A demand for ethical consumerism is steadily on the rise, especially among younger generations, who appear to be embracing the trending political activism, attempting to consciously monitor their buying habits. Alice Goody, retail analyst for Mintel had told the Guardian that “44% of younger millennials – the 17-26 age range – said they would like to see more eco-friendly fabrics used in clothes.”
It’s the height of insta-fashion to share your healthy-organic-free range-fair trade avocado on toast, video yourself lobbing cruelty free Lush products into your bath and snap selfies in marches and protests adorning feminist slogan tees. A variety of companies have listened to what their consumers want and made a killing off the good PR.
Unfortunately, the fashion biz has yet to fully embrace this wave of morality and make any significant progress – at least not for those on a budget. By and large, a basic ethically sourced tee will set you back $30+, and these prices are preventing ethical brands making it onto the high street (though there are tonnes of ethical brands online). There is evidence that consumers want to shop socially responsible and environmentally friendly styles, but it’s just not affordable.
One of the big problems is that while vegans and feminists are all the rage right now, so is fast fashion. Social media has prompted faster than ever trend turnover, and this encourages brands to pump out more regular collections, putting strain on production as a result. According to Oxfam, “most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers”.
Ethical brands struggle to compete with fast, easy and cheap companies. With an endless cycle of trends marketed in almost every of our lives from TVs, billboards and magazines to social media and websites, consumers are trained to value quantity over quality. We are eager to shop and try out new trends, purchasing cheap unethical clothing that doesn’t last. Brands refuse to lose their bigger profits margins gained through exploitation and are unwilling to invest in ethical alternatives. Investments into production of environmentally friendly fabrics, fair pay and treatment of workers would initially result in a rise in prices – though that would eventually level out.
There are a few encouraging signs. Minimalist wardrobes and interior design have become hugely popular over the last few years and may prove to be a step in the right direction. ASOS is promoting recycled clothing and vintage buying via ASOS Marketplace, and recent boho, 70s and festival styles have considerably opened up the attraction of second hand stores and one of a kind items. Apps such as Depop have followed suit, it’s a small break in the chain, aiding in reducing waste. While these initiatives are all well and good as gestures, however, they hardly scrape the surface of the systemic problem.
Big brands such as H&M have dabbled in a ‘conscious collection’ or two, but does this really show a willingness to change following the 21 deaths in their textile factory fires in Bangladesh? Do a few pairs of Nike sustainable trainers and safe dyed sports bras really excuse a long history of sweatshops or refusal to sign the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord? Big brands still have a long way to go.
The solution to fashions’ ethics crisis is depressingly simple. Firstly, the fashion industry needs to be willing to invest into ethical alternatives – to be willing to produce at a higher cost and sell will lower profit margins (which billion pound companies can certainly afford). Secondly, consumers need to be willing to let go of extremely cheap, fast fashion. The expense of a clear conscious, safe and well-treated workers and a happy environment is steep for now, but we all need to pay a small price for morality.
Words by Josie Collins