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Time to Bring On the Ethical Fashion


As more and more people are becoming conscious of unjust trade conditions for some of our supermarket goods and the dodgy chemicals in our food, a significant few are also aware of the overuse of chemicals used to produce the clothes that we wear. In fact, there are some truly dodgy facts and figures behind the fashion produce that consumers in the West rarely get to hear of.

More than any other material, cotton is probably the most common fibre to be found in our wardrobes. Best known for its soft, natural and comfortable feel, in reality there is a far more thorny issue hiding behind this soft-touch crop. Despite its ‘natural’ image, cotton is actually one of the most environmentally damaging crops grown in the world as it is routinely sprayed with a heavier cocktail of pesticide poisons than regular agricultural crops. Cotton textiles also depend on the labour of many resource poor farmers in developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 20,000 people in developing countries die every year from poisoning by agricultural pesticides; whilst 3 million suffer acute or reproductive after effects.

“The plight of individuals who make our clothes worldwide is appalling. Many of these workers do not earn enough to cover their living expenses, and they always bear the burden of any pressure exerted by the retailer for cheaper goods,” says Linda Row from London-based fashion company Eco Clothworks.

Synthetic textiles too, like polyester and nylon, are extremely damaging to the environment. According to Ethical Consumer magazine, over 50% of nitrous oxide emissions in the UK come from nylon production. PVC contains chlorine, and even viscose and rayon – which, at first sight might seem ecological since they’re made out of cellulose from trees, but in reality cause damage to the environment as the wood pulp used in the manufacture of viscose is processed with huge amounts of acid chemicals.

The wholesome alternatives
Thankfully, however, decent alternatives do increasingly begin to appear on the market. For example, ever more organic cotton is manufactured from organically grown cotton plants, where no chemical pesticides or fertilisers are used to grow it and the final cloth is unbleached and dyed with natural plant dyes. Organisations such as the Pesticide Action Network UK, who set up the ‘The Cotton Project’, work to ensure that the development of organic cotton production is increasingly supported with some great benefits. Today, the organic cotton market is capable of offering major opportunities to some farmers who are obtaining higher yields than conventional farmers.

“At a time when the ‘GM miracle’ is being touted as the panacea to all problems, it is timely to be reminded that there is a more rational, proven and time-tested alternative to death and debt,” says PAN UK’s Cotton project Officer, Simon Ferrigno. “Organic production leads to higher incomes for farmers and their families, improved health, the ability to grow multiple food and cash crops and thus improve food security. It reduces the dependency of farmers and developing countries on expensive, untested external technology, building their capacity to manage and solve their own problems, developing new skills to engage with international markets and increasing opportunities for sustainable poverty reduction.”

Another solution is to switch to alternative crops, such as hemp, which is a viable alternative for hundreds of different products that are currently derived from petrochemicals. Hemp is one of the most amazing eco-friendly plants and an incredible natural resource as every part of the plant can be utilised. It requires little or no chemical pesticides and it actually replenishes the soil it is grown in. Hemp also grows extremely fast, so it’s an excellent crop in terms of productivity. Its wearability and natural style have also made it a favoured textile for major fashion businesses such as Giorgio Armani and Adidas.

Organic wool is another respectable option that looks great when dyed with organic plant dyes or left in naturally unbleached shades. Even some synthetic fabrics offer great eco-benefits, such as the eco-spun fortrel – a high performance, fully washable fleece made from recycled soda bottles, (the process integrates the molten liquid from melted plastic bottles that is spun to produce fine fibres, and finally spun into a durable fleece fabric). A great alternative to PVC is cotton-backed polyurethane, which looks like PVC, but is much kinder to both the environment and the wearer. However, the greenest fashion choice of all is arguably to buy recycled and vintage clothes.

An issue of fashion
The fashion industry has seemed particularly slow to follow an encouraging trend of ethical and environmental policies that are appearing in many other sectors of big business, and the majority of labelled clothing is still made in third-world sweatshops under highly unethical standards. However, with organic, fair trade clothing ranges gradually emerging in the clothes racks in major stores, such as Harrods, and the support of designers old and new, such as Katherine Hamnett, ever-increasing attention is being paid to the ethics behind the labels.

Besides, buying the eco or ethical option is no longer considered just a luxury. With an ever-growing variety of products that are attractive, innovative and affordable, there is really no longer any valid excuse even for the regular high-street shopper not to consider this more soulful alternative. If you can afford it then designer Katherine Hamnett makes fantastic clothes with organic, natural components and without sweatshop labour. For cheaper alternatives it’s merely a matter of doing your research before buying. Also, with a growing network of an online ethical fashion and design commerce, it really couldn’t be any easier to indulge in some clothing that doesn’t cost the earth.

Fashion’s answer to environmental lobbyists has always been “it’s not cost effective”. However, this argument is no longer as well founded as it might once have been. A brilliant example is Conscious Earthwear who make cutting-edge sports and urbanwear from recycled and natural fibres. Set up seven years ago by designer Sarah Ratty, the company has rapidly expanded and currently exports to twelve countries worldwide as well as selling beside top designers in Selfridges. Harrods bought the first collection and the V&A Costume Museum has snapped up subsequent designs, and the garments have been featured in both American and British Vogue. However, the truly outstanding thing about the company is its environmental and ethical stance.

Despite the extra costs these decisions have initially entailed, the company has obviously thrived, and its success will surely turn round some cynical key-players in the fashion industry. If companies like Conscious Earthwear can do it, others will soon be forced to follow the ethical line.

A quick guide to ethical shopping online:

The Natural Collection catalogue is a range of eclectic, unusual, useful and interesting products carefully chosen to inspire ideas towards a sustainable future. Offers a range of Eco clothing such as Hemp clothing.

Silverchilli is a brilliant online company that exports its jewellery from Mexico and adheres to Fair Trade standards. There is some great jewellery on sale for well within your means, starting at around a fiver.

The Chandni Chowk is flying the flag for fair trade fashion with style as well as quality. Specializing in hand-spun and hand-woven fabrics and hand-block printing. Slogan “Banish the “look-alike” blues of mass production and enjoy clothes made by and for people who care”.

Greenfibres is a mail order clothing company dedicated to offering the consumer a totally organic option. All fabrics are fairly traded, and their designs are classic and timeless.

Planet Vision sell fashionable street designs and accessories for men, women and children. Clothes are made from organic cotton, linen and hemp.

People Tree’s Fair Trade and Ecology collection on line.

By Caroline Salomonsson

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