I’ve always loved clothes, as soon as I was old enough to go into town with my friends I would go in practically every weekend and get a cosmetic high from buying some new clothing. Once I was old enough to get an allowance from my parents my Mum immediately said how I would spend a lot more on clothes than my siblings. Personally I think that’s because I’m more stylish then my siblings (as you can see in the photo!). She was right though, I had always enjoyed buying new clothes and I loved the high that doing so gave me.
Exposure to another culture however, shook that love. In 2015 I spent three months in Tanzania, where I grew to know many families out there. It became the norm to see people every day who were always dressed in the same set of clothes which were often filthy and torn. I became so used to seeing this that it wasn’t until I returned home and dumped all the clothes I owned in the middle of my room, forming a mountain of clothes, that I realised the injustice in the world. We have so much here in the west while people in countries all over the world have so little. Excess, unnecessary and lavish: we don’t need so much.
Why Should I Care?
I knew I wanted to change my lifestyle in response to the injustice I’d witnessed, but how? Amongst the many questions I’ve asked myself since returning was; what impact does the production of clothes have on people’s lives in countries less off than ours and the environment? As I began to research into the clothing industry and the effect the clothes we buy have on the world I discovered a mountain under what I thought was a mole hill. The clothing industry is a 3 trillion dollar industry worldwide and in 2016 UK consumers spent 57 billion pounds on clothes. A money driven industry has caused retailers to push many important issues to the back of their priority list: people are being underpaid or not paid at all, forced to work excessively long hours and in inhumane conditions. Here are some of the reasons I’ve found which have made me want to shop more consciously for clothes:
- Many retailers are able to change their stock with a click of their fingers. There are no longer just four seasons of clothing ranges, as retailers want to be able to change their stock to adjust to changing trends or the weather in order to capitalise on profits. The factories then force factory workers to work inhumanly long hours in order to complete their orders.
- There is a race to the bottom going on among retailers. A race to see who can make their clothing the cheapest way possible:
“When the stores are coming to us for an order and negotiating. They are saying, ‘Look, that particular store is selling that shirt with like five dollars so I need to sell it in the four dollars. So you better squeeze your price.’ So we are squeezing. Then other store is coming and saying, ‘Hey, they are selling it for four dollars so the target price is three dollars…otherwise you are not getting the business.’ Because we want the business so badly and we don’t have other options, OK. Every time we are trying to survive.”
Arif Jebtik, Garment Factory Owner, The True Cost 2015
- The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, with some claiming it is the second most, second only to the oil industry. Amongst many other statistics the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the total carbon emissions in the world and 90% of dye factories and textile factories release their waste directly in to fresh water supplies in developing countries.
- 75% of our clothes contain cotton and 65% of the world’s cotton is produced in countries where forced labour exists. One of the worst of these is Uzbekistan where every year around a million people are forced from their jobs into the cotton fields. 100 years ago cotton picking was done by the hands of slaves and over a century later, although the masters have changed, not much else has. The shirt you are wearing right now may have been made through this slavery. Is it not better to make sure this has not happened?
- On 24th April 2013, an eight story building-named Rana Plaza-containing five garment factories collapsed just outside of Dhaka the capital of Bangladesh. The morning of the disaster workers on mass refused to enter the building due to large cracks in the factory walls. Despite this, the factory owner forced them into the building to work. More than 1100 workers died that day, the majority of whom where woman from the age of 18-21. This is the epitome of the inhumane working conditions that millions of people work in within the clothing industry all across the world.
For some people these reasons may be enough but on the other hand you may be thinking, “At least these people have jobs, there are worse things they could be doing”. I agree your clothes may not be made through slavery or in inhumane conditions but why not guarantee that they are not and go a step further and shop in a way which insures better working conditions and pay, where there is no forced labour and there is a desire to protect the environment?
If you have been challenged by any of the reasons bullet pointed above, then I’m going to talk you through a few ways of clothes shopping which take these aspects into consideration and a company (who are just one of many) whom ensures none of these actions go into the making of your clothes.
The most ethical clothing
The most ethical clothes are the ones you already have. So I’m afraid the best thing to do isn’t to go throw away all your clothes-which was my initial reaction when getting back from Tanzania- and start buying lots of new ethical ones! A piece of clothing which you already own won’t cost the environment anymore whiles buying a new piece is supporting the added impact on the environment and throwing away your clothes is just plain wasteful! Another of the best ways to shop ethically is charity shops. As well as getting a ‘new’ pre-loved piece of clothing you are supporting a good cause as the charity receive the profits from the sales.
Finally, there are vintage shops. Vintage shops now allow you to buy a piece of clothing you love that is second hand and still satisfy what seems to be an incessant need to spend lots of money! I joke of course, for me the whole idea behind ethical shopping is to lessen our environmental impact by buying less new clothing in order to fight our consumeristic culture which is fuelling a fast fashion industry which is riddled with the knock on effects I bullet pointed above.
H&M conscious collection
A year ago I discovered H&M Conscious collection and thought I’d found the easy solution to my ethical clothing dilemma. With a range of clothes in the conscious collection available at your nearest high street shop I suddenly became an H&M loyalist going there for any clothes I needed.
The conscious collection offers clothes which are 100% made from sustainable cotton meaning it is either made from cotton sourced under the Better Cotton Initiative, recycled or certified as organic. 43% of all of H&M’s cotton is classified as sustainable and they aim to reach 100% by 2020. Their aims are certainly ambitious but out of the high street shops they are leading the way in terms of sustainability.
H&M aim to ‘close the loop’ on fashion by recycling clothes, which you can do at any of their stores in the UK. All this sounds fantastic, and it is! In my opinion the conscious collection is your best high street option, although they are using better sources for their materials and trying to recycle they still lack a lot in the workers’ rights department. In February 2017 the findings of a report from the Centre for Research on Multinational-based organisation were posted on the gaurdian website. The report stated all kinds of workers’ rights violations in multiple H&M factories: people were being paid half of the minimum daily wage at just £1.06, several workers under the age of 15 were found and people were working excessive hours with forced and unpaid overtime.
As I took a step back and did some research into H&M, seeing how they still have a lot of humanitarian issues within their supply chain, I began to question their motives behind the conscious collection. Do they have this collection in order to lure in our generation, who are becoming more ‘conscious’ of the effects of what we consume have on the world around us, in order to draw in more sales? I had got carried away by the initial high of thinking the answer to my ethical clothing dilemma had been handed to me on a silver platter by H&M but after doing some research I soon realised that, although H&M’s conscious collection is a good step in the right direction, there are many better options out there.
This summer I was volunteering on a stand at a festival when this guy wearing a ‘leave only footprints’ t-shirt walked past. We got talking and he told me about the company based on the Isle of Wight who made his t-shirt, Rapunai. They are all about traceability and believe that the whole clothing industry should be transparent when it comes to how your clothes are made:
“Just as your crisps tell you they have high fat or salt content, or your light bulbs tell you if they’re efficient or not, we think the high street should clearly, honestly tell you how clothing is made.” Rapunai Website
It totally makes sense to me, people should be fully informed: about how their clothes are made, who made them, if they are getting paid a living wage and the impact that has on the environment. Rapunai believe people care; they just aren’t informed. So this is what they do, they are fully traceable. Each item of clothing has a QR code on the label which when you scan it take you to their interactive map.
‘From seed to shop’ Rapunai try to leave as little a carbon footprint as possible and ensure the best working conditions possible for the people in their supply chain. Their clothes are made in a factory in India which runs entirely on renewable energy powered by wind turbines. They willingly submit their factory and cotton farm to monitoring by third-party organisations in order to ensure fair pay and working conditions. The clothes are then shipped by sea, as it is more eco-friendly than flying, to Rapunai HQ on the Isle of Wight. Finally, one of their core values being to reduce unemployment amongst young people on the Isle of Wight, Rapunai have an apprenticeship scheme and have created 17 jobs for young people on the Island.
Rapunai are my favourite ethical clothing brand I have found so far (check out some other great ones here), everything I’ve read about them shows their passions and motives align with mine. From what I’ve seen in order to shop ethically for clothes you sometimes have to sacrifice style, but that is not the case with Rapunai. With these great styles, online shop and quick delivery I believe Rapunai, and other brands like them, have managed to provide a sustainable and fair alternative which can rival any high street shop.
The Instant Gratification Generation
We are the generation of contactless debit cards, of same day delivery Amazon Prime, of next episode in 5 seconds Netflix, we are the ‘Instant Gratification Generation’. We get drunk to have fun and can’t even remember it the next day. We live for quick thrills and clothes shopping has become one of them. However, from the people I see and speak to day to day I see a compassionate generation who want to live lives that aren’t harmful to the planet and that have a positive effect on people all around the world but aren’t aware of the effects their consumption has. When talking to my cousin about all of this stuff he wisely said, “Everyone would do it if it were easy.” I’ll admit it does require effort but with the amount of charity shops, vintage shops and companies like Rapunai around today it is easier than ever to shop for clothes ethically.