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!
* 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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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?
* 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.