It’s never long after we’ve woken that we reach for the kettle and make ourselves a brew, be it tea or coffee. If we inspect the packaging there’s a good chance that we’ll see a little symbol indicating our product choice is doing good in another part of the world, whether it’s certified organic, Rainforest Alliance (conserving biodiversity) or Fairtrade (decent prices and conditions for workers), it always makes the morning feel smugly saintly. It’s become fairly easy for us to make ethical choices when it comes to hot drinks, with the UK leading the field in many respects (in 2012, UK Fairtrade sales totalled a whopping £1.57 billion!). Awareness of ethics concerning our food purchases is also growing; when it comes to bananas, one in three sold in the UK is Fairtrade.
Yet when we return to our bedrooms to get dressed, it’s a different story! There is nowhere near the same level of consideration and action around the environmental and human costs of our clothing as there is our food.
Events such as the Bangladesh Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when five garment factories collapsed killing 1,135 people, generate a spike in anger and outrage in the West but they don’t translate into changed consumer behaviour. On the contrary, our shock at such disasters is disingenuous; for years we’ve known about dreadful working conditions for women and children in the developing world but continue to buy from firms with the worse reputations who turn a blind eye to or even support bad practice. The continued growth of ‘fast fashion’ makes the damage wreaked by the clothing industry even worse. If we’re picking up a garment that we only plan to wear once for less than the price of lunch, then we are exacerbating the problem, not just for workers but also in terms of the earth’s resources.
This dual aspect – people and planet – adds layers of complication if we do try to dress ethically. If we find a t-shirt we like that’s made of fairly traded cotton, is that cotton also organic? Probably not: it’s likely to be one or the other. With food products from milk to meat, we’re encouraged to ‘Buy British’ but can we attempt the same with clothing when most of the High Street is imported from abroad?
With all these questions and considerations it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Although we may want to make a difference with our wardrobes, it’s confusing and time consuming. However one easy step in the right direction is to start patronising clothing firms with a conscience. While the internet has made it easier than ever to find businesses whose values align with your own, you don’t have to actually look very far to get a match. In London there are brands that are pioneering ethical fashion in imaginative and magical ways, whether it’s by focusing on environmental awareness, reviving British manufacturing, or fair and safe production.
Earlier in 2016 textile designer Sophie Dunster founded Gung Ho Designs in her studio on the banks of the Thames in South London. Her goal is to change the world through creativity, and her collection of women’s clothing is set to do just that. If it weren’t enough that the garments are made of organic cotton and both hand-printed and handmade in the UK, each piece also highlights an important environmental cause. Part of the range is t-shirts, shirts and dresses featuring a print of Amur leopards, one of the globes most endangered animals. Another popular print shows bees, the plight of which has been much in the news recently. Each purchase includes a donation to a charity relevant to the animal depicted and the buyer gets a small booklet about the cause.
Sophie believes that it’s her fashion-centric approach that seduces shoppers; with customers coming to Gung Ho Designs for the aesthetics first, then the ethics. A similar sentiment was echoed by Heidy Rehman, owner of Rose and Willard, a company making officewear since 2014. Heidy believes that modern career women are primarily drawn to Rose and Willard’s ‘affordable luxury’, though their values are a key part of the brand’s identity. Fabric is mainly sourced from quality Italian mills, with the design, manufacturing and distribution all happening in the Lewisham workshop. Trans-seasonal rather than trend driven, these are clothes destined to last years in your wardrobe, not years in landfill.
A positive image of women is also central to Rose and Willard’s vibe. They provide employment to skilled seamstresses in their local area and their advertising shows a flock of women diverse in age and ethnicity, not to mention posed in positive, powerful positions within a workplaces setting. Nowhere are the young, over-sexualised and painfully thin girls of the catwalk. Experiments with non-models are to follow.
A similarly strong focus on women is apparent in Tales of Threads, a sleepwear firm whose tagline is ‘Beautiful Sleepwear, Ethically Made’. Rebecca Fordham, founder and CEO, has partnered with the Ethical Apparel Africa initiative to ensure that the harmful practices seen in other areas of the clothing industry are avoided. Their pyjamas are made in small female-owned factories in Ghana where structural engineers have assessed the safety of the buildings and workers are paid above market wages. For Rebecca, the focus is on the social aspect of production – including the admirable initiative to grant all workers a stake in the company’s equity – but she also adheres to a ‘do no harm’ environmental philosophy. This luxury bed-gear is a sure way to get your sleep at night. With added comfort you also get a clear conscious, for each item with its dreamy French seams and natural shell agoya buttons contributes to the safe employment of women in West Africa.
Just as you might start the day with a Fairtrade hot drink, it is possible to go about work and leisure in clothing that has a conscience as well. You don’t even have to go outside of the capital to do so, and it does seem silly to harm the health of our planet from home! One hopes that little by little these threads will weave their way into our lives, ultimately creating a richer tapestry for humanity.
To learn more about Gung Ho Designs go online or find them stocked at: The Laden Showroom, 103 Brick Lane, London, E1 6SE, and from 14th December at the Shoreditch Pop Up Collective, 93 Kingsland Road, E2 8AG.
Rose and Willard clothes can be purchased through their website.
Tales of Threads is available online or at selected stockists: The Cross, 141 Portland Road, W11 4LR; The Laslett Hotel, Notting Hill; the Dark Room pop-up shop at Somerset House; Merchants x Okapi, 40 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8TS.
For more on Ethical Apparel Africa.