Wednesday 16 February 2011

Fashion made fair

To be perfectly honest I've never really been that bothered about clothes other than as functional items.  Maybe it's a guy thing, maybe it's just a me thing.  I've still got perfectly serviceable clothes that I bought when I was 17 and I tend to wear things until they literally fall off me.

However, in my professional life, I work for a big blue-chip and I have to make a bit of an effort when I'm in the office.  So, usually about once a year, in January, I drag myself around the shops (or better still, the internet) in search of something to update my work-wardrobe.

It's hard work if you're looking for clothes with any kind of ethical or local-sourcing credentials.  Ethical and fairtrade clothing is still something of a niche market, most people think the idea of organic clothes a bit weird, and "local" tends to mean UK at best.  It's even harder when you're looking at smart clothes - the shirt and tie variety that I need for work.  Short of bespoke tailoring (way out of my income bracket), I've been unable to find anything at all in Norfolk, and when I contacted the company I buy my shirts from, they told me that they used to make their shirts in London but have since offshored it to the far east.  They also took pains to tell me about the standards they impose on those offshore suppliers.  Well that's something I suppose.

However, it's incredibly difficult to determine whether any particular company is just paying lip service to ethical principles or has them genuinely at the heart of its operation.  According to War on Want's Love Fashion, Hate Sweatshops campaign, much of the UK's clothing is still made at great cost to the producers in poor countries, and the People and Planet website's Redress Fashion campaign highlights the terrible environmental and human cost of the cotton industry.

Thankfully, there are a few solutions out there to these particular issues, and the number of solutions are growing fast.  This year, I was determined to check out the state of ethical clothing before I bought anything, and found the Ethical Junction website, a one-stop catalogue linking many providers of ethical, fairtrade, organic and non-cotton clothing.  I was pretty impressed.  OK it was more expensive than Primark, Gap, Top Shop and various other high-street retailers, but there's no doubt a good reason for that.  I couldn't get everything I needed, and sadly, there was nothing I could find that was made in Norfolk (the nearest, I think, was Northampton) but my favourite was definitely Global Seesaw.  Not only do they make fabulous campaign t-shirts like the one pictured above (now the favourite item in my wardrobe), but they're made by a women's cooperative in India that gives work and dignity back to street-workers - you can read the full story on the website.  They also do great courier-bags!

So while my smart workwear remains something of a challenge in terms of its sustainability and ethical credentials, some of the new breed of online entrepreneurs with ethics at the heart of what they do are providing a growing range of options for those who need to look good, but want to feel good about it too.
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