“Bananas vs. Bras, that’s the example they always use to explain this complexity”, notes Lizzie Harrison, designer of ethical brand Antiform and general fashion philanthropist. I scratch my head and wonder how on earth the “Bananas vs. Bras” theory was going to help me along in my ethical fashion journey. Because it turns out that conscientious consumerism is pretty confusing and not at all as simple as slapping a fairtrade sticker on something, so I was trying to avoid anymore confusing theories.
But she continues, “If you were talking about the supply chain of fairtrade bananas, you’re talking about the people that grow the bananas, so you have to go and audit the banana factory. If you’re talking about a bra you might have cotton, so you’ve got a cotton farmer, you’ve got the people than spin and dye, you might have some polyester elastic- which is plastic- where’s that coming from? You’ve got metal in the hooks and eyes, where’s that metal coming from? You know what I mean? It’s so complex”.
I do know what she means. This, if nothing else, is true of ethical fashion: it is complicated and the supply chain is nearly impossible to decipher. We can look to all the obvious disturbing facts, like how in 2010 the sign on fee for the new CEO of Marks and Spencer, Marc Bolland, was £15 million, which could have paid for the living wage of more than 10,000 of their garment workers*. We also secretly know something has gone awry if we can buy a dress from Primark for £4 as student Dea Nielsen points out, “if it costs £4 it’s probably not produced in an ethical way, sometimes what it costs can be a clue as to who made it and how it was made.”
I think it’s about the customer, it’s about doing your research and it’s about asking questions
Aside from the face-slapping immoral statements, visibility in the production of clothes is not easy to come by. And that is often the excuse we use to push the issue under the carpet, Nielsen observes, “people become really overwhelmed by how difficult it is to know enough about it to make a good choice and they kind of just decide it’s too hard.” She muses, “maybe if the government pushed for more transparency and made requirements of the retailers it would make it easier for people to make good choices.”
This is why Antiform and other independent fashion brands provide us with more opaque options. “What we do is we offer people the opportunity to connect to fashion”, Harrison explains in reference to the independent brand she runs in Leeds. “When you walk into our shop you see a shop but when you turn sideways you see a factory and you see people sat sewing on industrial sewing machines. And the number of people that walk in and go ‘is that a sewing machine? That’s huge!’ Yeah, that’s an industrial machine ‘Oh is that how clothes are made?’” In one visit to Antiform you meet the designer, the creators and the shop assistants. Unless you have your own personal jet you’d find it pretty difficult to nip over to India to check the working conditions of the workers every time you bought something from Next.
Of course, if we did go to India we wouldn’t have a very nice experience. Workers in Gurgaon, producing clothes for brands such as Debenhams, M&S and Next, earn about £60 a month or 33p an hour. So as confusing as it might be, buying ethically can have life changing implications for those involved, whether that means they get a fair wage or comfortable working conditions or even something as basic as being able to do their jobs without being verbally or physically abused.
It’s not just overseas though where ethical shopping can make a difference, but here in England careful shopping choices could even secure a job for your next-door neighbour. Harrison employs her team directly from Leeds, “our design team is a group of different people from the local area, who have amazing skills, we’re a really diverse team. I would really like to offer more local women employment, because there are so many people out there who are incredibly skilled.” For Harrison there is a direct link between our purchasing of her clothes and her ability to provide employment, “we are wanting to continue to sell to more shops and sell more clothing so we can employ more people”.
On this small scale we can clearly see the consequences of our shopping habits, and by taking this microcosmic example and setting it on a global scale the unpleasant reality of unethical shopping rears it’s head. If I can make a small positive impact through buying something ethically, what on earth am I doing if I am shopping unethically? If we are responsible for the problem, we are responsible for the solution, and the solution is quite simple: think. Anne McCrickard, owner of One Boutique, York’s ethical store advises, “Think about what you’re buying, have good quality things that have been thought about.”
Thinking often involves questions. Harrison describes a technique she uses, “If I go into a shop and I like something I’ll ask where it’s been made and ten times out of ten they will look at you and think ‘What? Where’s it from? I don’t know.’ I think, is that an odd question to ask? I don’t think it’s that odd, I want to know where it’s come from.” And to reaffirm the concept that it is in our hands she adds, “I think it’s about the customer, it’s about doing your research and it’s about asking the questions.”
But what happens if the thinking results in unpleasant answers? Do we sign off shopping for life and grow old still wearing the sequin mini skirt we bought when we were 19? Nielsen uncovers some of the different shopping options, “I turned to second hand but what I have definitely noticed is that there is a lot of really nice new stuff coming up that is ethical, and places like Zara and HnM run organic lines. I think it’s becoming quite a viable option with all the online retailers.”
Harrison also runs Remade in Leeds (the community improving side of Antiform), which provides her customers with more options than the high street, “you can come to a clothes swap and spend £2 and get 20 new items. Or you can bring something you don’t wear anymore and get it revamped or you can learn to do it yourself or we can do it for you. Or you can buy something we’ve designed and put together or you can design it and buy it from us.”
She continues, “We need to celebrate these other kind of activities as just as viable as high street fashion. So we need to see going to a clothes swap as exciting as going into town or coming to an evening class and making something is as much of a thrill as walking into a high street shop and buying a top, if not more exciting because you made it.”
But away from the glitz and the excitement, underneath our ethical or unethical shopping there is a continuous problem: extreme consumerism. Forgetting about the labels for a minute Harrison ponders on shopping in general, “I also feel that we can’t sustain our consumption. If we all just went fairtrade we’re still buying too much and we’re not caring about it, we’re still throwing it away. So I think it’s a whole change in attitude that needs to happen, we can’t just carry on buying what we buy but buy it a bit more ethically, because we’re running out of stuff.”
This hint at capitalist destruction is evident with Nielsen and McCrickard as well; all three of them suggested buying less was one of the major solutions to the economic mess of the fashion industry. And originally from Scandinavia, Nielsen is used to a mind set of quality not quantity, “People need to start to learn that it’s worth investing in some things and maybe have four or five really nice things and then have a few other things that you can change around, in that way your wardrobe lasts longer.”
A few days after conducting these interviews I went shopping. Standing in a high street shop I was mulling over the future of ethical fashion and whilst wondering if it could possibly be the solution for a thoroughly corrupted fashion industry, McCrickard’s words came back to me, “I think it has to be, why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t everybody in the world be entitled to a fair wage? It seems to me immoral to live in any other way.”
‘Sustainably Stylish: A Fashion Show’, followed by a sale is on at Pitcher and Piano on June 29. Tickets are £3.50 from Vanbrugh stalls Monday week 10.