Turn your wardrobe green…

I posted a feature last year about eco-fashion – the price of fashion on a shoestring, which I wrote for a web research unit in year one at uni. I just found my full interviews with PAN UK, BAFTS, EFF and HEMINGWAY DESIGN and thought that they may make some interesting and important reading, however please bear in mind that these interviews were conducted around two years ago so some information may be slightly out of date.

What does your charity/organisation do in promoting eco-fashion?

Ruth Beckmann, project information officer for the Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK): PAN UK has run an organic cotton project since 1994; it has supported cotton farmers in Africa to convert to organic cotton farming and, by working with retailers in the UK, has helped to massively increase the market for organic cotton over the last few years.  The latest phase of the project, ‘Wear Organic’ raises awareness with consumers and fashion designers.

Kate Meakin, membership support officer for British Association For Fair Trade Shops (BAFTS): We support the network of Fair Trade Shops on the UK high street and online so that they are in a stronger position to bring Fair Trade goods (and fashion) to the public.

Josie Nicholson for The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF): The Ethical Fashion Forum is a network of designers, businesses and organisations focusing upon social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. The EFF aims to reduce poverty and create sustainable livelihoods by supporting, promoting and facilitating innovative values led business practices within the garment industry.

Spokesperson for Hemingway Design (HEMINGWAY): We have worked with Traid, and consulted with People Tree, our previous company Red or Dead was a pioneer in this area.

Why do you think eco-fashion is important?

PAN UK: Fashion can have negative impacts on the environment in a number of ways, from waste to chemical pollution.  PAN UK’s focus is on promoting organic cotton, which avoids the use of polluting fertilizers and pesticides, and improves the health and livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world.  Farmers who convert to organic cotton farming usually find that not only does their health improve, but that their income goes up because they are not buying expensive chemicals (which can be up to 60% of production costs) and they get a better price for their cotton.

BAFTS: A lot of us make ethical choices when it comes to tea and coffee but this all goes out of the window when we see a dress for £5 or coat for £15. We love a bargain and when it comes to cheap clothes forget that someone always has to pay, and with these sorts of price tags it is the workers who are paying the biggest cost. Eco fashion and especially Fair Trade fashion is setting to work on some of the massive problems within the fashion industry and has an important role in a) advocating for the workers who are left voiceless in our current system and b) showing a good practice model where workers and their rights are respected, and you can still have lovely fashionable clothes.

EFF: With the majority of garment manufacture concentrated in some of the poorest parts of the world, the fashion industry represents an enormous opportunity to create sustainable livelihoods and to lift communities out of poverty. However, very little of the value of the industry is currently transferred to those who need it most. Poverty wages, unfair and unsafe conditions for garment workers continue to be widespread.

HEMINGWAY: Fashion has been one of the slowest to embrace modern environmental, ethical and fair trade values, it’s time to change.

What are the main dangers to the environment caused from fashion?

PAN UK: Again my comments are mainly about cotton.  Conventional (non-organic) cotton uses huge amounts of highly toxic pesticides – 28% of the world’s insecticide use goes on cotton.  Most of these insecticides are highly toxic and some are carcinogenic or have other long-term health effects; one-third of them are banned in the EU.  One widely used insecticide, endosulfan, has caused a lot of deaths among West African farmers, and is very persistent in the environment, so will pollute the area for years to come. These are not the only issues – cotton goes through many stages of processing before it can be made into garments, and some of these can also involve dangerous chemicals.  Then there is the amount of waste created by a prevailing attitude to fashion which regards clothes as disposable.

EFF: When it comes to the environment, the global fashion industry has an enormous impact, through the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides, polluting and depleting water supplies, inefficient processes, transport, and waste.

HEMINGWAY: Pollution from dyes, thoughtless practices in terms of material production, then add to that all the fair trade, ethical treatment of producers, and ethical treatment of animal’s.

What high street shop/s do you feel are the biggest contributors in damaging the planet?

PAN UK: I don’t really have any way of measuring this – it’s easier to say which companies are doing better.  A few high street names have either introduced a range of organic cotton clothing, or incorporated a small percentage of organic cotton into their clothing, including H&M, M&S, Nike, Timberland.  At the moment the world’s organic cotton supply is too small for these companies to make all of their clothing entirely out of organic cotton, but by making a commitment to use organic cotton they help to expand the market.

BAFTS: Any retailers that sell cheap disposable clothes.

EFF: Because of the complexity of supply chains, it is difficult to rank fashion businesses in terms of their relative ethical conduct. It is important not to make assumptions about which businesses have more sustainable practices, in some cases those businesses which have received the most negative press in the past have responded by improving their practices. In addition, boycotting certain companies or goods may impact negatively on the garment workers at the end of the chain unless it is done in a structured way (for example by encouraging businesses to improve conditions for garment workers rather than withdrawing their custom from factories, which could result in worse conditions).

More information on company practices and how to take action in relation to this can be found on www.labourbehindthelabel.org (UK) or www.cleanclothes.org (International).

HEMINGWAY: Often the smaller ones who don’t have the resources to have a large corporate responsibility dept can cause damage.

What do you feel is the biggest reason for consumers not to embrace eco-fashion?

PAN UK: I think that most consumers would embrace eco-fashion if it were available – surveys show that consumers would prefer to buy clothing that has been ethically and sustainably sourced, if cost and quality were the same.  At the moment there is a more limited range of styles, designs and sizes available. 

BAFTS: I think for a long time eco fashion was for a particular niche market who weren’t really interested in fashion, this meant that the clothes were often shapeless and not all that stylish, and also relatively expensive. The demand has changed and fashion conscious consumers now want stylish eco clothes. There are more and more ethical fashion labels setting up, so hopefully this will change.

EFF: Ethical fashion has had the stigma of being frumpy. This has all changed with the emergence of brilliantly designed ethical fashion labels and also the mainstream and high street embracing it like Topshop. Greater awareness of social and environmental issues has broadened consumers knowledge. There has been increasing amounts of press into sweat shop labour too.

HEMINGWAY: Fashion is often a self choice based on vanity and in general eco fashion has been slow in competing style wise.

How could your charity/organisation help improve or get past these problems?

PAN UK: PAN UK has produced information resources for consumers that we hope will help to clarify the issues, and encourage more people to buy organic. PAN UK is now encouraging young fashion students to work with organic cotton, through lecture tours and awards.

EFF: Better communication and links – also links to education could help open markets for fair trade, organic and values led producers in the developing world. By getting together there would be opportunities to prove that there is a demand for an ethical approach and encourage supply systems to meet this. Pooling resources would allow designers to raise awareness of the issues, collaborate to facilitate sustainable sourcing and join forces to influence the industry as a whole, and to encourage change. The Ethical Fashion Forum was initiated with the goal of creating a unified organisation to support the sector.

How do you think these high street shops could become a little more eco-friendly?

PAN UK: That’s a big question, as they need to look at the whole way they do business. Using more sustainable raw materials would be a good start, but this means they need to improve transparency for the whole of their supply chain.

BAFTS: Consumers need to push high street retailers to have transparent trading chains where they can be certain that workers are paid fairly and work in decent conditions. This will have to be a consumer led thing as large chains won’t chain their practices by themselves.

EFF: Given the complex nature of fashion industry supply chains, implementing sustainable business practices is not something which can be addressed in detail here. Every business is unique and needs to develop an ethical trading/ sourcing policy in line with the specific challenges and opportunities presented by its products, sourcing options and market.

Does your charity/organisation have any future strategies or plans in raising awareness of eco-fashion to high street shops?

PAN UK: We plan to continue with our current programme of work. We are continuing to talk to retailers – as well as fashion colleges, designers, consumers, and government agencies about the benefits of organic cotton.

EFF: We have recently launched an EFF business members directory. To become a business member of the EFF, businesses will be required to comply with a set of criteria (including both socially and environmentally responsible practices) set down in the Ethical Fashion Forum mandate, develop an ethical trading/ sourcing policy which is made available to their customers, and undergo an annual consultation process with the EFF to ensure that progressive standards are implemented. Details of business members of the EFF (which may include fashion designers and labels, retailers, suppliers and manufacturers, and organisations) will be made available online through the member’s directory.

What might happen to the environment if we continue to threaten its resources for fashion purposes?

PAN UK: Environmental pollution is likely to play an increasingly important role in human health in the future.  Scientists are now suggesting, for example, that exposure to toxic chemicals, including pesticides, is contributing to a rise in breast cancer and neurodevelopmental conditions, among other issues.  Pesticides can spread far beyond the area where they were originally sprayed and damage wildlife populations, leading to lower biodiversity.  Agrochemicals also have an impact on global warming, as a lot of energy is used in their production and transport. Organic farming uses on average about a third less energy than non-organic farming.

What can ordinary people at home do to add some eco-friendly fashion to their wardrobe?

PAN UK: Buy organic cotton and consider buying fewer, better quality clothes – this will reduce the amount of waste from clothing.  Write to the CEO of your favourite clothing store and ask them for their policy on organic cotton.  If enough people ask them they will get the message. 

BAFTS: Reduce, reuse and recycle and when they do want to buy something new head to your nearest Fair Trade shop, or look online at the Fair Trade clothes retailers such as People Tree, for a more world friendly buy.

EFF: Because of the complex nature of supply chains for fashion, with each part of the product and production process often coming from a different country, there is no recognised official ethical or fair-trade mark for fashion the way there is for simpler products like coffee or chocolate. However, there are various ways that consumers can find clothing which is made to ethical standards, and get guarantees about some of the ethical standards employed by fashion companies. There are several multi-label boutiques/ retailers which carefully evaluate the fashion products and businesses they stock to ensure that they meet specific standards. Check websites for information on their buying policies. Adili www.adili.com is a good place to start. Customising your old clothes is a great way to recycle or attend clothes swapping events like swishing. Buying vintage or second-hand stops clothes ending up in landfill sites. There are loads of amazing ethical labels to buy from and you will be surprised they are generally not more expensive than the high street but definitely better quality.

For more information please visit http://pan-uk.org/ , http://www.bafts.org.uk/ and http://ethicalfashionforum.com/

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