consumerism shopping sustainability

Why we need ethical fashion

I’ve been trying to think of examples of things that best define the need to make wealth history, things that are harmful to the environment, to other people, and to ourselves. Here’s one that occurred to me last night: fashion.

The environment

  • Fashion requires a constant supply of cotton, which is one of the most polluting cash crops, requiring eight times more chemicals than the average food crop. It accounts for 3% of planted land, but uses 20% of all chemical pesticides.
  • More chemicals are needed to refine, bleach, and dye the cotton during the fabric-making process. One company estimates that 8000 different chemicals are used in producing a t-shirt. Leather tanning is equally toxic.
  • Almost all clothes are made in the developing world where wages are lower, and then shipped. I have no figures on fashion’s contribution to overall emissions from shipping, but I expect they would be substantial.
  • Once the clothes have been bought and worn, or not, they get thrown away all too often. We throw away 900,000 tonnes of clothing every year in the UK. As that rots down in landfill, that’s 8 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Other people

  • As mentioned above, the chemicals from cotton affect wildlife and plants, but they affect people too. Cotton pickers develop respiratory illnesses, eye infections and skin irritations from the pesticides, and account for a large percentage of the 20,000 people a year who die from pesticide poisoning.
  • The same is true of the processing. If you haven’t seen the short documentary Hell for Leather, watch it here sometime. One million people in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, are affected by the pollution from the huge tanneries there. The tanners themselves are exposed to 300 different toxins every day, and have a life expectancy of 50.
  • It’s no secret that clothes are made in exploitative conditions in developing countries, and that cheap clothes rely on cheap labour. The long hours, low pay, and poor conditions are regularly reported. If you still believe that life is cheaper in poor countries and the low wages are normal, read the wage comparisons in this previous post.
  • Access to fashion is very unequal. Even though it may be very cheap to make an item of clothing, once it has been branded it will retail for many times what it’s worth. The people who make the clothes, even for low-cost retailers like Primark, would not be able to afford the products they sewed.


  • In our individualistic, consumption-oriented culture, fashion is used as a yardstick of self-worth. If you’re fashionable, you’re a better person and worth knowing. Consciously or not, we judge people by what they wear all the time, when it says nothing about their true character.
  • Fashion creates clear haves and have-nots, and excludes the poor. Turn up to school in the wrong brand of trainers, and your life will be made miserable. You either have to live with the mockery, or buy things you can’t afford.
  • We are encouraged to express ourselves through our fashion choices, but in fact fashion constantly limits choice and frowns on genuine expression. By focusing on ‘this season’, fashion continually excludes perfectly valid styles.
  • Fashion runs on disatisfaction, and constantly plays up our insecurities about ourselves. It never settles, which means we can never relax about who we are – we may have just gone shopping, but next month we’ll be uncool again.

Is all fashion bad? Clearly not. It’s great that we have a choice about what we wear. There’s also a huge amount of creativity in fashion, on the part of designers and consumers. And of course there are ethical clothing companies out there – I’ve listed some here, and have resolved to only buy clothing second hand or from companies such as these.

The problem is not fashion in and of itself. The problem, as usual, is runaway fashion in a consumer culture. Fashion that has new seasons every four months, sales every two. The problem is a celebrity culture, where fashion is so visible and public, that puts the best of everything on display and makes us feel shabby and inadequate.  The problem is with brands and big corporations who have persuaded us that their logos tell us something about ourselves, and that we can express ourselves through them, for a price. The problem is with the lie that it is our money, and how we choose to spend it, that says the most about us.

Fashion is just one part of our unsustainable consumer lifestyle, but to me it illustrates the fundamental problems very well. The earth and its people are subjugated to the pursuit of profit. The whole thing needs to slow down.

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