What Does 2012 Hold for Ethical and Sustainable Fashion?

Fashion is a fast moving industry and no part of it is changing quicker than ethical fashion. Yes its still niche, but real momentum is there and change is starting to happen. Most of the major high street and supermarket brands have played with organic cotton and recycling, they’ve hired CSR professionals and put codes of conduct on their websites. More niche ethical brands have cropped up, founded by inspiring individuals that want to erase the dirty side of fashion, and longstanding companies have grown, most notably People Tree, and Ascension who I was delighted to hear announce a profit this Christmas. In 2011, Estethica, the ethical section at London Fashion Week, celebrated its 5th year, proving that sustainability can of course be stylish, innovative and desirable.

People are talking about ethical and sustainable fashion and there are many fantastic blogs on the subject. Two fabulous books were published in 2011. One was To Die For: Is fashion wearing out the world? by Lucy Siegle, and the other is Naked Fashion: The new sustainable fashion revolution, by People Tree founder Safia Minney. I have been asked to review Naked Fashion for my next Oxfam post so look out for that, but I would recommend both books to everyone interested in finding out more about sustainability in the fashion world. In fact, I defy you not to take an interest once you’ve read them.

2011 has seen increased cooperation across the fashion supply chain. Transparency within supply chains and the way in which this is communicated at point of sale was the focus of my MPhil work, and a huge amount changed during that 18 months. We now have retailers using RFID tags and QR codes, some small brands even let you track the provenance of your garment online using a code. There is still a lack of a universal sustainability labelling system, and in this way fashion is behind other industries such as food and timber, but retailers have become more conscious of the information they pass to consumers, in some instances.

The financial situation we have find ourselves in on entering 2012 could be seen as far from ideal in encouraging more ethical practices. Retailers are struggling and need to make profit; this hasn’t traditionally occurred by putting planet and producers first. This is why customers are vital in changing the industry, if you make a fuss and change your shopping habits, retailers will have to listen. However, ethical fashion supply chain consultancy Made By have this to say, “the economic volatility adds greater complexity to developing workable CSR. However, with the increase in the costs of raw materials driving up production costs due to scarcity, long-term investment strategies in green technologies and closed business models (greater recycling and re-usage of materials rather than virgin materials) will very likely make financial sense.”

Water scarcity is one issue that companies are currently focusing on. Greenpeace launched their successful Detox campaign in 2011, which received a lot of media attention and led to long-term sustainability commitments to the goals outlined by Greenpeace. Pepe Jeans are launching their Tru-Blu denim range this year, following in Levi’s footsteps who last year launched their WaterLess jeans. The Tru-Blu collection will avoid chemicals and have a lower water footprint, but crucially still cost the same as any other Pepe Jeans denim.

The trend towards vintage is great for ethical fashion. The taboo of buying second-hand has decreased thanks to the trend for customisation and crafts, the work of bloggers and magazines, and the image produced by charities such as Oxfam (see my interview with the Oxfam fashion team). I asked Ceri Heathcote, ethical fashion blogger, marketer and founder of the Ethical Fashion Bloggers network what her predictions were for 2012. “For 2012, I can see ethical fashion becoming more affordable and accessible to the masses” Ceri told me, “There are already plenty of exciting new ethical brands appearing and I think this will continue into 2012. I think these companies are definitely going to be giving the conventional online and high street retailers a run for their money. I also see ethical retailers becoming more creative and innovative with their marketing and using the internet as a cost effective way of gaining credibility and showcasing their products. I also see there being new solutions of accreditation and labeling pioneered within the ethical fashion industry and as a result of this I expect the conventional retailers will launch more ethical collections and introduce more transparency in their supply chains.”

On second-hand fashion, Ceri said “I think people are valuing charity shop pieces more than they have in the past, perhaps because of the influence of fashion and street style blogs, marketing by charities like Oxfam and also because of economic and environmental factors. Charity shops offer a wealth of interesting and quality pieces and the challenge of combining them into an interesting outfit.”

I hope that we see a trend moving away from fast fashion. Everyone is talking about ‘buy less and buy better’ but how many people are actually doing it? Spending the same amount of money, but on higher quality pieces will help both the economy and the sustainability of the environment, plus it’s sure to be far more satisfying if you make the right choices.

Nicola Cupples, personal styling expert and founder of My Style Companion, agrees with me. She said, “The trend for cheap fashion needs to go! I’m seeing far too many women wearing cheap, unflattering fabrics that are making them look ‘cheap’ and usually a size bigger. Also the trend for buying quantity over quality needs to stop as I’m seeing more and more wardrobes stuffed full of clothes, but containing no real outfits. The recession hasn’t meant that people have stopped buying clothes – they’ve just started buying more CHEAP clothes because ‘it’s only a tenner’. In reality they end up spending more and wearing less. Plus they rarely feel good about themselves in the things they buy.”

Fast fashion rose to reign extremely quickly, and has already caused a lot of harm across the world. I hope that for 2012 we continue to see increased awareness by businesses and consumers, but I certainly can’t see fast fashion disappearing as quickly as it sprang up. Much beyond 2012 I wouldn’t want to make any predictions; all that we can really do is take responsibility for our own actions.

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