The clothes that we choose to wear each season often depend more on fashion than on ethics. However, if we want to make a positive impact on the world around us, we need to start considering more than whether the clothes suit our shape or are in fashion. Instead, we should be asking ourselves a number of different questions. Where has this been made? What sort of conditions are those producing the clothes working under? Are they getting paid enough? We should also ask ourselves what impacts the production of our clothes has on the environment.
Only a tiny proportion of clothes are manufactured in the UK. Instead, companies prefer to import clothes from countries where labour costs are low and workers have fewer rights. In 2004, the EU imported seventy-one billion euros' worth of clothing. Over fifty per cent of that came from just five countries: China, Turkey, Romania, Bangladesh and Tunisia. The clothing industry is notorious for its poor treatment of workers, and there have been many high-profile campaigns trying to persuade companies to take more responsibility for overseas workers. Last year, Oxfam criticised conditions in a Thai factory producing clothing for major high-street clothing labels. They found that four out of five workers were Burmese migrants, many illegal, who only received thirty per cent of the minimum wage and worked twelve-hour days. Pregnant women were also allegedly fired. These types of story are not uncommon, and occur in many of the countries where our clothes are made, from China in Asia, to Mexico in Central America.
Codes of conduct are company policies, which stipulate the standards that their suppliers must adhere to. These should contain information about the maximum number of working hours allowed, minimum wages, and other basic rights, such as the right to join a union. Although more and more companies are adopting such codes, they need be put into practice to really make a difference. Unfortunately, Oxfam's research found that, despite such codes, little has changed for many workers. A main factor is often a company's own purchasing practices. For example, short delivery times cut production times and mean that factories require their workers to work excessively long hours. This can mean working up to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, with no extra overtime payments. Meanwhile, in the pursuit of maximising profits, companies want to cut costs, meaning that wages for those in the factories remain inhumanely low.
It's not all bad news. On the high street, there are a number of stores that have codes of conduct, or are members of an organisation called the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), which has its own code, and aims to change the way companies do business. As consumers we can help by favouring companies that take labour issues seriously, and avoiding those who aren't, and by letting companies know that we think these issues are important. If buying from the high street, we can favour brands with codes of conduct or those who are members of the ETI.
The last time Ethical Consumer surveyed clothing retailers, the best codes came from Monsoon, H&M and Matalan. High-street clothing retailers or companies that are currently ETI members include Debenhams, Gap, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, Monsoon, New Look, Next, and Pentland Group (Speedo, Kickers, Ted Baker, Ellesse, Berghaus). However, an even more ethical option is to choose to buy from one of the growing number of small clothing companies that are producing ethically sourced clothing. These companies either source from the UK or know exactly which factory their clothes are produced from and are satisfied with the conditions of the workers producing their clothes, including paying them a fair wage. They sometimes also include a premium for the local community or give a proportion of their profits to charity. For a list of companies that supply fairly traded and/or organic clothing, visit our Clothing Directory online at www.resurgence.org/clothingdirectory.
The last few years have seen a growth in the organic food market as consumers are becoming more aware of what we put into our bodies. However, many of the same issues also apply to the production of cotton. Cotton uses more than ten per cent of the world's pesticides and a quarter of the world's insecticides and uses more insecticides than any other single crop. While the use of pesticides may not impact on us in the finished product, their use does endanger the health and safety of cotton farmers and workers. At least 20,000 people die in developing countries each year from poisoning by agricultural pesticides. Pesticides also threaten the health of farm workers and the surrounding environment, depleting wildlife, impoverishing soil, and poisoning water systems.
The focus on anti-GM campaigning has again been on food, but it's also an issue with cotton. In the US, three-quarters of all cotton is genetically modified. Yet just one company sells ninety per cent of all GM seeds. GM seeds are now being used in India and China, even though the costs are higher. Critics argue that the long-term environmental implications of such crops are still unknown. Unfortunately, at this time, none of the major clothing companies has issued a policy saying that it is not using GM cotton. Hence the only way to ensure that you know you're not purchasing clothing that has come from a GM crop is to favour organic cotton wherever you can. Hemp is also a good option.
Industrial fibres also have a negative environmental impact. Polyester, for example, is made from petrochemicals. It is not biodegradable, and it involves the intensive use of energy and water in its production. However, it can be recycled from plastic bottles and from post-industrial polyester waste. Meanwhile, although PVC might be fashionable, it's an environmental nightmare for many reasons, not least of which is its environmental impact in production and disposal.
Ethical Consumer is a bi-monthly publication which helps purchasers make ethical choices. Subscriptions cost £21 per year and are available via the website: www.ethicalconsumer.org
For a list of companies specialising in fairly traded ethical clothing visit: www.resurgence.org/clothingdirectory