Retail is flourishing, but is it carrying forward the ethicality of the business of fashion retailing, not just to give world a better piece to wear – but also make earth the best place to live.
Ranjan Kaplish explores words the world over to visualise the organic clothing scene. It’s somewhat like that old joke about the shortest books in the world (Italian War Heroes, Swiss Comedians, etc., etc.). Ethical fashion could be the shortest story in the world because it really does not exist.
There are ethical clothes – baggy, beige t-shirts made in Third World worker co-operatives from organic Fairtrade cotton – but not proper fashion. That’s not to say the fashion world is totally devoid of conscience.
There is a lot of tireless work for AIDS and breast cancer charities, but when it comes to the real business of fashion, everything about it is fundamentally counter to current ethical concerns. It is an industry based on fuelling consumption for things that are defined by their built-in obsolescence; on making people want things they don’t need and buy more than they can really afford; and on seducing us into believing that owning a material object can change our lives. It is certainly one of fashion’s ironies that while spending $100,000 on a single dress might seem the very apogee of its decadence, it is at the peak of the fashion mountain that you will find the most ethical employment conditions.
The “petite mains” (little hands) working in Paris couture salons are treated very differently from the almost slave labour in some Asian clothing factories. The Parisian master craftspeople are valued for their skills and the couture customer can pay the price for it. It is at the other end of the market where the real horrors lurk. The current trend for cheaper and cheaper great clothes is inevitably linked to terrible conditions for the people who make them. If we’re not paying for it, someone else is.
And it gets worse. Before you even get on to the conditions in an Indian textile industry and the problem of knowing which big brands really use the ethical labour they — or rather, their contractors — claim, there are the environmental nightmares associated with the textile industry. Take cotton — actually, don’t. Because the world’s favourite ‘natural’ fibre is not, in fact, ‘pure and simple’ as we have grown up to believe. Lovely as it is to wear and sleep in, cotton is one of the most pest-prone of crops – meaning, that to produce it cheaply in industrial quantities, enormous amounts of chemicals have to be thrown at it. About 150 grams of pesticides are used to cultivate the cotton for one t-shirt (that’s the equivalent of one cup, and it takes two and a half cups for a pair of jeans); so, perhaps it’s not surprising that, according to a 1995 report on the industry by Allen Woodburn Associates, a quarter of all the world’s insecticides are used each year to grow cotton. And when you add in the various soil sterilisers, fumigants, herbicides and defoliants also used to grow this ‘natural’ fibre, we are talking about some of the most deadly chemicals in the world. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), about 20,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of sprays used on non-organic cotton.
That’s just the agricultural part of the textile cycle. How are you feeling about your ‘pure’ cotton t-shirt now? And there is a growing sense of concern that the chemical toxicity associated with cotton production might not stop at the soil and the unfortunate Third World labourers. The uncomfortable ideas are contributing to a growing market for organically farmed cotton and naturally processed fabrics of all kinds. It might seem cranky and alarmist now, but I am certain it will one day be as normal to expect an organic option in your clothing as it is in your veggies, or your face cream.
Just like the boom in organic food, awareness of uncontaminated textiles is taking off at a grassroots level, with parents seeking organic cotton baby clothes, towels and bedding for their newborns. If we could absorb chemical residues through our gnarly adult hides, the thinking goes, how much more at risk is the superfine skin of tiny babies and their delicate systems? If you hunt around on the internet, you will find some basic sportswear and underwear lines that are acceptable, but that’s about it. It will be hard, at this stage, to find much to buy beyond t-shirts, so write to your favourite designers and shops to tell them you are concerned about cotton farming practices, and would like them to offer an organic alternative — or, you might be forced to shop elsewhere. Wherever you do buy clothes, ask the shop assistants if they have an organic range. They will probably look at you blankly at first, but if enough people do it, word will filter up to buyers and management.
Best of all, explore the possibilities of hemp clothing, which is the real answer to the whole problem. But that, as they say, is another story.