Ethical fashion on the rise

Caoimhe Gordon investigates the rise of an eco-friendly mindset in the fashion industry

“Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.”

So announced eccentric British fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood in 2013. Urging consumers to opt for quality over quantity, Westwood was not attempting to cajole the general public to scrap together their pennies to purchase an item from her new collection.

Instead, five years later, Westwood’s comments praising conscious consumerism cemented her place in the emerging revolution in the world of fashion. As Westwood eschewed the simple act of “buying for the sake of it”, no one could imagine that an era of sustainable fashion was about to reign supreme.

Fast fashion retailers- such as H&M or the parent company of Zara and Bershka, Inditex- have come under increasing fire due to the questionable methods of their exceptionally fast production rates in reacting to current market trends. However, as more and more people worldwide have become ensorcelled with the creation of a sustainable mindset, this increased ecological acumen has led consumers to seek ethical fashion options.

Sophie Slater and Sarah Beckett are the founders of “Birdsong”, a London based fashion label. Having met during their post graduate degree based around the concept of social change, they quickly realised they shared an interest in fashion. Sophie explains, “We were excited and inspired by fashion, but knew that sweatshops, and the way that fashion is marketed to women has devastating impacts.”

A common link between Birdsong and many other ethical labels is the focus placed on the suppliers of the garments. The central mission of the brand is to generate income for the suppliers, while simultaneously raising awareness. This is echoed in the brand ethos of London brand, Know the Origin, founded by Charlotte Instone.

The founding of KTO aims to fully embrace the industry buzzword “brand transparency” in order to ensure it becomes the norm. Instone reports that 61% of other brands are unaware where their clothing is made while 93% remain clueless regarding the origin of the fabrics that are used throughout the production process.

The ethos of ethical brands is clear- they strive to improve the lives of their suppliers through fair pay, respect and assisting the businesses in their aim to be kept in operation. KTO achieves this through a wide network of suppliers in India, while Birdsong promotes 14 suppliers in 12 countries, including a London knitting circle that was set up in collaboration with Age UK.

The ethos of Birdsong is simple- “no sweatshops, no Photoshop.” The founders maintain that they want to eradicate poverty as well as the unrealistic ideals of beauty that pervade the fashion industry at present. 50-85% of Birdsong’s revenue returns to women’s organisations that make the clothes.

Instone’s aim is to achieve a universal acknowledgement of the importance of ethical practices in the fashion industry. With fashion being the second most environmentally polluting industry in the world, achieving a new normal in the industry will be no mean feat.

But young women like Instone, Slater and Beckett continue to promote stylish items at affordable prices that were produced ethically. As Slater notes, embracing ethical fashion does not automatically equate to expensive pieces or hemp sacks.

The ethical movement has firmly woven into the fabric of the Irish fashion scene. From luxury brand We are Islanders to Galway-based fashion label The Tweed Project, strides towards eco-friendly fashion are being made across the nation- even within the gates of our hallowed educational institution.

The Nu Wardrobe is a self-described “sustainable fashionable community”. Struck by the devastating conditions experienced during volunteering with SUAS in India, Aisling Byrne returned home enraged. Although she was fully aware that humans are consuming 400% more fashion than we did just 20 years ago, gaining an insight into the fast-fashion industry filled her with an overwhelming desire for change.

“Seeing the polluted rivers and hazardous working conditions I had this overwhelming feeling of anger. I thought …. ‘Why am I a part of this?’” she recalls. Beginning with a monthly swap shop in collaboration with a like-minded pal, it soon developed with help of accelerator programme Launchbox into the online hub it is today.

Byrne’s passion for changing mindsets is evident: “Ethical fashion is fashion created in a system that is morally right and morally acceptable. This stands for all parts of the process from design to sourcing to manufacturing. Before a garment appears on the shop floor it has already impacted many people and the environment.

It is paramount that all the people and resources involved in this process are treated with respect. It is paramount that farmers and garment workers are given a fair and living wage, that they work in safe conditions, and that their human rights are not compromised.”

Equally strong however is her disdain for the fast-fashion industry and its corrosive effects on the environment. She credits the rise of globalisation for contributing to awareness, citing the global outrage expressed in the wake of the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh which killed 1,134 people: “There was a magnifying glass placed on the fashion industry’s deliberately opaque supply chain and it has become something that can no longer be ignored.”

This revolution has led consumers to truly consider the repercussions of their latest purchase, a growing awareness which to Byrne likens to the growth of responsible waste management in the years previous: “A few years back people wouldn’t be too bothered about recycling at all, but now if you see someone who doesn’t recycle….it’s a bit shameful, because we are all so aware of the consequences of not recycling. I think we’ll find the expression ‘€5, Penny’s’ losing its confidence as people realise the human and environmental cost behind a piece costing only €5.”

Byrne sums up the conundrum of fast-fashion in one simple sentence: “I walk past shop windows with jumpers saying ‘Girl Power sewn by women who have no power whatsoever.” Her wealth of knowledge on the global impact of fast fashion is accompanied with a whole host of statistics that are undeniably shocking: “T-shirts are sold for €60 that cost €4 to make and use 2,700 litres of water and lbs of CO2 in the production process and are designed to fall apart after 7 washes…. but people will probably never notice because clothing is rarely worn over 7 times.” She dismisses these chains as little more than a business venture: “Fast-fashion no longer changes as a mirror of society and art, it’s just a myriad of trends that don’t seem to be rooted in anything other than an algorithm of what is most likely to sell.”

However, Byrne remains wholly optimistic about the future of the fashion industry, envisioning a future predicted by Stella McCartney and Ellen MacArthur, where citizens are more likely to rent their clothing instead of purchasing. Developing 3D printing technology promises more diversity and individualism of products.

Byrne remarks: “I think this presents one of the most exciting times in fashion. Traditional industries across every sector are being completely disrupted and I think fashion has left itself particularly vulnerable, but it is also the industry that I feel will shine when disrupted owing to its endless creativity.”

The mission of the Nu Wardrobe remains equally exuberant, with Byrne envisioning the community filling the void of fast-fashion worldwide: “We want to empower young women to make sustainable fashion choices regardless of their budget and we want to do this without compromising on style. In order to achieve this, we need to be focused on changing people’s habits from ‘buy-wear one-dispose’ to ‘buy-wear- share-rewear’.

When we share clothes as a community we extend the life-cycle of the garment, save our own money, and significantly reduce waste. We hope that this will decrease the buying of fast-fashion and eventually slow down the industry.” Byrne also plans expansion across campuses and workplaces across Ireland and the UK to increase the ethical consumption of fashion.

Byrne doesn’t mince her words when considering the future of her burgeoning business: “Yeah, so we basically want to save the world.”