Thanks to the efforts of progressive companies across the UK, ethical clothing and fashion are no longer mutually exclusive. While it was once only possible to dress in cruelty-free clothing if you resigned yourself to ill-fitting kaftans and scratchy hemp trousers, now the fashion industry is cluttered with designers offering organic, recycled, fair trade and traditional garments at a comparable cost to the high street.
This development is not just a victory for looking good. More importantly, it is a step towards the eradication of unethical labour policies and exploitation in factories around the world. The term ‘sweatshop’ has become a by-word for the dubious activities of huge multinationals, but its real meaning should not be forgotten. The word was coined over 200 years ago to describe factory conditions that ‘sweated’ products out of labourers by forcing them to work long hours. To keep costs down, wages were set low and safety precautions were minimal. Collectives and trade unions were banned, and workers had no guarantee that their jobs were secure.
Sweatshop practices belong in the 19th century, but they still exist in many countries today. The chances are you are wearing something right now that is the product of these conditions. The companies who set themselves apart from these practices are sending a message to the big manufacturers that such exploitation is unacceptable, and that a growing number of people not only agree with them, but are willing to act upon their principles.
According to the Ethical Clothing Report from TNS Worldpanel Fashion (Oct, 2008), nearly three quarters (72%) of the British public think ethical fashion and the ethical production of the clothes they buy is important – up sharply from 59% the previous year.
The choices for individuals are manifold. High street stores such as Marks & Spencer and Monsoon stock clothes made with Fairtrade certified cotton, which are also available via the internet at People Tree (www.peopletree.co.uk) amongst many others. Companies including Seasalt use organic cotton, and the Worn Again range offers garments made out of everything from car seats to parachutes. A comprehensive list of stockists is available in the Ethical Fashion Directory, while bargain hunters need look no further than the nearest charity shop for second-hand and recycled clothing.
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