pic: Sarah Kendal

Dedicated Follower of Compassion

6th September 2013

Jennifer Lipman looks at how to dress stylishly and affordably without compromising your conscience

Few things – at least few frivolous things – are quite as satisfying as finding the perfect dress for half what you’d planned to spend. Likewise, when someone praises your choice of jacket and asks whether it’s Joseph or Karen Millen or the like, and you know it set you back just £14.99 at Primark, it can feel like something of a victory.

But at the back of our mind, we know that cheap still comes at a price. We know that the reason we can buy a t-shirt for the same price as a Starbucks coffee is not that someone has found a way to substantially reduce the costs of raw materials or shipping. Nor is the business-owner taking the hit when we still have change from a tenner after buying a new pair of pumps. Much as we might not want to admit it, deep down we know it is probably only possible because somewhere there is an underpaid worker labouring for long hours in substandard conditions.

After more than 1,100 workers died in a fire in April at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that made clothing for Mango and Primark, it’s even harder to ignore. Tragedies like this have been happening since the birth of mass fashion – in 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York killed 146 – but that doesn’t mean they have to be a part of the future.

We might once have justified paying so little on the grounds of the multiplier effect – without our money, poor workers would be without any income at all – but with every tragedy, every sweatshop horror story, it seems a less than palatable argument. Yet while the lucky few have the luxury of only buying clothes made in Parisian ateliers, abandoning the high street isn’t an option for most.

But there are alternatives. For starters, not every high street brand operates the same way, and retailers are beginning to recognise a demand for transparency. “Have a look into the brands you already like,” advise Sarah Kendal and Talia Chain, of ethical fashion company House of Beth. “Check out their ethical policies and ask them questions. Brands like Monsoon are already doing a good job of turning their operations into an open and fair system.”

M&S is another example of a company making progress, with an emphasis on good working conditions throughout the supply chain. Its Greener Living portal sells eco-friendly and fair-trade items, from lacy lingerie to jeggings. Likewise, Monsoon, which claims its efforts ‘do not stop at the factory gates’, supports craftswomen employment schemes in India. H&M, another high street staple, recently began publishing a list of its factories, ensuring transparency, and running ‘training programmes to raise workers’ awareness of their rights’.

The internet is full of guides to high street ethical practice, but a good place to start is the Ethical Trading Initiative, which lists the stores that have signed up. Likewise Labour behind the Label offers scorecards: Zara and Next rate highly here, for example, while Reiss failed to provide any information… which doesn’t speak well of its interest in ethical fashion.

That’s not surprising, according to Lucy Siegle, author of the 2011 industry exposé To Die For, since high end doesn’t necessarily translate into high ethical standards. “Price is a very bad marker,” she says. “If you take Rana Plaza as an example, value brands were in there and so were higher price ones such as Benetton. This proves, as long suspected, that brands use the same factories regardless of price.”

Livia Firth • pic: Nicogenin

A better guide is how ‘high fashion’ something is. Catwalk copies that make it to the high street in record time should be viewed with suspicion, since they may indicate ethical corners being cut. Not that ethical fashion is all hemp dresses and tie die; some of its biggest advocates include Livia Firth, model Lily Cole and designer Vivienne Westwood, all of whom know a thing or two about style.

Naysayers complain that unlike the high street, there isn’t much variation in price when it comes to ethical fashion – and that most earth-friendly fashion costs the earth. “The ethical market cannot compete with Primark, that is true,” admit Talia and Sarah. But they say that the most common misconception about ethically sourced clothing – other than that it’s merely ‘a hippie priority’ – “is that paying workers wages and not harming the environment automatically means that clothes are unaffordable”.

There are certainly mainstream and relatively affordable ethical brands, such as People Tree. Stocked at John Lewis, prices for a summer dress started at a wallet-friendly £40 this year. And smaller companies, which do not rely on foreign supply chains or put in bulk orders, may naturally be more responsible. “There’s a misconception that all ‘ethical fashion’ is labelled as ethical”, says Lucy. “There are some designers who do it because it's the right thing but prefer to sell on trend and aesthetics.”

And, as she emphasises, “affordability is deeply subjective”. Some consumers are willing to spend more on new trends, or a specific cut or brand name. Surely whether it is ‘ethical’ should be just another consideration?

Rather than buying everything for next to nothing, Lucy urges consumers to think before they shop. “Do not, for example, buy anything you won't wear 30 times,” she advises. “If you're buying a handmade piece by a young designer who employs a few locally based seamstresses it is going to cost you. But you wouldn't buy such a piece unless you wanted to invest.”

She’s right that we ought to spend more on better quality, ethically sourced clothing, thus negating the need to buy new items every season. Unfortunately, going cold turkey on retail therapy is unlikely to catch on.

But, thanks to the current fashion for all things retro, we don’t have to deny ourselves. “Vintage is an excellent way of dressing ethically, fashionably and affordably”, enthuse Talia and Sarah. With landfills brimming, buying old – from specialist stores or from charity shops (especially those in upmarket areas) – avoids unethical high street stores and helps the environment.

As for the high street, are things likely to change across the board any time soon? The hope is that the Bangladesh tragedy will be a wake-up call, prompting the international community to act and enforce existing regulations about pay and working conditions.

Some would like to see a boycott of companies that fall short, arguing that consumer pressure would force retailers to improve their standards, although there is a worry that this would really damage the interests of the workers themselves. Others say that the key is awareness – people are relatively willing to question supply chains when it comes to fair-trade food, but are still largely ignorant about how clothes go from cotton field to cashier.

“Few people have any idea about how and where their clothes are made. Many people would not even know that cotton is picked,” Sarah and Talia observe. “Consumers just see the final product.” Perhaps if people were better informed of the process, they’d be less willing to turn a blind eye.

Ultimately, it requires both political change and for the consumer to put their money where his or her mouth is. “There has been such a demand in ‘ethical’ clothing recently, that it has forced major countries to change some of their strategies,” say Sarah and Talia. “But many companies still choose to ignore consumer demand – which is still not as big as it could be.”

In other words, we shouldn’t stop shopping. But we should learn to shop with our eyes open, ask the right questions and consider whether the price on the tag is just too good to be true…

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