fashion brands
And what of ethical fashion brands? There are an increasing number of ethical brands to buy from and so avoid contributing to unsustainable fashion. Their garments do far less damage to the environment and are ethical in various ways.
Mike Stanton referred to William Morris: “Victorian socialist, William Morris, campaigned against this waste of resources and the environmental damage it caused over 120 years ago. Morris hated ugliness and shoddy workmanship. His passion was for beauty and good craftmanship.” Many of the ethical firms would approve this statement, hoping their products will become known for beauty and good craftsmanship, as well as being good choices for anyone trying to live according to ethical principles. Unlike high street fashion, ethical clothing brands do not cut corners but concentrate on fair wages, workers’ rights, such as pay and working conditions, transparency, sustainable fabrics, the impact on the planet, animal welfare and durability. However, this can result in their new garments being more expensive.
The number of ethical clothing companies has grown and continues to grow and choices can seem a little daunting. They may charge slightly more, though that will probably change as more people use them, but their clothes are likely to be more durable and you may well need fewer items in your wardrobe. This growing section of the fashion industry is the result of increased consumer demand, as more and more people become increasingly worried about the future of the planet.
Ethical consumerism is not an answer to rampant global capitalism. It is an individualist approach to a global problem. Much like climate change we should do what we can as individuals to improve a bad situation, but the changes necessary to save the planet and have a sustainable future, regardless of what part of the globe you live in, require collective action.
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