Just as I’ve been a bit oblivious about where my groceries come from, I’ve also been unaware of where the clothing I purchase originates. A quick glance at the label reveals the geographical origin of a garment, but it tells nothing about the treatment and payment of those who gather the raw materials or stitch the garment together.
Defining Ethical Fashion
In an effort to change my buying habits and become a more conscious consumer I’ve started to research where and how I can acquire ethically made clothing, shoes, and accessories. Organizations such as ActionAid, Labour Behind the Label, and War on Want are working for greater equity and transparency in the fashion industry. However, buying ethically made clothes seems shrouded by a lack of accurate information from manufacturers and a myriad of definitions for the term “ethical”.
The Guardian’s Ethical Fashion Directory (2008) distinguishes between Fairtrade clothing, which is either made using Fairtrade cotton or is manufactured in a Fairtrade factory; clothing that is produced in the UK, which reduces the carbon footprint of the clothing and is significantly less likely to exploit workers; clothing that is made from organic cotton, which uses natural pesticides and causes less damage to the environment; recycled clothing, which refers not only to second hand clothing, but also to clothing made from recycled materials; clothing made from sustainable materials such as wool and hemp; and vegan clothing, which is made without animal products. In these categories “ethical” seems to refer either to clothing made using environmentally sustainable practices or clothing made by people who are being paid a fair wage and in safe conditions, with greater attention paid to the former.
The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) uses the International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work to inform its model code of conduct for companies that wish to become more ethical in their business practices. According to the CCC, “sweatshop abuses are a systemic problem – there are no companies that are totally clean or totally dirty” (Full Package Approach to Labour Codes of Conduct, 3) and suggests that these systemic abuses can be reduced by employing a comprehensive code of conduct that is perpetually monitored. Ethical, according to the CCC, means that garment workers maintain freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, have the right to collective bargaining, are not forced into labour, have a maximum number of hours they can work, are ensured health and safety on the working premises, are paid a living wage, are ensured security of employment, and the factories that employ them do not discriminate or employ children (Full Package Approach to Labour Codes of Conduct, 5). Personally, I would like to know first and foremost that the people who have made my clothes are being treated fairly and are paid a living wage, but I also find it important to consider the impact the clothes I wear might have on the environment.
I started this post thinking it would be a simple “to do” list of places to shop and not shop, but I’ve found that purchasing ethical clothing is not so neatly cut. I was surprised to learn that the CCC does not recommend boycotting companies that violate labour rights as this can cost garment workers their jobs should the company abruptly cease sourcing their goods from a particular factory or country (Clean Clothes, “FAQ”).
Let’s Go Shopping
So where does this leave me? After living a full year in London on one income my husband and I have a few pieces of clothing that have more holes than are reasonable to mend and others that are actually a bit thread bare. We are definitely on the look out for some new pieces of clothing. Based on my research, there are a few ways that we can go about purchasing items with ethics in mind. The first, and this might sound surprising, is to continue to shop at some of our favourite stores. The CCC’s Let’s Clean Up Fashion Report grades some of the most popular retailers according to their efforts to alleviate poverty wages within their supply chain and suggests that we “encourage big companies who are doing more to improve workers’ rights, to keep doing it” (CCC, Where Should I Shop?). A quick glance at the report reveals that one of my favourite retailers, H&M, is doing very little to ensure living wages throughout their supply chain, while the Arcadia Group, whose brands include TopShop, has evidenced a greater commitment to alleviating poverty wages. Based on this information I can choose to support the companies who display a commitment to a solid code of conduct and increasing the rights and wages of garment workers. From a North American perspective, the GoodGuide rates retailers of clothing and other products and breaks down their ratings based on environmental sustainability and social responsibility. I find it interesting that H&M appears to be a slightly more ethical choice in this guide than in the Let’s Clean Up Fashion Report, which is why it is important to remain critical and inquisitive when using these guides and examining corporate policies.
The second option is to purchase clothing from independent retailers who are openly committed to ethical and Fairtrade products, such as People Tree. I’ve already mentioned The Guardian’s Ethical Fashion Directory (2008), which provides a comprehensive list of such shops in the UK. For my Canadian friends, sadly, there are no comprehensive lists, and Googling “ethical fashion” pulls up very little, although the GoodGuide appears to list some ethically focused companies in North America.
Regardless of whether I shop on the high street or in the ethical boutique it’s important that I remain aware and critical of how companies present themselves. In particular, be on the lookout for greenwashing, a term I’ve recently added to my ethical consumer lexicon. Greenwashing is a marketing device used to portray a company as “green”, “eco-conscious”, or “ethical” when, in fact, their corporate values or code of conduct reveal little or no regard for the environment or social responsibility (“Can ‘ethical’ and ‘fashion’ really sit together?”).
Of course, I can also choose to hit up the charity shops and see if I might be able to find that coveted “new” cardigan second hand although reviews are a bit mixed about whether or not this does anything to help garment workers. However, donating used clothing and shopping second hand decreases the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills where, if the clothing is synthetic, it will not decompose and, if the clothing is made from natural fibres, it produces methane as it decomposes, which contributes to global warming.
Do I Really Need It?
The Boston Review recently assembled a forum on using ethical consumption for social change in which Richard M. Locke suggests that ethical shopping fails to address “the underlying patterns of consumption in advanced economies that drive unhealthy and exploitative business practices” (Systemic, Global Change). By constantly reaching for the latest styles we perpetuate a system that is harmful to garment workers. My personal response to this is to think long and hard about how I build my wardrobe. As I “refresh” my wardrobe in the coming months I’d like to invest in clothes that are a bit more classic, meaning that their style changes very little over time (think pea coats, boots, jeans), and that are also of higher quality. This will increase the lifespan of my clothing, ensuring that I can spend less time in the shops looking for the latest styles or replacing items that have quickly worn out. In the aforementioned article, Locke suggests that “the volatility in consumer markets […] can only be managed through a set of business practices that inevitably leads to excess working hours, low wages, and unhealthy working conditions for millions.” By refusing to take part in a system that insists that we need the latest styles each season, it is possible to decrease that market volatility, although significant change can only occur if this is to be taken up by a majority. However, as the Hummingbird says in Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment, “I’m doing what I can.”
Beyond making informed decisions about where and how I spend my money I can also take action by adding my voice to campaigns and writing letters to companies and organizations, encouraging them to work harder to ensure fair treatment of garment workers. Labour Behind the Label is currently running “A Sweat Free Olympics” campaign in conjunction with PlayFair2012. This is a letter campaign imploring sportswear giants Adidas, Nike, and Pentland to make some serious changes regarding their labour rights violations in the countdown to the 2012 Olympics. Labour Behind the Label also has a letter writing campaign imploring Gap and H&M to deliver a living wage. In the UK, War on Want is also trying to get the issue of sweatshop exploitation raised in parliament, by asking us to express our concern to MPs. Lastly, the Ethical Trading Initiative has a simple list of five things you can do to become an ethical pest.
Awareness of the issues and their complexity is the first step, followed by making small changes to the way we think about consumption and the items we purchase, and raising our voices to encourage change on a larger scale. As the Hummingbird suggests, it’s important that we each do what we can. Little actions can lead to big changes!