It’s London fashion week once again. For the fourth year, there’ll be a special exhibition dedicated to ethical fashion, Estethica and, for the first time, there’s also an on-schedule sustainable fashion catwalk.
Since I first started learning about the ethical issues in the garment industry in the late 90s, much has changed. War on Want, Action Aid and Labour Behind the Label’s work have ensured big coverage in the mainstream press of the sweatshop-like conditions suffered by the people making our clothes. At the same time, there are more designers starting up ethical fashion labels, and companies, such as People Tree have a higher profile than ever before.
While all these developments are worth celebrating, let’s not forget that ethical fashion is still very much a tiny proportion of the clothing bought and sold in the UK every year. Fair and sustainable fashion is still very much a niche, rather than a set of principles adopted by everyone in the fashion and clothing industry. For the majority of workers making our garments, hardly anything has changed at all.
So why, despite the fact that more consumers profess to care about ethical issues, and sustainable consumption is higher on the agenda than ever before, has so little progress been made?
This is obviously a huge question that can’t possibly be answered fully in a short blog, but I’ve had a few thoughts on the matter. When I first learned about gender issues, back in the eighties, I learned about the difference between sex and gender, and how what it means to be a woman (as opposed to what it means to be female) is socially constructed. This means that what it is to be a woman is fluid over time, and across cultures.
In the past twenty years, I’ve seen this change first-hand. What it means to be a woman in 2010 seems to be even more artificially constructed than it ever was when I was a teenager. As well as copious amounts of make-up, and the old rituals of hair removal, hair dying and dieting, there are other things too. There’s tanning, more extreme diets, fitness regimes, surgical and non-surgical procedures, and ever-more expensive cosmetics and creams. How women appear to others (not just men, but to other women) matters more now than it ever did. What’s considered to be feminine is actually so far from our natural state that even icons such as Cheryl Cole and Kate Moss have to spend an inordinate amount of time, money (and airbrushing) to fit the mould.
Then there’s the idea that our clothes are an integral part of our identity. What we choose to wear, at work and at play, says so much about who we are, rather than just being items to cover our bodies.
But what’s the harm in all this, you might think? Well, for those of us (and I include myself, because I’m not resistant to the pressure either), who buy into the ‘beauty myth’, the costs might seem minor, but they add up. Firstly, there’s the financial cost. Cosmetics, clothes, procedures, and diet and fitness regimes all cost money, and the industries behind them rake in millions of pounds every year. An online survey found that women in the UK collectively spent £6 billion every year on clothes, shoes and accessories that they’ll never even wear.
Then, there’s the amount of time that it all takes. Apparently, the average woman will spend 287 days of her life “rifling through” her wardrobe and deciding what to wear. Add to that the time spent shopping (8 years of our life according to a Mail article), and the time taken to have beauty treatments and to put on (and remove) make-up. That’s our lives we’re wasting away. What a force we could be if, collectively, we put that time and energy into trying to really change things.
And finally, and here I return to the issue of labour rights, there’s the cost to the women who are making our clothes. The majority of workers in garment factories are women. They don’t have the luxury of spending hours deciding what to wear. Instead, they’ll often work ten hour days, six days a week, even in factories that are sticking to ethical trade guidelines. That’s not a lot of time to spend with the family, or to enjoy any of the leisure activities that we take for granted.
Financially, they won’t have the spare cash to spend on new outfits. In fact, most of them struggle to feed their children. Even companies that stipulate an ethical code for their suppliers will not commit to paying their workers a living wage. This is the issue that campaigners, such as Labour Behind the Label, say is key, and yet the one that companies are least likely to engage with. Even the Daily Mail is behind the idea of a living wage after journalist Liz Jones visited the slums of garment workers in Bangladesh; in the summer it launched a petition challenging high street brands to add just 80p to a pair of £20 jeans so that workers could earn a living wage.
Meanwhile, whatever a company says about its ethics, it’s virtually impossible to do business ethically, while at the same time demanding factories fulfill fast turnarounds at the lowest prices.
As far as I see it, all of these things are linked. The current obsession with a woman’s appearance, and the societal pressure from the media (and from us), all facilitate fast fashion and the way that companies currently do business. Why should they move away from fast fashion when it’s so ingrained in our culture today? A few isolated ethical fashion labels aren’t going to be enough to change the business practices of everyone else. We need a complete seismic shift in our society, away from the emphasis on how a woman looks. Perhaps then, companies will be able to fully move away from fast fashion and towards a fairer way of treating the people who produce our clothes.
What you can do
The good news is that we can ALL work towards a change.
- Join campaigns calling for workers to be paid a living wage: Labour Behind the Label Love fashion, hate sweatshops
- Resist the urge to buy a new outfit for every special occasion.
- Support women who are trying not to fit the mould and suppress the desire to criticise other women for the way they look.
- Write to women’s magazines and tell them that you don’t like their obsession with diets, women’s appearance and fast fashion.
- Support the Fairtrade fashion labels when you can, and choose clothes that flatter you, instead of styles that will go out of fashion quickly.
- Discover clothing labels that manufacture in the UK.
- Be prepared to pay more. Good quality clothing that lasts makes good financial sense in the long run.
- Keep a log of all the time you spend choosing outfits, shopping for clothes you don’t need, or indulging in beauty routines that you can live without. Then work out if you’re happy with this, or what you could do with the time instead.
- Instead of buying new try second-hand, charity and vintage shops. Or why not host a clothes swaps party with your friends?