Chemmie Squier | Acting Fashion & Beauty Editor | Friday, 5 February 2016

Can We Actually Afford To Shop ‘Ethically’?

Can We Actually Afford To Shop ‘Ethically’?

The Debrief: To be honest, we can't afford not to...

I don’t know anyone who shops entirely ethically all of the time. I know I don’t. If I buy a dirt-cheap top do I consider how it came to be? Quite honestly, it’s rare that I do. Written down, this seems extremely selfish and ignorant – and I agree – but I know I’m not in the minority. There is a plethora of information available making the concept that it sometimes feels more questions are being raised than answered: what makes something ethical? Does spending more mean it’s ethical? (Not necessarily, by the way). Which shops can I buy in? What if I can’t afford to buy ethical items? It’s overwhelming.

For a start, there are many different facets of what makes something ‘ethical’ – human rights, environmental impact, animal welfare… But at it’s most basic, and according to the dictionary, something that is ethical is morally right or acceptable. In fashion terms, you’re essentially asking whether the item you’re buying is detrimental to the environment or exploiting a person or an animal? That’s not an easy question to answer, but apparently, we are starting to ask it. Baby steps, right?

According to the Ethical Consumer 2015 report, we’re continuing to support ethical products: the value of the ethical market has grown from £35 billion to £38 billion. After the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh in April 2013, which killed 1134 people and injured hundreds more, there was an international outcry and it served as a tragic wake-up call, leading to the creation of The Accord. Of course this was not the first disaster to fall at the feet of the fashion industry; in November 2012 a fire broke out in Dhaka, Bangladesh killing over 100 people and in September 2011 a fire in a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan killed 289.

There’s the environmental side too. Our addiction to ‘fast fashion’ is having a detrimental impact: according to the WWF one cotton t-shirt can use up to 2,700 litres of water and jeans about 11,000 litres. Not to mention the unsustainable ways in which some materials are manufactured. Oh, and those sequins you love? Basically an environmental shit storm. However, I’m not here to lecture – quite frankly, I’d only be lecturing myself – but these are all things worth remembering when you’re purchasing goods.

Shopping ethically or responsibly might seem more difficult, most obviously because of money. Ethical fashion brands will often have a higher price tag because they’re simply not made on the same scale as a big high street retailer so the production costs are higher. To make matters worse, we’ve adjusted our expectations: we expect great clothes for next to no money, and that’s pretty greedy. ‘Ethical fashion seems expensive because we've become used to buying clothing which is priced based on the exploitation of cheap overseas labour. Only around 1-2% of the final value of a mass-produced garment is spent on wages,’ Bryony, clothing researcher at Ethical Consumer, explains. ‘Actually, the price of ethical fashion is often a more realistic price for an item of clothing. There aren't many ethical fashion CEOs getting rich… On the high street it's a different story.’ Which is good to know, but it doesn’t help when it feels like your pay packet is a preventing you from buying ethically. 

Except it doesn’t have to.

How about simply not buying something in the first place? Wrap found that the average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes and around 30% of our wardrobe hasn’t been worn for at least a year. This is exactly why initiatives like The Six Items Challenge, which incidentally begins on 10th February where, you guessed it, you wear the same six items of clothing for six weeks and Uniform Project exist. So the argument that you can’t afford to shop ethically? Actually kind of BS. And I’m just as guilty as you are.

Being a conscious consumer and only buying clothing when you need them, won’t cost you extra. In fact, you’ll probably save money. ‘I only buy stuff when I need it and then I will actively source the item. Local brands are more likely to have better manufacturing practices,’ Tiffanie Chia, founder of COSUDE which is trying to crowdsource a way to effectively approach ethical fashion, told me. 

‘I try to buy things that I can wear throughout the year, that last and that I can afford,’ Mary Hanlon, PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and co-founder of Social Alterations, explains. Buying second hand clothes is another way to be more sustainable, but is self-defeating if you’re still buying hundreds of pieces of clothing from charity shops so stay aware of quantity.

High street retailers do seem to be trying to help the cause though. The ASOS Green Room groups together sustainable fashion and beauty brands (with a helpful glossary) and H&M have their Conscious Collection. Catarina Midby, H&M’s Sustainability Manager, told me their long term plan: for all of their production to be sustainable for current as well as future generations and that they have ‘conscious cotton goals, which states that all the cotton we use should come from sustainable sources, by 2020’. They even have ‘clever care’ - a labelling system (which incidentally, Stella McCartney helped launch) to help customers reduce their footprint they’ve purchased an item because washing, drying and ironing accounts for 36% of the total environmental impact of an average garment during its life. Marks & Spencer have a ‘plan’ too, specifically Plan A to help reduce the negative impact of fashion.

Remember, companies have to give consumers what they want to stay alive, so let’s keep on telling them. ‘I don’t think people should stop buying from fast fashion brands, but advocate that they should do better and respond to consumers. These brands should be effecting change and consumers should be pushing them to change,’ says Tiffanie. Mary echoes this, ‘Often we hear activists within supplier countries asking people not to stop buying these products. Instead, raise your voice and be our ally in this struggle.’ Because if the heavyweights in the retail industry won’t budge, it’s going to be a little bit difficult to get widespread change. ‘The single most important thing you can do is use your consumer power to reach out to companies. If they've done something good, let them know and if you find out they aren't doing so well, pester them and tell them you'll take your business elsewhere unless they change,’ says Bryony. With reports like Mintel’s 2015 consumer trends, showing that company policies, such as the ethical treatment of workers (44%) and environmental policies (33%), have a significant influence on consumers, they know they’re going to have to change. 

And you know what else? You could even forget about the actual ‘buying’ part for now. ‘What’s important is pulling back on the ‘afford’ part - you don’t have to buy ethical fashion to talk about ethical fashion,‘ says Mary. Helping to support a sustainable industry doesn’t have to be about spending money. Instead, have the conversation; talk to your friends and family and colleagues about it, go to community events, talk to local government. ‘Rather than thinking about what we buy, we should think about what we do with our own voices; how we engage with our government and with these companies, ’ Mary tells me. Because supporting ethical and sustainable fashion doesn’t have to cost the earth, or anything at all, but not doing it probably will.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

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Tags: Fashion Questions