The fashion industry has the potential to be a real force for good

Yes there have been scandals, and yes, there is more to do, but the fashion industry is working hard to become greener and more ethical. It’s time to start supporting these efforts, argues Green Living Editor Ruth Styles

Ethical and eco-friendly fashion has come a long way from the bad old days of hemp sack dresses and itchy smocks, but while the green fashion world has made serious strides during the last decade, there’s still a long race to be run. In general, the garment industry has never looked greener, with high street and designer brands falling over themselves to produce capsule collections based on eco-friendly fabrics, all while giving sourcing and production processes an ethical makeover. In the eco-fashion world, the tailoring is getting sharper, the shapes slicker and the collections ever more covetable as eco-fashion sets sail into the mainstream. Yet despite these advances, problems with the industry as a whole persist.







Most recently, a Greenpeace study discovered traces of the poison NPE in clothes produced by Adidas, H&M and Converse among others. While Adidas was quick to respond with a pledge to work harder on making output as environmentally sound as possible, H&M – producers of an eco-range based on organic cotton and tencel – denied that the findings presented any sort of problem at all. It’s attitudes such as this that must change for the fashion industry to become an altogether more ethical one to work in and do business with. Production and over-consumption remain pressing issues, with the British clothing industry producing 20 million tonnes of waste water and a shocking 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 each year. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs, not least in the behaviour of Nike and Adidas, both of whom have been hit by allegations - including the use of sweatshops and a reliance on petroleum-based fabrics - in the past, but who are making a real effort to clean up their act. What’s more, they aren’t alone, with Topshop, Toast, Muji and even Primark, all switching to organic cotton in part at least.

Plenty of arguments have been put forward to explain the increased appetite for eco-fashion among consumers, with greater awareness of these products, a growing appreciation for green thinking and disgust at appalling third world factory conditions all playing their part. But two organisations in particular deserve credit for the shift in consumption patterns. One is Greenpeace, who this week celebrate 40 years of drawing attention to a smorgasbord of eco-travesties – fashion’s failings among them. The other is Estethica – the British Fashion Council’s eco-design initiative, whose high profile platform for up-and-coming green talent has allowed the likes of Minna, Christopher Raeburn and Ada Zanditon to show off their wares to a mainstream audience. What’s more, the latest tranche of talent looks better than ever before, and it’s hard to imagine anyone writing the likes of Prophetik, Lost Property of London or Bernard Chandran off as just another bunch of right-on wannabes with principles that outweigh their skills. On the contrary, these labels have both in spades and prove once and for all that choosing the green option doesn’t come at the expense of looking good.

All of these things make getting to grips with the fashion industry more important than ever before, which is why we wanted to run an ethical fashion special to coincide with this month’s London Fashion Week. In it, I take a closer look at the green designers who will be making waves at London Fashion Week, while People Tree supremo, Safia Minney, investigates the impact of mass fashion on the planet. We also review her new book, Naked Fashion. Matilda Lee reports on the next generation of fashion innovators at the London College of Fashion and First to Know author, Lida Hujic laments the decline of Britain’s traditional textile artisans. While craftsmanship is in trouble in the UK, in the third world, it’s booming but is exacting a high price from local workers. Rosie Spinks looks at the problem of bonded labour in India and asks why the British high street has so far failed to act. Finally, in the wake of the study that found toxic chemicals in high street branded clothes, Greenpeace’s Tamara Stark argues that it's time to stop poisoning Chinese workers in the name of the West’s appetite for fashion.

With that in mind, the big question now is: where do we go from here? My hope is that in the not too distant future, all fashion will be eco-friendly - with bad practice and dodgy crude oil-based textiles phased out for good. People Tree has proved that ethical fashion doesn’t have to come with eye watering price tags, while Raeburn and co have shown that upcycled, organic, local and natural fabrics not only look great; they wear well to boot. Is this pie in the sky thinking? I’d argue not. Delve into collections by Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Preen or that of just about anyone else you’d care to mention, and you’ll find a surfeit of natural materials – silk, cotton, wool and leather among them. Why? Because they’re the best: they look the best, they wear the best and they last the best – key considerations if you’re thinking of dropping £800 on a dress.

How difficult would it really be to switch conventional cotton for organic, standard leather for vegetable-tanned or wool/polyester blends for the pure stuff? The high street too wouldn’t find it difficult to increase the amount of Fairtrade and eco-friendly goods on offer and the appetite among consumers is certainly there. As Liz Jones pointed out in Safia Minney's book, Naked Fashion, the cost of paying third world workers a livable wage would amount to little more than 80p per garment. Surely we aren’t all so tightfisted that 80p is an insurmountable hurdle? The fashion industry might not be perfect but it is a wonderful business to be in, and it has the influence and appeal to really change people’s mindsets. Perhaps I'm an incurable optimist but although I think giving fashion a total green-over will be a tough challenge, it’s one that I believe the fashion industry can rise to.

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Fashion special Stop making China suffer toxic pollution for Western fashion
A Greenpeace investigation exposed the gender-bending chemicals used in clothing production. Puma, Nike and Adidas have agreed to phase out the toxic chemicals, but can we expect others to follow? By Tamara Stark
Fashion special Safia Minney: fashion’s impact on the earth
In an exclusive extract from her new book - Naked Fashion - the People Tree founder looks at the environmental damage caused by modern fashion – and sketches out a radical new way forward
Fashion special The Ecologist guide to Estethica
London’s environmental fashion initiative celebrates its fifth birthday this year and this season looks set to be the best yet. Ruth Styles takes a closer look
Fashion special Craftsmanship: a dying art?
As London Fashion Week kicks off, Lida Hujic looks at the reasons behind the decline of British craftmanship and asks if we're in danger of losing it altogether
Fashion special Inside the London College of Fashion's eco-hub
Fashionable ideas get an ethical makeover at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Matilda Lee reports

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