Abigail Ross Jackson, 29 October 2010
It’s not new for fashionistas to align themselves to the various causes of the day. From the supermodels of the 90s shunning fur to Erin O’Connor’s recent attempts to encourage designers to move away from ‘size zero’ models, fashion likes to show off its sensitive side now and then. But there’s been a more significant shift in focus over recent years. What was once a rare decision to talk up the ethical credentials of clothes on the part of individual designers - such as Stella McCartney - has now been adopted across the entire industry, from high fashion to the high street.
From Primark to Prada, designers and retailers are keen to shout about their green, ethical and sustainable credentials almost as much as the clothes themselves. Is the industry’s decision to shift its focus a noble one, or would they do better to get back to making clothes and stop moralising to the masses?
A range of moral panics are reflected in the way we tend to think about the fashion industry. From the sexualisation of children, the industry’s relationship to eating disorders and the use of ‘plus-sized’ models, many of these issues suggest contemporary society sits somehow uneasily with itself. However, the rise of ethical fashion is in some ways quite different than this. Rather than raising its head now and again, it seems to have become incorporated into the whole way the industry works.
Indeed, even this narrow section of the wider discussion takes some work. Getting your head around the veritable cornucopia of terms devoted to ethical fashion is a task in itself. From sustainable to green, local to fair trade; organic, vintage and upcycled - the choices are endless. Even within the ethical fashion umbrella there appears to be disagreement about which are the most ethical of the ethical fashions. Organically grown cotton, for example, may well be grown by farmers paid fairly for their work in the developing world, but at what cost to the environment? Air freighting goods from Africa is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouth of any environmentally-conscious member of the fash-pack keen to reduce their carbon footprint. So what’s behind this mass movement, is it important, and will it really make a difference?
In Februrary 2010, online fashion giant ASOS launched its ‘Green Room’, a whole section of the website dedicated to ethical fashion. ASOS tell us that ‘everything you see in The Green Room will have a story behind it that promotes people and the planet.’ No doubt the stories won’t be of the millions of normal people struggling to survive and support their families on a meagre wage – no, that would be too much to stomach. Instead we see a picture of a smiling African woman making clothing and jewellery. We feel terribly happy about having contributed a little to her income when we press ‘buy’ and go on with our daily business safe in the knowledge that we’ve done some good. But what good can this cynical, surface engagement with such a huge issue really do?
Despite cries to the contrary from the fashion world, it’s hard to accept that hollow gestures are about genuinely changing society or transforming the lives of people in the developing world. No doubt there are individuals out there working in the industry who genuinely believe in their cause. It’s just that their good will pursued in such an individualised way, and explicitly through the prism of encouraging some consumer choices over others, doesn’t work when rolled out across a whole global multi-million pound industry. Selling a few fair trade organic jersey t-shirts on ASOS green room isn’t going to lift people out of poverty. The vast economic development required to raise the standard of living for everyone across the planet will not be born out of a Western shopping addict’s guilt about the amount of shoes she owns.
With the manufacturing of new goods taking up a fair amount of land, dyes, materials, labour and transport, there’s also been a push to, where possible, re-use, customise or recycle clothes; cutting out the need to buy new ones altogether. Swap-shops have popped up all over the country, where discerning fashionistas can pick up a charity shop style bargain without the charity shop style. Vintage clothes are having a moment, with magazines publishing ‘how-to’ guides on picking up an ethical, cheap and guilt-free gem. And oh, what a lot of money the industry is making from asking consumers to reduce our impact and up our green and ethical credentials.
As an industry built on people’s desires for more and more things, it’s no wonder the fashion industry has jumped onto the ethical bandwagon. If ethical fashion makes the industry more money, why wouldn’t they run with it? But dressing it up as something more than this is disingenuous to say the least.
For one, the mass-produced goods that so many berate for being produced in sweat shops provide a lifeline to millions of people living poverty. Guilt tripping Western shoppers into boycotting mass-produced goods, and thus denying those in the developing world from earning a wage, albeit one we may deem insufficient for their work, is hypocrisy in the extreme. The fewer factories, the less people are actually able to work and earn money. Worse, this could even lead to a situation where more people are competing over fewer jobs, which might drive down wages even further.
The story behind a typical British high street purchase might not be as fluffy and heart-warming as ASOS’s Green Room would like us to think. Likely the person who made it was paid poorly by Western standards, lives in accommodation deemed unacceptable by Western standards, and works longer hours in worse conditions that we’d expect in the UK. But to simply project these standards from the outside onto people so far removed from them is never going to help them to lift themselves out of poverty, which is why the Ethical Fashion stance is so difficult to understand.
Where we live is a matter of accident, and it’s true that it’s appallingly unjust that we drive cars and fly away on holiday whilst children work 14 hour days to feed their families. But why should this be the concern of the fashion industry? If anything, the industry is in an excellent position to help these people! The more we buy the more factories will be built, more jobs created and more money circulating in these developing countries. That’s how development works; not by scare-mongering and empty posturing.
The irony is that the fashion industry has followed what is now incredibly fashionable itself. The green/ethical/sustainable side of industry is so enshrined in every sector that it’s almost a part of the furniture. The sad consequence is that fashion – that beautiful, ridiculous, obscene, ostentatious, intricate labour of love – has been lost in a sea of politics that should have nothing to do with it. Yes, spending £100,000 on a piece of couture sounds completely mad to most of us; but since when was fashion supposed to be sensible? Where fashion buffs once showed off their style credentials by splashing the cash on the latest designer wear, they now have a new way of setting themselves apart from the bargain-grabbing, primark-wearing masses.
Dropping hundreds of thousands of pounds on clothes would appear vulgar, particularly in the current economic climate. But if that money is spent in more ethical quarters, it’s suddenly not just acceptable, but admirable. The ethical fashion industry is simply another branch of the ever-expanding green market, and high fashion consumers have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.
Let’s move away from fashion needing to make any statement other than one of artistic vision, talent and intrigue. Let’s re-capture the fun of an industry that’s supposed to make people feel good! Let’s encourage indulgence in beautiful things that feel nice, look beautiful, or put a smile on our faces without guilt for the air miles that went into the fabric, or the fact that we wouldn’t fit into the size zero sample version.
We face serious issues in terms of economic development, and it’s easy to see why the fashion industry wants to be seen to care. However, the trend towards politicising things that don’t need to be is unhelpful. By moving away from celebrating unbridled artistic vision above all other costs, the industry has lost some of the joy once associated with it. Fashion has a new face and it’s a guilty one. Uncomfortable embracing excess and outrageousness, the industry is trying too hard to convince us all of its clean image.
As a result, we’ve lost sight of what fashion is all about. Once the focus shifts from making beautiful things onto politics, fashion becomes something very different. It’s not surprising the industry could be perceived a little directionless. Fashion can’t change the world on its own – only people as a whole can do that. But it certainly can make us better dressed.
Abigail Ross Jackson, national administrator and judge co-ordinator, Institute of Ideas Debating Matters Competition
"In a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to non-conformist positions the Battle of Ideas remains the flagship of free thinking."
John Cooper, leading barrister and writer