Words on Ethical Fashion

By Phillipa Horner, Feb 2009

Defra’s Sustainable Action Clothing Plan – A step towards the future or a step further into delusional propaganda and false hopes?
Organic, Fair trade, Recycling. These are the exciting words getting thrown around London and in particular, London’s latest Fall/Winter Fashion Week by Dafra. They have the launch of Estethica; a showcase of ethical designer fashion. There are also promises being made by Mark & Spencer, Oxfam, Tesco, and the Fair Trade Foundation to strive for more sustainable practises in the fashion industry. There is a lot of talk of increasing the use of fair trade cotton, and organic clothing. London Fashion Week will be cutting back on extravagant after parties, and the government have put 40,000 pounds into the event stating that “it is good for London”. 
However, in a recent article by Professor Kate Fletcher (author of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles) she brings up the point that really, Defra are only “scratching the surface” of the possibilities. 
Now personally, London has always been my favourite city when it comes to fashion – Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Zac Posen, to mention my top three. Generally speaking they tend to be less “trend” orientated and more enthralled by concepts, art and principals of design - which in my mind is what fashion really means. It is art; art is the exploration of what beauty is to an individual, once you throw it together with trends and money, etc, can we still call it art? In other words, how many times does the world need to see Dior’s “New Look” go in and out of the “fashion cycle” before it becomes redundant? For anyone who isn’t sure of what a fashion cycle is, it is simply the journey of a trend/style from creation, to the rich, to the stores, and finally to the sale racks. 
One of the main issues in relation to sustainable practises is the combination of these fashion cycles with technology. In fashion class we would discuss the movement from the 1950s' synthetic materials to the 1980’s with the economic boom and westernisation, to now with the internet, satellites, globalisation, etc. My teacher’s eyes would shine enthusiastically explaining to us, “All these improvements allow us to design and create so much more quickly and get our product out there. It opens us up to a wider consumer group which then increases demand.” 
At the time, truthfully, I had been impressed - I was fourteen. But now, I look back before my time – to when designers and shops would only come out with new collections twice a year: winter and summer.  You would have the anticipation of the upcoming season and dream of the wonderful things to expect. You would save as much as you could and go with your mother and if you were lucky, you would get a few new sets of clothing that you would adore for months, even years to come. 
Now, clothing passes through stores with little notice. We have come to expect to see new things in stores every couple of months or less, we walk around, bored. Shop assistants' product knowledge is limited because there are so many and varied new products and most of the designs are suspiciously reminiscent of designer labels, ripped off by someone who got a degree in fashion and works for a shop like Top Shop, Sportsgirl or Cue. 
The cycles in the fashion world are vital in the way that we live because humans need change; some form of stimulus. We are no longer nomads, we are a capitalist driven “well-off society” - we have our houses, earn tidy sums of money and therefore have plenty of time to fuss over our tastes. It’s only natural that we fall into turning a functional requirement such as clothing into a form of novelty, eye candy; a status symbol and a medium for self-expression.
So really, technology has brought us ‘fast fashion’ – trends lasting only a few months, creating a shorter fashion cycle for individual trends which produces more waste when the trend ‘dies’. It is out with the old and in with the shiny, brand spanking new.  
So what do people do when they do not want something anymore? Of course this brings us to re-using, re-cycling both key ingredients in sustainable clothing. This is where it gets tricky, because it could be pushed further than this.  
Our beloved technology, teamed with greedy businessmen and their constant “increases in profits” should be setting off warning sirens in our heads. Generations become increasingly technologically savvy; my own niece could use the internet to play on a Disney website by the age of three. We become accustomed to this ever-growing pace. So even if we are re-using/re-cycling a percentage of what we produce, does that solve our problems?
There is no stopping the technology train. It will continue to steam along, fuelled by consumerism. There are some that say we should stop the whole charade. No more “fashion”, whatever that means to someone. But I love fashion, perhaps not for the same reasons as many, but I love it. And it is only a slice of the “what’s-wrong-with-the-world” cake.  Fashion, like art, represents history, growth, change, culture. It can reflect a generation’s view on what life means to them. Why would anyone want to take away the opportunity for us now to have our own place in history? If we say the right thing. 
Obviously, I have my own views on how to make fashion more sustainable - such as: 
  • Slow down the fashion cycles  so that stores only create new collections twice a year summer and winter.
  • Invest in clothes recycling centres - dividing the main fabrics such as cotton and wool etc; to have it mulched and ready for spinning and weaving.
  • Clothing manufacturers should use a percentage of re-used/re-cycled material (because let’s face it, most trends are only altered retro designs) 
  • Governments should pass legislations so that companies are following more ethical and environmentally friendly methods of production, including fair trade agreements and the use of more organic materials (just as they have Occupational Health and Safety laws to protect humans there should be Environmental Safety laws). 
  • All young people from primary school to high school should have more opportunities to learn how to sew – it is a basic human skill so there is no reason not to know how to.
  • The media should campaign to encourage people not to throw away clothing but to donate it, swap it with others, bring it to vintage clothing stores.  Or even to alter and create something new (check out “Born Again Vintage” by Bridgett Artise), promote hand-made crafts, clothing, etc (websites like www.etsy.com, www.madeit.com.au). 
There are many more idealised solutions that will probably never happen on a grand scale. Naturally there need to be more graspable notions set in place, more than Dafra have proposed. 
Some more minor changes have occurred. A few months later from London’s fashion week, was Los Angeles fashion week, which also promised the introduction of more ethical fashion elements. Australia has its first “eco-friendly” fashion magazine, Pepper Mint. I feel as though these are small changes, nice, but in no way sufficient and we should not stop there. Eco-fashion is still being constructed as a niche market, just like “health foods” and “organic products”. They are being side-lined, and are usually expensive. The designs, generally speaking, are way too safe- sometimes terrible (though this is a matter of opinion). Designers, dress makers, artists, artisans alike should all see the possibilities that lie ahead for eco-friendly fashion and not be afraid to create something avant-garde. 
We cannot rely on individual parts of our society; the government, businesses, designers or ourselves - each party needs to contribute to start a proper reflection on our time in history -
A time of change; a time to show that ethical fashion is fashion forward.