To even begin to define the term ‘ethical fashion’ sends my mind spiralling through endless lists and rhetorical questions. Where would I even start? In what way do we define ethical? And where is the difference between ‘fashion’, ‘shopping and ‘consuming’. It seems no matter where you look, everyone has their own idea of what ethical fashion is, so is remarkably difficult to get a straight forward answer.
Answering this question is definitely a process, but to begin I want to pull together a few trusted definitions and outline which areas are important to focus on.
Firstly, the Oxford dictionary defines ‘ethical’ as ‘relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these’. Here lies our first problem because the boundaries of morality seem to shift on a daily basis; minimum wage, working conditions, the use of fossil fuels as an energy source, the dangers of cotton farming etc. Each day we are discovering the good and bad side of common practises, which means what was morally acceptable yesterday, could be found to be detrimental to economy or health today.
The Victoria & Albert museum in London defines ‘ethical fashion’ as ‘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.’ This is definitely an explanation I can get on board with although I think it has missed a fundamental issue; economics. Until we adapt the global economic system we live by, there is no incentive to stop consuming.
Finally, Sass Brown of Eco Fashion Talk describes sustainability as ‘the conservation of life through ecological balance – human, animal, vegetable and planetary. A self-sustaining system is a system that does not take more from the environment than it gives back ; it does not deplete resources, but sustains itself. (…) In clothing, it means sourcing and production that do not pollute through the process of manufacture and do not deplete non-renewable resources, whether those are planetary or human’.
These definitions are only the tip of the iceberg. They mostly focus on the life of a garment until it exchanges hands with the consumer, but the responsibility doesn’t end there. The size of our wardrobes have spiralled out of control, the way in which we care for our clothes uses more energy than say fifty years ago, it is time now for serious change. But where should we begin?
In trying to find a ‘true’ definition of ‘ethical fashion’ I will focus on three key categories:
From the effect fertiliser has on cotton farmers to factory workers across the world, I want to look at what impact the industry has on human rights.
The environmental factor is probably the most known or discussed until quite recently. Environmental factors encompass everything from farming and producing fabric, the effect of dyes, animal rights, transporting garments, trading costs, caring for garments and finally disposing of clothes.
Economical responsibility is by far the most important, as it directly impacts environmental and human ethics, but is also the most difficult to make real change. Poor working conditions and a massive carbon footprint are ultimately a result of an economic squeeze. When a consumer wants to pay less and buy more, the knock on effect profound across the board. However, if we remove the sale of a garment, this also impacts negatively on business for manufacturers and farmers alike.
With fast fashion and over consumption at the heart of Western habits, what happens to the clothes dumped after a seasons wear? It is not only has a massive environmental impact, but is also having a negative effect on the economies of countries where the clothes are ‘donated’.
Economical factors surrounding ethical fashion are probably the most multi-faceted and profound that I want to take a much closer look into how this is affecting the industry and our global economy.