Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Ethical Fashion: Can Beauty Be Benign?


By Tara Gould 

Bloody Garments – the price of fast fashion

A grey arm sticks rigid out of the ruins. A woman’s crushed torso emerges through rubble, a bruise of red blood on the fabric of her sari, showing through a film of dust.

Photographs of the Rana Plaza disaster of 24 April last year are shocking.   The collapse of the Bangladesh clothing factory killed 1,127 people and injured scores more. Only days before, the building had been pronounced structurally unsafe for purpose, yet still thousands of women workers were sent in to carry on as usual.

The Western world was appalled, but how many of us have actually considered the reality of the human impact, the consequences on family members left behind, and the fact that these deaths were a result of the gross negligence of the brands involved? Has this prompted a change in legislation or consumer habits?  Months after the disaster, the profits of the biggest high street brands are still soaring.

It’s easy to feel bad about a disaster miles away, then pop into the local fast-fashion outlet the next day and buy a new T shirt. After all, you’re on a tight budget, and it’s not your fault the building collapsed, is it?

At this stage in the rapid growth of unethical fashion, how can we slow things down and be mindful of the consequences of our shopping habits? The lack of ethical consciousness or legislation of the big brands makes selfish shopping so easy.  The media and many women's magazines seem to not only condone but encourage high street fashion without a second thought about what's been involved in its production.

With 3 million people working in the garment industry, many of whom are women and children between the ages of 8 and 16, are we prepared to do more to engender positive change and stop the abuse?

Fashion takes Action

Some people are – and they want you to join them.

Last October, a trendy corner of East London hosted the gathering of an audience dressed entirely in red and pink to show their solidarity for ethical fashion. The brainwave of original ethical fashion pioneer, Safia Minney and her  People Tree label, 'Fashion takes Action'  was organized specifically to ask whether, less than a year after Rana Plaza,  we are putting people and planet first.

Campaigner Minney, whose seminal book Naked Fashion has had a profound influence on the fashion industry, was joined on a panel by iconic fashion designer and People Tree collaborator Zandra Rhodes, Lord Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, and journalist Liz Jones, who has travelled to Dhaka in India on a number of occasions and accompanied Safia Minney there after the Rana Plaza disaster.

The human cost of fashion

A short film of Safia Minney’s visit to Bangladesh was shown with unseen footage of protests and interviews, followed by a panel discussion which Safia began with a talk about her visit to India, through the Rag Rage campaign.

Liz Jones explained how a man featured in the film lost his wife. She was in the building when the collapse happened, and she was never found. Yet after a lengthy appeal he received only $200 compensation, he lives in a slum and has to queue everyday for rice. Still, 10 of the 11 brands involved have not coughed up any compensation. “I think it’s disgusting,” Liz said. “It makes you very ashamed that you’ve ever been in one of those stores.”

Legislation vs education

Liz expressed her belief that there is no going back on fast fashion

“We keep raising awareness but you go down Oxford Street and see people laden down with bags from Primark. The British female shopper is not going to change her habits. Legislation is the only thing that will make companies change. We need to lobby government and the people in power.”

Lord Peter Melchett urged that we need to be positive, that we refrain from scorn or attack but that we keep spreading awareness and at the same time push for hard laws to be put in place.

“Governments are afraid to act, especially against big corporate interests,” he explained. “But organic global sales are growing; they are up by 10%.  A 2012 YouGov report revealed that 49% of people believe consumers should think more about organic. There is good news, but there is still bad stuff happening.”

He pointed out that some of the main players in high street fashion were turning gradually towards sustainable practices and he cited H&M’s organic cotton growth targets as ambitious.

The cotton problem

He highlighted the dangers of genetically modified cotton which contaminates the land and spoke about the affects of non-organic pesticide heavy farming:

“Cotton is sprayed more than any other crop in the world – farmers who spray are not protected and often don’t have access to wash the chemicals off properly each day. 77 million people worldwide suffer or die from pesticide poisoning.”

Promotion not boycott

Safia explained that trade unions, such as the National Garment Makers Federation, don’t want a boycott of these companies, but would prefer a multi-stakeholder approach. The key is to promote safety and fairness for the workers, not cut off their income streams.

Her Rag Rage campaign collated more than 80,000 signatures calling fashion brands to sign the Fire and Building Safety Agreement in Bangladesh and to provide compensation to victims. But still most of the brands involved have not paid compensation.

Like the smoking ban?

Zandra Rhodes cited the smoking ban as an example that things can change quickly and dramatically: “We need to keep the fire alive, and hope that our small efforts make a difference.”

A point that Zandra made in jest is left with me “you can’t wear heels in India” – and in a way this is pertinent. For fashion to become benign it might just require some of us giving up some of the things we love, things that we think we should have, but don't really need.

Be the change

It's not necessary to sacrifice personal style, there should be no guilt in wanting to look good, but a certain myth seems to have been propagated, that those of us on a budget have no choices at our disposal. It's the high street or bust. This simply isn't true.  Many brands selling organic cotton are now comparable in price to non-organic, charity shops and vintage stores are plentiful and a treasure trove of rich pickings, and as more of us commit to the things we believe in, like ethical fashion, the price of ethical fashion continues to fall.

By adding your support for these campaigns, by signing petitions and putting pressure on brands and government, you are helping the victims of unscrupulous practices. But if enough of us choose to pay a few pounds more for organic cotton, or avoid the high street altogether and only buy from ethical labels, this will engender the dramatic change that all of us need in the long term.

Tara Gould is a writer and senior editorial consultant at Ethical SEO (www.ethical-seo.eu).  She writes about all aspects of sustainable and ethical business, design and culture. She lives in Lewes, UK with her family.


3p Contributor

TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

Read more stories by 3p Contributor

More stories from Leadership & Transparency