The Ethics of Fashion

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We live in a society that is becoming more conscious of how our actions affect communities and the environment. It is starting to become a significant part of our culture, and this is evident by the fact that so many of the multi-national organisations that cater for us like to promote just how much they care for the environment. Many products are now branded as eco-friendly and marketed specifically for their sustainability to attract today’s more environmentally conscious consumer.

It may or may not come as a surprise that the global fashion industry is huge. As of 2014 there were 57.8 million people employed in the industry, and at present it is worth about three trillion dollars.

I recently read an article that asked the question “Do consumers really care about the ethics of fashion” and it made me curious about ethical fashion and what it entails.

So what is ethical fashion?

The term Ethical Fashion is an umbrella term to describe ethical practices in fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.

The globalised nature of the fashion industry means that materials and labour can be purchased in different parts of the world where costs are very low.  Industrialised processes used to grow cotton etc. allow fabrics to be produced quickly and cheaply, and in very large quantities. The savings made from these are passed on to us, the consumer, in the form of high street fashion that is diverse in its variety and price.

However, ethical fashion argues that these savings may come at a cost that is not covered by what we see on the price tags.

So going back to the question in the article I read, “Do consumers really care about the ethics of fashion?” I asked myself, do I really care? And if so, what are these ethical issues that I’m supposed to care about?

Ethics in Fashion

You will already be familiar with some of the ethical issues surrounding the global fashion industry. Some have been given large coverage in the media such as the welfare of animals being farmed for fur or the exploitative working conditions found in the so-called sweat shops.  The ethical considerations in fashion can be categorised into social and environmental issues:

Social Issues

Although the cost of their manufacture is rising, high-street retailers still compete against each other using lower prices to attract more customers putting pressure on manufacturers to increase their output to stay in business. As a result, some are forced to cut corners and neglect health and safety, which can come at a great cost to the lives of workers; for example, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 people.

Child and adult workers alike can be subjected to violence and abuse such as forced overtime, as well as cramped and unhygienic surroundings, bad food, and very poor pay. The low cost of clothes on the high street means that less money goes towards the workers.

Environmental Issues

Some of the current methods used to grow textiles are considered unsustainable because of the damage they do to the immediate environment. For example, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk to just 15% of its former volume, largely due to the vast quantity of water required for cotton production and dying.

The chemicals used to dye and soften fabrics and can be toxic and carcinogenic, destroying the habitability of areas where their waste is dumped and usually resulting in high rates of birth defects and other problems amongst those who are exposed to these chemicals.

Cotton, which provides much of the world’s fabric, uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides, chemicals which are dangerous for the environment and harmful to those who are exposed to them.

The low costs and disposable nature of high street fashion means that much of it is destined for incinerators or landfill sites. The UK alone throws away 1 million tonnes of clothing every year.

In conclusion, the global fashion industry like many other globalised industries require great economic, environmental and societal resource.  The true cost of what we wear goes beyond what we’re required to pay, but what has been sacrificed to manufacture that item of clothing we pay for.

If you found this interesting and would like to know more, check out a documentary titled ‘The True Cost’, which takes a look at the impact of the production of clothing in today’s “Fast-fashion” industry on the environment and communities. You can also check out https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics to see more of the staggering statistics about the global fashion industry.

Michael Obire

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