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Untangling ethical fashion

1966 Cheetah Night Club Boutique New York vintage photo Discotheque

Reading pretty much everything about ethical fashion ever, I’m always struck by just how difficult this all is. I don’t get the sense that there’s a right thing to do, just a series of slightly less bad things all with their own issues, and some very difficult decisions.

I mentioned in my review of Lucy Siegle’s To Die For book in Friday that I was a bit frustrated with Siegle’s unwillingness to give more than a glimpse into her own decisions about what she’s prepared to go for, and so I decided to attempt to explain my own position. I’ll give an introduction of what I see as the main types of ‘ethicalness’ so hopefully this will make some sense to everyone, though obviously I can’t explain everything in detail. It’s not supposed to be a definitive answer, but an attempt to explain where I’m at now, which hopefully will be useful to anyone hoping to untangle these issues for themselves and arrive at their own definition of ethical fashion.

And I do apologise about the length and heavy footnoting. I couldn’t manage any other way!

1960s England Older Women Shopping Shopkeeper Vintage Photo Store Interior

* Stuff from charity shops/thrifted
Pros: No additional resource use on fabric, sewing etc, raises money for charity, diverts clothes from landfill, provides low cost clothing to people who could not otherwise afford them
Cons: Does not support socially responsible garment production (many clothes will have been produced in sweatshop environments causing environmental degradation), donated clothes not good enough for re-sale in the UK are ‘dumped’ in developing countries preventing indigenous garment industry and potentially destroying reseller’s livelihoods if the sorting is done badly*. High proportion of profits may go to the recyling company doing the sorting rather than the charity. Resource required in transporting the clothes.

* Commercial vintage and resale
Pros: No additional resource use on fabric, sewing etc, diverts clothes from landfill, provides low cost clothing to people who could not otherwise afford them (resale), supports independent business people
Cons: Does not support socially responsible garment production (many clothes will have been produced in sweatshop environments causing environmental degradation), resource required in transporting the clothes.

* Recyled/Upcycled/repurposed
Pros: Provides new lease of life to clothes not in a wearable condition and otherwise destined for landfill
Cons: Recycling may be as resource intensive as producing new materials, and only a small proportion of the materials in the new item may be recycled. All the usual resource requirements for production and transport.

1960s Window Shopping Storefront Vintage Photo Mannequins Fashion Dresses Womenswear

* Organic fabrics
Pros: Not using pesticides and certain fertilisers prevents environmental degradation of soil due to pesticide use, soil should eventually recover.
Cons: Not using pesticides etc. may lead to greater damage to plants initially (though the point is that eventually better soil will lead to higher yields and natural pest control will move in), and hence more waste**.

* Vegan (this obviously includes no fur of leather, but also no wool, silk, cashmere etc)
Pros: No animals are harmed, avoids environmental costs of large scale animal farming and processing of materials
Cons: Many animal free products are less ‘natural’ and the production of synthetics may be more resource intensive and polluting than the processing of animal materials***.

* Handmade by local crafters
Pros: Supports an individual person not a large business, avoids shipping bits of the garment back and forth around the world, thus saving on transport resource costs. Producers are paid a fair wage.
Cons: Raw materials are still produced new in what are probably unethical conditions, environmental resource use in making the clothes is probably higher on a per item basis than making stuff in a factory due to duplication of tools.

1960s Older Woman Bouffant Perm Glasses Sewing Bikini Swimsuit Vintage Photo

As you can probably work out from the list above, I feel that those ways of shopping that don’t use any environmental resources and avoid waste are the most desirable from an ethical point of view. I haven’t put it in here, but in my opinion it seems obvious that not actually buying anything, from anywhere, is the best thing to do. No resource use at all. Of course it doesn’t create any employment for anyone either, including nothing for people in developing countries. And if everyone did that, our economies would collapse (even worse than they are already). But then that argument applies to pretty much any form of consumption, and keeping the current capitalist system afloat just doesn’t seem like a particularly good reason to do anything****.

So I think the best thing to do is to at least avoid the production of new stuff and make sure what is already there is used fully. And that’s why I think that if you do want to consume, anything second hand is the most ethical. I don’t personally see any difference between vintage and ‘new’ second hand, though of course there is a difference between whether it is sold for charity of profit. In the book, Siegle makes that distinction and is sounding pretty unconvinced about vintage (though not other second hand), complaining about people who claim that their wardrobe is ethical because they have some vintage. And I guess that’s true, but surely ‘some’ is the operative word here. A wardrobe with just some fairtrade or upcycled stuff is equally (un)ethical. I guess it’s just that thing about some everything having it’s own problems and there not being a right answer. It seems a bit unfair to just pick on one aspect when it applies across the board.

The chapter on reusing left me feeling quite dejected as well. The book points out that the clothes are commercially sorted, the majority of donations never make it to charity shops, so profit doesn’t all go to the charity, and if the clothes are sold in the developing world it makes developing an independent garment industry nigh on impossible*****. But I’m not really sure where that leaves us. As far as I can tell, if you have something you want to get rid of you, you have three choices: (1) to hold onto it anyway; (2) to chuck it in the bin; or (3) to donate it. There is no way to sort it yourself, so even if the item is in bad condition, you’d surely be better to donate it to a charity so it can at least made into car seat stuffing than to delay the decision (1) or guarantee it’ll go to landfill (2). I guess the lesson would be to educate yourself about which charities use reputable recycling companies (Oxfam seem to be mentioned a lot) and donate to there over charities who might send the unwanted to stuff to landfill or sort badly. It’s right to point out that donating to charity shouldn’t be an excuse to buy mindlessly, but donating can’t be a bad thing per se.

1960s Kids Fashions Vintage Photo

I have less clear views on the other categories. There is such differences within each category, and various combinations of goodness, for example People Tree stuff is completely fair trade and mostly organic too, whereas M&S sells fairtade tshirts, where only the cotton is fairtrade, but the sewing together is done in sweatshops like everything else. So it is really a case by case decision.

However, I did say I was going try to untangle this. So, as a very general rule, if buying new I’d say that fairtrade is more important to me than organicness or handmadeness or localness. Fairtrade for me is going some way towards creating a new kind of more sustainable capitalism and it’s usually linked to other good things anyway. Because if producers are getting a fair deal for their labour, they’ll have more time and energy and security to organise themselves to sort out the problems in their area, including environmental degradation.

The vegan thing is interesting. A lot of vegan stuff isn’t obviously ethical at all, it just so happens to be vegan, so I never really think of it when I think of ethical fashion (though I did always make sure to offer vegan options when I had my etsy shop). Animal welfare is not discussed much in the book either, and vegan isn’t mentioned at all******. I suspect if I found out more about the way animals are treated, I would be shocked, but I also know I am not prepared to commit to a vegan lifestyle. Food wise, I absolutely think it’s the right thing to do and I don’t eat meet because it’s easy not to, but I love eggs, milk and cheese, so it’s not a sacrifice I’m willing make. And similarly, I do like wearing animal fibres, especially wool, and therefore veganness is not something I am really going to get into just now. I admit this is a weakness on my part, and therefore I will not judge other people for their own blank spots.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t one ‘right way’, everything is a compromise, so it’s up to everyone to decide for themselves. It bothers me when things are sold as ethical that are barely at all, but I also to appreciate that ethical shopping isn’t the top of everyone’s lists of priorities. So it’s just about getting the information out there and acting on it as far as is possible within the parameters of one’s own priorities. I do hope me talking about my own priorities will help some people work out their own,

I just passed the 2000 words mark, I better stop!

So, what do I think?

Footnotes ahoy!
* According to the book, resellers in developing countries buy massive bales of clothes without being able to inspect them first. All they know is the grade of clothes it is according to the recyling/sorting company, so if the sorting is poor, bad quality clothing might be sold in a supposed higher quality batch. Which means that you’d have to find out if the charity you donate to uses a reputable recycling/sorting company.
** That’s probably more of an issue with organic food though – organic fruit and veg are more likely to be an uneven shape and size, but supermarkets (and consumers, I guess) still want uniformity, so all the gnarly ones are thrown away. But that’s a problem with the supermarkets really, rather than the organicness.
*** This is something I really would have expected an answer out of in the book, but I still don’t know. It seems they are bad in different ways.
**** The system will have to change, even if no one really knows yet what it will change to, it can’t stay as it is. That’s why I couldn’t really feel too bad about poor retail sales this Christmas. I mean, obviously it’s shitty for companies to close down shops and jobs to disappear, but this is what needs to happen, people need to buy much, much less if we are to have any hope of stopping climate change before it’s too late. I just really wish someone would come up with an answer of how capitalism should adapt and how we can find the money for people to do the (predominantly public and voluntary sector) things need doing now more than ever, like caring for people and thinking about a way out of this mess, when the tax receipts from the private sector are down.
***** Again though, that’s clearly not just because of the donated clothes. I don’t know much (anything, really!) about international development, but I wouldn’t have thought that many countries are pursuing a self-sufficient economic growth strategy anyway. Also there’s a quote from someone that goes ‘no country has ever fully developed without having a garment industry’. This kind of argument implies that the way for these countries to industrialise is what the developed countries have done, and that policies transfer across contexts straightforwardly. I have no idea how Eritrea or wherever can best increase development, but I’m pretty sure that being constrained to what has worked in the pre-globalisations past is not the answer.
****** There’s some discussion of habitat protection, biodiversity and the dying out of species. There’s also some weird picking and choosing of species that are worth protecting/whose treatment it’s worth getting angry about. It has always baffled me how people will get really exercised about killing certain species of animal for human gain, but not others. I don’t personally feel that a dog has more of a right to live and be treated well than a cow, for example.

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  • Johanna 18 January 2012, 12:16 pm

    I find myself challenged by the whole issue of ‘ethical’ fashion. I love clothes and fashion, but I also recognise fashion to be a disposable and wasteful culture that I have bought into. Admittedly, I do buy a fair amount of my clothes from High Street stores.
    However, I really rate companies that try to be ethical,especially those that try to be organic and fairtrade. Fairtrade for me has to be in the entire lifecycle of the item to be legit. I want to encourage small companies to thrive and grow, so I am happy to invest in them. Braintree, do affordable clothes from sustainable textiles such as Hemp and Bamboo and obviously PeopleTree, which I love. I have occasionally worn Bishopston Trading clothes but feel like I’m wearing my ethics like a badge around my neck, too virtuous! American Apparel do nice quality sweatshop-free clothes but I can’t cope with their website, it’s semi-pornographic.
    Also I have found that many Vintage Repro brands produce clothes in the UK, such as Vivien of Holloway or have ethical credentials such as Tara Starlet and What Katy Did has a really good ethical statement.
    Lastly, Charity shops are great because we don’t wear the clothes we do have, we are so wasteful. I think it’s important that we appreciate what we have in our wardrobe and make it work, rather than buy more in the first place. Though, it is so fun just to buy something new.
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    • Franca 20 January 2012, 7:05 pm

      I’ve mot heard of Braintree, must check them out! I would never buy American Apparel now. Sexual harrassment, calling female workers sluts and masturbating in meetings and interviews not acceptable. No amount of fair pay can make that acceptable. I will not be sorry when they go bankrupt.

      I think I need to find out more about bamboo. I’ve heard from several sources now that the chemicals used to break down are just as bad as the ones used to make the equivalent synthetic and that the stucture of bamboo fabric is exactly the same as one particular type of synthetic (can’t remember which one). It would be good to know for sure but as with all of this, there’s a lot of conflicting information.

      • Franca 20 January 2012, 7:06 pm

        Just looked it up, it’s rayon that bamboo is like.

  • Leia 18 January 2012, 12:39 pm

    This was very, very interesting! Ethical shopping can be quite difficult, and I’m still learning a lot about it. Glad to know there are so many ways to shop ethically! I’m currently trying not to buy anything new unless it’s absolutely necessary 🙂
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    • Franca 20 January 2012, 7:07 pm

      It’s a fascinating area to find stuff out about. Not buying anything is definitely a good move.

  • Clare 18 January 2012, 2:00 pm

    Great post, I think you are very right to point out that things that claim to be ethical aren’t necessarily as ethical as they could be. And also that there are different ways to be ethical. I think for me the hardest thing is to make ethical consumption my default position rather than my ‘super virtuous’ position; not just returning to quick high street purchases when I’m in a pinch for an event.
    I think this involves a mix of buying less, buying second hand, and making my own – especially when there is some great fair trade fabric out there. I’m also thinking of inviting a friend to come and re-look at my wardrobe to re-see the clothes that I think I’m out of outfit combinations on. Thanks for some thought provoking comments and discussion.
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    • Franca 20 January 2012, 7:09 pm

      Yes, that’s what I think too! Ethical should be what you strive for day to day not an occassional one-off thing.

  • poet 18 January 2012, 5:23 pm

    Footnotes are the hallmark of True Science! Thanks for this thorough and thoughtful article. I agree with you on most points – and I hadn’t previously thought of a lot of the “cons” when it comes to charity store clothing, I was simply unaware that a large part of the donated stuff may be tossed out anyway… I am lucky in that I *inherit* a lot of clothes or *find* them at swap markets, so they come to me with no personal responsibility and little resource use on my part, but that doesn’t mean they were produced fairly, of course. I also have to admit that I buy fast fashion (or fast fabric, as may be the case) occasionally, when it’s very much on sale, because I tell myself that at least the unethical people behind it don’t profit *as much* from this as if I bought it full-price… Lately I’ve been trying to just not buy anything, but a few times creativity has run away with me.
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    • Franca 20 January 2012, 7:14 pm

      Hehe, glad you liked the footnotes! I wasn’t quite aware of the scale of waste in charity shops either. I knew some stuff was used as raw materials, but I did think more than 10% was sold in shops. I think it does depend on the shop as well. Quite a few shops near me seem to sort themselves, it’s happened a few times that i took in donations and a week later they were in the window. But such shops are then probably more likely to chuck the stuff they can’t sell, if they don’t have a relationship with a recycling firm.

  • The Waves 18 January 2012, 6:22 pm

    Excellent post, Franca! I agree that buying second hand is the the most ethical choice when it comes to this stuff, but as it is with everything, it does have its share of problems, especially when it comes to the charity stores. Aside from the dumping to / re-selling in developing countries, there is a persistant rumour in Finland, for example, about one of the most popular charity chains being completely corrupt, and then there are rumours too about the Salvation Army’s employment policies regarding sexual minorities here in the US. I might try to write a post about that at some point.

    “Organic”-labeling is a tricky issue, because when I was looking into sustainable fashion last year, I found that what’s labeled organic isn’t necessarily organic at all. The bales of cotton, regular and organic, are stored in the same places and not labeled. I saw interviews with cotton dealers, who’d look into their storages, and when asked what was organic and what not, they had no idea. I guess our hope is that at least some of it was in fact organic, and I guess by buying it you’d establish demand. But again, by establishing demand you’re adding to the environmental burden.
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 1:27 pm

      Yes, that is a good point – one charity isn’t as good as each other. I am quite weary of salvation army too after my friend (who worked with homeless people at the time) told me that their staff computers block anything to do with drugs and prostitution, even websites that are about overcoming those things. So if you’re a support worker, you are essentially told to ignore the two biggest problems faced by/connected to homelessness. (i may have misunderstood this, it sounds a bit mad written like that. I have to check with her).

      I’m surprsised at the oranic thing. As I understand it, there is a lot of regulation around being allowed to call yourself organic, and anything with the soil association stamp is checked very thoroughly! Maybe that’s a UK thing, but it would be odd for the Uk to lead the way in something like that (no offence to my chosen country of residence of course!)

  • Diane 18 January 2012, 8:01 pm

    An excellent post!
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  • Style Eyes 18 January 2012, 8:39 pm

    Really enjoyed reading such a well thought out post on ethical fashion. It is a difficult problem to find a solution for as in many ways the ethical and eco friendly choices are not aligned even though both are important aspects of a sustainable world. To be more eco friendly we need to reduce our consumption but to help those in developing worlds we need to continue consuming in a more ethical way. The vegan thing as you mentioned has always bothered me a little as you could make any cheap pair of synthetic shoes and call them vegan but they might have a negative impact on the environment. I try not to buy unless I need it, I also try and buy second hand as a first option but when I want to treat myself to something special I always try and support an ethical fashion brand, which is not so difficult lately as there are so many of them out there.Until recently I always considered it better to buy natural fabrics but synthetics last better, can be washed and dried more easily and can be recycled more easily so in some ways provide a more eco friendly option! I guess what it really comes down to though is achieving a balance and that just about anything is better than fast fashion, which is no good for people or planet.
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 1:30 pm

      That’s how i feel about vegan too, although I think some of the more explicitly vegan shoe companies are also eco friendly. It is true that anything is better than fast fashion, but I think its good if you can to go beyond token gestures and make ethical a default position. That’s why I wtote this post really, cos its hard!

  • Roobeedoo 19 January 2012, 1:20 pm

    Wow! That’s a lot of thinking!
    I have been pondering this myself recently and decided to give up the High Street and gradually replace my shop-bought clothes with self-stitched or items from ethical independents who tell me the “provenance” of their materials and where / how the item was made. I really don’t know where I stand on buying second-hand clothing from someone who is selling for their own profit. So… I saw this great vintage hand-knit on Etsy for £22, which is less than a “new” item, but I couldn’t get away from the thought that the seller might have bought it from Oxfam for £5, and shouldn’t the difference have gone back to the charity?
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  • Libby 19 January 2012, 6:34 pm


    One of my resolutions was to only buy clothing if it’s ethical, and I deliberately didn’t define ethical for myself so that when I saw an item in a shop I would have to think properly about to pros/cons in a particular circumstance. 19 days into the New Year and have been thinking that it’s a distinct possibility that I’ll go with attempting not to buy clothes at all! As you’ve already pointed out, that doesn’t really help anyone either though, so…

    Anyway, really rad post, I enjoyed reading it very much!
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 1:31 pm

      Good luck with it! I’ve decided to write everything down I buy, like the Waves.

  • Terri 20 January 2012, 1:56 am

    Of course, there’s also the option of weaving our own cloth and sewing our own things…
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 1:35 pm

      Hhhmm, I’m not sure I think sewing your own things is *necessarily* that ethical. There are a lot of great reasons to make things yourself (uniqueness, personal value, better fit, creaive expression etc) but unless there is an element of re/upcycling inolved I’m not sure it saves that much. Sewing machines, especially if they then end up being hardly used are pretty resource intensive! 50 people with 50 sewing machines sewing two dresses each is definitely less good than one person with 1 sewing machine making 100 dresses (just playing devil’s advocate).

  • Paperdoll 20 January 2012, 10:55 am

    Thank you for this great and useful post. I don’t know the book, but I was watching a documentary recently regarding the same thing. It was about NGOs in Germany that do collect clothing for humanitarian reasons, as the say. What they don’t say is, that only a tiny amount of the donated clothing will end up in a charity shop, most of the items are sold to developing countries and destroy the local textile industries, because everyone buys European 2nd Hand stuff instead. The documentary was suggesting that you make sure to rip or cut the clothes you donate, so that they are not wearable anymore and could be recycled instead. Although I am having bad feelings about destroying perfectly wearable clothing, that just wouldn’t fit anymore, this makes sense to me.

    I also challenge myself to buy less or no retail clothing at all, and buy everything second hand or make it. I am taking sewing courses and really would like to make my own clothes from vintage fabrics or thrifted clothes, but well, I also know, I love fashion and will give in once in a while when seeing something trendy in the stores or on the internet.

    Anyway, I really loved your thoughts on this topic.
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 1:39 pm

      Oh, that sounds awful! Destroying usable clothes can’t be right. I’m not actually too sure where I stand on the developing world thing. I’m not opposed to free international trade as such, which is kind of the point i was trying to make about no countries (except mayebe north korea!) pursuing self sufficiency-based economic strategies. i think a usable item being sold in a developing country is better than it being destroyed and recycled at great resource cost into something not that great.

  • WendyB 21 January 2012, 4:29 am

    “I just really wish someone would come up with an answer of how capitalism should adapt and how we can find the money for people to do the (predominantly public and voluntary sector) things need doing now more than ever” — doesn’t this really deny people the ability to pursue what they enjoy? Do I have to become a teacher even if I hate teaching?
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 1:58 pm

      Not sure how you took that from what I was saying! I obviously do not want to abolish the private sector, but I do think that there are some industries (like retail) who are currently contracting and that’s the right thing to happen. If high street shops can only get rid of their stock by marking everything down 70%, that’s a sign that there are too many shops and too much stuff. It’s just the market. The problem is that the way we are set up just now is that when the private sector contracts, the public sector has to follow suit (ok, there’s Keynesian spending, but the way its looking at the moment, the credit ratings agencies would have your neck). But of course, with everyone losing their jobs left right and centre, the actual need for support goes up. I personally know lots of people in the public, voluntary, academic of government-funded private sectors out of work or hanging on to their jobs by the skin of their teeth. We all want to do these things, but we can’t, because they rely on tax receipts from a floundering private sector. And all those young people leaving school and university now, without a chance for anything other than minimum wage jobs that bring no skill or life satisfaction. There are thousands of really useful things they could do, and I will stake my mortgage that lots of them would be more than happy to do them if we could just create the opportunities. But we can’t, until we get growth back, which looks like it won’t happen in this decade. It’s depressing and that’s why something new is needed so sorely.

      Sorry: Franca rants about the economic crisis!

  • Sophie 21 January 2012, 5:29 pm

    This post is definitely food for thought. I had some science GCSEs this week and I thought that whenever I hear about ethics again I would get bored but this post changed my mind. It might have been over 2000 words but nearly every one of them caught my attention. I volunteer in a charity shop so it is always interesting to hear different views on them and I agree that there are flaws in the system x
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  • Meshell 21 January 2012, 10:25 pm

    You should check out the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. They postulate that it’s not the system, rather the goods produced that are the problem. It’s an interesting read that highlights new ways to create goods that do not go through the recyling phases, rather they are completely broken down with very little environmental impact. Imagine if littering were encouraged because packaged was produced to properly degrade.

    It highlights that we really need to change our products, not the system that provides the products. We shouldn’t throw capitalism out, rather adjust it so we aren’t a throw-away society.

  • Teeny 22 January 2012, 9:43 am

    Hi Franca, thanks for putting the time into this post. You gave me something to think about in regards to choosing fairtrade,organic or handmade. i already shop second hand and don’t like to buy new unless i cannot avoid it; but on occasion i do buy new with little thought as to trying fairtrade/organic/handmade. Hmmmmm. Admittedly, first thing that pops into my head is how expensive any of those options are. I have to think of how my spending affects my family first (before the global family)…usually fairtrade clothing is the most reasonably priced (in terms of my purse) for me to buy.
    Thanks for the inspiration!
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    • Franca 23 January 2012, 2:00 pm

      Good point. I think affordable options can be found under most categories though it might be some work to track them down. And of course not everyone has the time!

  • Benjina 15 March 2012, 4:21 am

    Hi Franca! It is a lot of my thinking. You give me to think about selecting organic or handmade. So I have started to buy a second hand. Thanks!!!!
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  • meg 3 December 2012, 7:52 pm

    Franca, I’ve just stumbled across this post thanks to a Google search. I have an interest in both sustainable development and life cycle analysis and was delighted to read a post on the issue of sustainable/ethical fashion that is honest about the complexities/compromises/trade offs. I particularly like the fact that you loop in the equity for workers and the economic consequences of not buying… Meg PS – no need to apologise for the footnotes!

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