Tuesday, May 13, 2008

This decade has seen an entire sector of the fashion industry built up around eco-fashion. Perhaps the best example of this is People Tree which, despite having no retail outlets on the high street has achieved an enviable level of brand recognition, and yet in spite of the popularity of well known ethical clothing companies such as People Tree, Howies and Terra Plana it is still difficult to predict whether the sector is stable enough to survive the next 10 years. Ecological fashion is expensive. The production of clothing can cost a lot: paying workers a living wage, using materials that are good for the environment and dyes that don’t cause harm pushes the cost of clothes up. After all of that hard work, the method of delivering clothes is still going to be slower and the turnover less quick than high street retailers because it is destructive and unethical to fly clothing from one country to another. An ecologically minded fashion company that uses planes should surely have its credentials questioned? The media is discussing the rising cost of food, the sense that we’re in an economic downturn is prevalent and the question of whether an expensive, ethical trade can be sustained, whether the market focuses on the right demographic for this to be possible, must be at the forefront of people’s minds. In the last few weeks Nau has shut up shop, a thoughtful clothing company that couldn’t achieve a viable level of funding. The question is as always whether people who are not wealthy can be expected to consistently spend more on clothing, particularly if they are already spending more on food, cleaning products, cosmetics and other items that they perceive as ethical because there are no cheap, ethical products. The association of price and luxury exists because spending more on any item equates to buying luxury goods. When we buy a more expensive version of the same basic product, whether it is food or clothing, we are buying a luxury item regardless of any external gain for wider society or our own bodies. Then there’s the argument that cheaper clothes fall apart and out of shape more quickly but I don’t see a foundation for it, particularly not in my own experience. My People Tree skirt is not in better shape than the skirt I bought from H&M a few years earlier so the choice to buy more expensive clothing is an ethical and intellectual choice, not a practical choice.

British supermarkets have tried to adopt eco-fashion with mixed results. Lucy Siegle’s blog post on the relationship between Katharine Hamnett and Tesco reveals the expected tension between ecological ideals and big business. If you’re interested in the status of larger retail chains with regards to worker’s rights the Clean Up Fashion report from War on Want is an interesting, informative place to begin with a section in the PDF summary dedicated to How Companies Fared.

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