Photos and illustrations: Kristin Ay

The fashion industry is still one of the most socially and environmentally exploitative industries in the world. Separating domestic waste and avoiding factory-farmed produce has become second nature to most of us, but fashion seems to be an area where we are still stalling in addressing the environmental, ecological and ethical issues in full. So what exactly is fashion’s current ethical position?

Ethical fashion is a somewhat nebulous term used to describe ethical practices in design, production, retail and purchasing. In particular, ethical fashion concerns maintaining ethical working conditions, sustainable production, environment effects and animal welfare.



Globalisation provides access to a wider variety of sources for materials and labour, and cheaper sources mean costs can be lowered. But the real social and environmental cost of today’s “disposable” fashion is being ignored. Do you know, or have you even considered the real cost of your wardrobe?

Did your favourite t-shirt contribute to the estimated 20,000 deaths per year that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), are due to pesticide poisoning from cotton growing? Did it flout local laws or those set by the United Nations convention and support child labour, forced overtime and unfair wages in the industry?

Interest in ethical consumption and sustainability is growing but ensuring your fashion choices are fair and on-trend is no mean feat. Companies’ attempts to maintain their responsibilities are often encumbered by unscrupulous suppliers and subcontractors abusing their position. Companies that both manufacture and retail such as the Los Angeles-based American Apparel, famous for such vertically integrated manufacturing, are rare.

Worldwide there are numerous organisations aiming to guarantee total ethical production. For example, The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is an alliance of companies, trade unions and organisations who work to improve the lives of workers who produce consumer goods across the world. Despite such efforts, ethical fashion does not equal plain sailing.


Consider the following ethical dilemma: H&M have been supporting organic cotton since 2004 and using it in their fashion lines since 2007. Despite their codes of conduct they have come under fire after some of their outsourcing has been found supporting unethical practices such as unfair pay, putting consumers in a tricky position. Buying that organic cotton T-shirt may support an ethical cause, but it also supports a company whose ethical practices need improving.

Even companies renowned for their commitment to social responsibility are continually surrounded by controversy. The UFF second-hand clothing store provides such an example.

UFF (U-landshjälp från Folk till Folk/ Development aid from nation to nation) is the Swedish branch of the international aid organisation Humana People to People who aim to reduce the rich/poor divide by aiding development. In Europe, North America and Africa, their sales and distribution of second-hand clothing aids over four million people. However, Humana is an offshoot of the controversial Danish Tvind Corporation that grew into a global corporation from an educational concept.

The organisation’s profits are allegedly used to fund development projects but in recent years the organisation has been subject to a number of investigations, including tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. It has been referred to as a cult, due to its use of force to ensure its “collective” status. Such allegations make it fair to question what is more ethical: fast-fashion or second-hand fashion?

Use your head

The globalised and sub-contracted economy can make it difficult to keep track of what you are buying. But it doesn’t take a quantum physicist to work out that cheap garments equal less money to those that make them. Maria Kaski, fashion editor of Greenmystyle.com, a daily eco glossy magazine, shares her tip.

“A great way of checking whether or not you are buying a mass-produced garment is by checking the price and comparing it to the work that appears to have gone into the making of it. If it is ornately sequined and costs next to nothing, chances are it is not ethical.”

“Ethics in fashion should be a prevalent factor at all levels of production. Workers should enjoy a fair wage and working conditions that enable them to sustain their family and lead an enjoyable life. The environment should be considered during the creation of fabrics, whether it is organic cotton, peace silk or eel skin. Where possible, I would strongly advocate backing local artisans and businesses as it not only boosts local trade but also keeps the carbon footprint to a minimum.”

Celebrity culture is influencing the status of ethical fashion. Designer Katherine Hamnett rigorously maintains an ethical stance, Harry Potter star Emma Watson has collaborated with retailer People Tree, and Bono of U2 fame and his wife Ali Hewson founded Edun, producing fashion to aid sustainable employment in developing countries.

The prolific support encourages awareness of the humanitarian issues and reinforces how ethical choices do not mean compromising on style.

“Once the new generation of designers take on board the need to make a difference, I think there will be a complete U-turn to ethical fashion. Already big names in fashion are doing their part with projects that show a desire to make a contribution. Clements Ribeiro, Vivienne Westwood and model Lily Cole have all worked on ethical projects,” explains Kaski.

That being fashionable means you have style is a common misconception. As is that you can’t be both stylish and ethical.

“You do not have to compromise on style if you want to be more ethical in your choice of clothes, our magazine is for a new generation of eco-conscious people, and is as far removed from ‘hippy’ ideas as you can imagine.”

Landfill, overspill

The gluttonous consumer culture of the early 2000s seems to be waning, and whether due to ethics or finances, there’s a yearning for originality. Landfill overload is a serious repercussion of a disposable economy. Synthetic fabrics do not decompose and not even natural fabrics are risk free; the anaerobic decomposition of wool produces the harmful greenhouse gas methane. Recycling reduces the impact of these materials.

“Vintage or recycled fabrics are becoming more common which is a fantastic way of avoiding clothes going to landfill,” says Kaski.

Second-hand stores and flea markets such as Finland’s Fida, who celebrate their 30th anniversary this year, are key figures in textile recycling. Diverting garments from landfills is both a humanitarian endeavour and environmentally beneficial.

“People have always bought second-hand things, but probably never as much as today. New, trendy second-hand stores are popping up everywhere! I like that it’s becoming more ‘normal’ to buy second-hand. You look great and you’re setting an example. I always give my old clothes to flea-markets” says Johanna Forsblom, one half of the sister duo behind Turku’s Syster Retro second-hand shop.

Karo Hellberg from Fasaani Antikki explains: “It’s people’s search for individuality. Many people seem to have a really strong sense of personal style that the ‘ordinary’ stores don’t offer. That the item has ‘been bought before’ makes the purchase more ethical.”

To be worn again

Shopping second-hand is not only recession-savvy, but it is a positive ecological statement. Being a zealot of a recycled wardrobe is no longer socially stigmatised.

“What appeals to me is this idea of uniqueness,” Hellberg describers. “That I might not be the only one who has worn the item does not bother me; it increases my interest in it. When you don’t have to question the unethical factors, you are more free to concentrate on the aesthetic, ‘outside’ factors of the piece.”

“I dislike mass production, the cheap labour and materials. The logistics are what make the product expensive. Production has disappeared from Finland because of expensive costs and skilled people have had to lower their prices because of cheap mass production. It’s more sensible to fix and maintain a good quality old garment rather than buy poor quality which only lasts a few washes,” explains Marjo Haapasalo from Turku’s custom-made and vintage clothing store, Boutique Minne.

Faster fashion coupled with an abundance of emerging technologies in the last century means education has been forced to put less emphasis on needlework and textiles in order to make way for 21st century skills.

“The ability to create, make and mend is one that appears to have been lost through generations. We have turned into a throwaway society where if something breaks we just chuck it instead of mending it. A vast amount of waste could be saved if we learnt to sew and fix our things,” says Kaski.

With 65,000 page views per month, the online Wardrobe Refashion community is evidence of a will to “make-do and mend” and an eagerness to improve handicraft skills. Also exploding in popularity, like a 21st century version of a Tupperware party, is Swishing, where ethical savvy fashionistas are swapping not shopping.

All aboard

The negative side of popularity is high prices. “Of course the stores get dollar-signs in their eyes,” says Forsblom. “A lot of second-hand stores are getting expensive. Used is always used, I don’t think we should forget that. When second-hand clothes become as expensive as new ones, something’s wrong!”

High-street stores are capitalising on the market too. Clothing store Kapp Ahl offers a vintage-inspired collection, influenced by the 1920s to 1950s; “Vintage Stories” aims to recreate that glamour for the modern woman.

Such choices from the high street are in fact detrimental for ethical fashion. Capitalising in this way blurs the line between ethical and fast fashion. Kaski is opposed to this jumping on the bandwagon.

“Vintage-inspired lines do not come close to the real thing. The joy of vintage is in the originality of each piece and that’s something that the high street cannot offer. What I find much more inspiring is the attempt that some high street brands are making to add Fair Trade or ethical labels as concessions. By stocking these eco brands alongside non-eco clothes, it is losing that dividing line and displaying the clothes for what they are in terms of design and style”

Enforcing that companies communicate their ethical policy publically could help consumers stay abreast of what they are supporting.

“The consumer should be aware of where the clothes come from and what they are made of. It’s illogical that designers and companies that follow ethical practices should have to display this as a novelty. I feel it should be the other way around, with non-ethical companies displaying this ‘non-ethical’ tag and explaining why they have gone down this route.”

Wardrobe Refashion

Wardrobe Refashion began in 2006 when Nichola Prested decided to save the environment, save money and improve her handicraft skills by ceasing to buy new manufactured clothing. Participants make a pledge on the blog to abstain from purchasing new clothing for 2, 4, 6 months or radically, for life and are forced to create garments from scratch or to refashion and recycle existing ones. They are encouraged to share their creations and in any cases of falling “off the wagon”, a Monopoly inspired “Get out of re-fashionista jail free” card must be displayed!

The Pledge: “I pledge that I will refashion, renovate, recycle pre-loved item for myself for the term of my contract. I pledge that I shall create and craft items of clothing for myself with my own hands in fabric, yarn or other medium for the term of my contract”


Chemically enhanced

To ensure the reputability of an ethical guarantee, strict targets administered by a standards agency, would need to be met. Exposés of child labour and poor working conditions emphasise the need for such control, as do the recent cases of textile contamination with banned chemicals.

Chemical treatments used in fabric production are a big problem for the environment. The hazardous chemicals range from common elements such as lead and nickel to compounds such as formaldehyde and dimethyl fumarate. Many are banned in the EU, but there are no laws on the chemicals used in imported fabrics. Widely used in Asia, the chemicals enter our water system when garments are washed and the chemicals are rinsed off.

This year, the Swedish Agency for Control of Chemicals found that the Average Joe Clean Blue jeans from Swedish label Nudie were contaminated with the EU banned anti-mould chemical, dimethyl fumarate. Used as a fungicide in transport and storage, the levels exceeded legal limits by 500 per cent.

The chemical is not used by Nudie in production and should not be present at all. The likely explanation is that the volatile chemical caused the products to come into contact with the fungicide as a result of adjacent products in transit. Against their environmental principles, Nudie are being forced to reintroduce plastic packaging for their garments in order to guarantee a clean product.

Last year, Swedish label Cheap Monday was also forced to withdraw a t-shirt from production after levels of nonylphenol ethoxylate, whose estrogenic function is thought to affect the reproductive organs in fish, exceeded the company’s own maximum levels.

The fashion world is renowned for being fickle, but hopefully its dalliance with ethics is not just seasonal. Apathy is no longer a problem thanks to popular culture piquing the interest of consumers but it is now time to collaborate and start networking to form a global community that can create a connected catalyst for sustained change in the industry.

Daisey Cheyney