Ethical Fashion

'STAY ALIVE IN 85', T-shirt, Katherine Hamnett, 1984. Museum no. T.594-1996

'STAY ALIVE IN 85', T-shirt, Katherine Hamnett, 1984. Museum no. T.594-1996

Ethical Fashion is an umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.

Why is Ethical Fashion needed?

The high street clothing industry accounts for a massive share of Western retail. Every year, 100 million shoppers visit London's Oxford Street alone.

Globalisation means that materials and labour can be purchased in different parts of the world where costs are very low. Also, industrialised methods of growing cotton mean that fabrics can be produced quickly and cheaply, and in very large quantities. These savings are passed on to the customer, meaning that high street fashion is available at increasingly low prices, and much of it is regarded as disposable.

However, Ethical Fashionistas would argue that all this has a cost that we are not able to see on the price tag.

Some of the issues around Ethical Fashion

Ethical Fashion aims to address the problems it sees with the way the fashion industry currently operates, such as exploitative labour, environmental damage, the use of hazardous chemicals, waste, and animal cruelty.

  • Serious concerns are often raised about exploitative working conditions in the factories that make cheap clothes for the high street.
  • Child workers, alongside exploited adults, can be subjected to violence and abuse such as forced overtime, as well as cramped and unhygienic surroundings, bad food, and very poor pay. The low cost of clothes on the high street means that less and less money goes to the people who actually make them.
  • Cotton provides much of the world's fabric, but growing it uses 22.5% of the world's insecticides and 10% of the world's pesticides, chemicals which can be dangerous for the environment and harmful to the farmers who grow it. (Ethical Fashion Forum)
  • Current textile growing practices are considered unsustainable because of the damage they do to the immediate environment. For example, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk to just 15% of its former volume, largely due to the vast quantity of water required for cotton production and dying. (Ethical Fashion Forum)
  • Most textiles are treated with chemicals to soften and dye them, however these chemicals can be toxic to the environment and can be transferred to the skin of the people wearing them. Hazardous chemicals used commonly in the textile industry are: lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalates and formaldehyde. (Greenpeace)
  • The low costs and disposable nature of high street fashion means that much of it is destined for incinerators or landfill sites. The UK alone throws away 1 million tonnes of clothing every year. (Waste Online)
  • Many animals are farmed to supply fur for the fashion industry, and many people feel that their welfare is an important part of the Ethical Fashion debate. The designer Stella McCartney does not use either fur or leather in her designs. In an advert for the animal rights organisation PETA, she said: 'we address... ethical or ecological... questions in every other part of our lives except fashion. Mind-sets are changing, though, which is encouraging.'

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