An Ethical Wardrobe?

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Photo Credit: Fashion Revolution

Do you ever stop to think about the person who made your clothes? Or wonder where the raw material came from? I’ve noticed a trend among “lifestlye bloggers” for posts about “ethical fashion” which led me to reflect on my own purchasing choices. A couple of weeks ago my Instagram feed seemed to be full of bloggers  wearing the new season from People Tree (One of my favourite mail order fashion brands), even my favourite Lifestyle blogger wrote about her foray into ethical fashion. In her blog post Dominique talks about how difficult it is to know what  “ethical” fashion is, she signposts readers to some great retailers in her capsule wardrobe collection and talks about the difficulty of making the “right” choices on the high street. I applaud her for her honesty.

I began to wonder, is is better to hold on to those sweatshop items, chemically dyed t shirts and leather shoes or is it “better” to chuck everything away and replace them with an ethical alternative? Truth is, I have no idea, but my gut tells me to hang on to what I have. The environmental impact of throwing “stuff” away is huge – even recycling creates pollution – there really is no “away”. Once something is made, it’s really hard to dispose of. Even the most eco friendly materials carry an environmental cost that we often forget.

Scanning my own (fairly minimal) wardrobe I can spot at least a dozen items over ten years old. You see, my philosophy is “buy once, buy well”.  There are a few  items labelled ethical or fair trade. The Patagonia trainers I bought in 2007, worn down at the heel now, but regularly cleaned and with new laces they make an appearance every spring and I love them. The organic denim Howies jeans  – the pair that I hang on to even though they are practically worn away – and the pair I “keep for best”. A People Tree vest that has served me well, the extra long length means it’s great for tucking into jeans under a jumper in winter and perfect for hot summer days. When I bought them, these clothes felt like a huge investment, so I hang on to them for as long as I can. At least half of my wardrobe comes from charity shops and I’ll come clean and tell you I have 3 t shirts from Primark*  – work horse t shirts –  a bit faded but worn regularly and a reminder of the year when Mr T and I  practically lived on thin air in order to meet our goal of paying off the mortgage before we hit 50! (More about that another day).

My ethical wardrobe.jpg

Years ago I worked for a charity that supported fairtrade education. We would run workshops for schools and community groups telling them the story behind their clothes. The reality of life in a clothing sweatshop, dye studio or weaving shed can be pretty grim (that’s a euphemism for bloody criminal that we expect anyone to work in such conditions). My colleagues and I would dress in our ethical cropped trousers, our organic cotton t shirts and “educate” our audience about the possibilities of a more equitable future. It felt good to spread to the word.

But, the reality was that only a couple of items in my own wardrobe actually met the strict ethical standards I was encouraging others to choose. I simply couldn’t afford to replace everything. When I did buy new I had to consider the price. I wear clothes out, I patch them, remodel jeans into shorts and when they are finally no longer fit to be worn I cut them into dusters. Items I grow tired of go to the charity shops or to friends. When I do buy new, I think about the conditions of the factory workers who make my clothes. I try to buy from companies that pay a living wage or engage in debate with trade unions about making workplaces safer and fairer. That’s not easy to do. Campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes certainly help to raise awareness and encourage consumers to think about the social impact of what we buy and the truth is, there are very few companies that can claim to be truly ethical at every stage of the supply chain.

I’ve also begun to consider the ethics of the things I make for myself. Where did the wool I knit with come from? Who spun and dyed it? The ethics of handmade are just as difficult to wade through as high street fashion. I try to buy wool that is reared, spun and dyed in the UK. I like to buy from independent makers, small businesses that share my view of the world (or at least I hope they do).

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Seek out small batch, local wool that has been minimally processed

There are dozens of books and websites around to guide you through your  ethical wardrobe dilemmas, but no clear cut answers. The approach I’ve adopted is this.

  • Shop wisely. Buy what you need, and when you can, choose retailers with strong ethical and environmental principles.
  • Look after what you have. Follow the care labels, mend, patch and replace zips and buttons when necessary.
  • Ask questions about where your clothes / wool / fabric came from
  • Throw nothing away (but see below). Everything can be repurposed, old towels can be cut down into facecloths and make great alternatives to paper kitchen towel. Cotton sheets can be used as dusters.  Old woolly jumpers make great liners for hanging baskets. Explore your resourceful side!
  • Buy natural fibres. When you do finally throw “stuff” away remember acrylic  never degrades, man made fibres won’t rot down.

 

If you want more advice about making ethical wardrobe choices check out Safia Minney’s book “Slow Fashion” or read Lucy Siegle’s ethical and green living columns for the Guardian such as this one. Visit Labour behind the Label‘s website or check out Fashion Revolution’s 2017 campaign resources.

If we all start to ask questions about where our clothes come from (and what happens to them after we’re finished with them)  that’s a start to building a more ethical wardrobe isn’t it?

* It’s certainly not the only high street store with a poor record on environmental and human rights.

 

 

 

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