Ethical Fashion is 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. Ethical fashion is needed now because the high street clothing industry accounts for a massive share of Western retail. Every year, 100 million shoppers visit London's Oxford Street alone.
Globalization means that materials and labor can be purchased in different parts of the world where costs are very low. Also, industrialized methods of growing cotton mean that fabrics can be produced quickly and cheaply, and in very large quantities. These savings are passed on to the customer, meaning that high street fashion is available at increasingly low prices, and much of it is regarded as disposable.
However, Ethical Fashionistas would argue that all this has a cost that we are not able to see on the price tag. Some issues that surround ethical fashion are that ethical fashion aims to address the problems it sees with the way the fashion industry currently operates, such as exploitative labor, environmental damage, the use of hazardous chemicals, waste, and animal cruelty. Serious concerns are often raised about exploitative working conditions in the factories that make cheap clothes for the high street. Child workers, alongside exploited adults, can be subjected to violence and abuse such as forced overtime, as well as cramped and unhygienic surroundings, bad food, and very poor pay. The low cost of clothes on the high street means that less and less money goes to the people who actually make them. Cotton provides much of the world's fabric, but growing it uses 22.5% of the world's insecticides and 10% of the world's pesticides, chemicals that can be dangerous for the environment and harmful to the farmers who grow it. Current textile growing practices are considered unsustainable because of the damage they do to the immediate environment. Most textiles are treated with chemicals to soften and dye them, however these chemicals can be toxic to the environment and can be transferred to the skin of the people wearing them. Hazardous chemicals used commonly in the textile industry are: lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalates and formaldehyde. The low costs and disposable nature of high street fashion means that much of it is destined for incinerators or landfill sites. The UK alone throws away 1 million tones of clothing every year.
Many animals are farmed to supply fur for the fashion industry, and many people feel that their welfare is an important part of the Ethical Fashion debate. The designer Stella McCartney does not use either fur or leather in her designs. In an advert for the animal rights organization PETA, she said: 'we address... ethical or ecological... questions in every other part of our lives except fashion. Mind-sets are changing, though, which is encouraging.'
London is such an ethical fashion centre now, with every main street store trying to be more organic and eco friendly than the next. The ethical fashion industry is making great progress in developing public awareness of fashion that is responsibly made. A number of businesses have sprung up to provide support and networking opportunities for producers. Others want to put pressure on businesses to provide good working conditions. Behind the Label is a campaign fighting for better working conditions for garment workers and encouraging consumers to ask for clothes which are eco friendly. One of its aims is to encourage shops to guarantee that all clothes sold in their shops are produced under fair conditions, including the right to a living wage, the right to organise, and safe and healthy working conditions. Fashioning an Ethical Industry is an educational project aimed at fashion college students and tutors. It’s a good way to help students improve the companies they will be working for. Their very accessible and interesting website provides a global overview of the garment industry, raises awareness of current practices and explains all the hot issues. The fact is that consumers have power: the more that we demand that the clothes we buy are made under decent conditions the more likely it is that retailers will respond. The more people ask questions the more retailers will feel that they need to pay attention to the issues.