The shirt on my back

The main sector I have worked in for more than twenty years is fashion. Branding, graphic and digital design, helping people start and grow their businesses – lots of fun and creative work. On a personal level, I am interested and concerned about environmental issues and we eat mostly organic food, use eco-friendly cleaning products like Ecover – though I just did a bit of quick research and will now try Bio-D – and try to live green without being complete eco-warriors. It’s a sliding scale and we’re somewhere in the middle between jet-setting ‘Chelsea Tractor’ drivers and long-haired off-the-grid hippies.

For a few years, I tried to focus exclusively on ‘green design’ with my design agency Madomat which is now part of Grain Creative. That was difficult and (ironically) hard to sustain. During that time we did join 1% for the Planet and since 2008, we have donated 1% of our turnover to environmental charities, first the Woodland Trust and the Centre for Alternative Technology and now the Marine Conservation Society and Trees for Cities. It’s a way of contributing to the environment and sustainability in an ongoing way.

I recently watched the film The True Cost (available on Netflix and Amazon) and it really changed the way I think about fashion. I already knew about most of the issues raised in the film about fast fashion, the environment and the people who work in fashion, often under horrific conditions. However, there is an entirely different emotional and lasting impact of actually seeing and hearing the stories of cotton farmers’ suicides in India, mothers working in factories separated from their children (or forced to take birth control pills so the inconvenient children are never conceived) and on a more positive note, the ethical collaboration of the People Tree brand with its suppliers.

Online research into which brands are the best in terms of the environment, people and ethics kept coming up with Ethical Consumer magazine, which has a treasure-trove of product guides and company information (much of which is available to subscribers only). In the product guides you can even weight the results according to five factors: environment, animals, people, politics and product sustainability.

The Good Shopping Guide offers an easy-to-read table using the traffic light green-amber-red system. However there is no date on the table and supposedly some companies have made improvements over the past few years, so I’m not sure if those are reflected in the rankings. Their four green-light brands are Liv, People Tree (in ethical fashion you will see People Tree again and again!), Seasalt and Fat Face.

In the time it took to watch the film and do this online research, my son outgrew 3 pairs of trousers and ripped the knees of 2 further pairs. And both kids needed new underwear. Ok – ethical and ideally organic underwear for kids. I started with Frugi, which we used to buy for the kids when they were little, during my Madomat days when the environment was more front-of-mind for me. Not the right sizes and out of stock. Then Cambridge Baby. Again out of stock in the sizes needed. So the final purchase was from Swedish Polarn O. Pyret. Organic cotton pants, ethics not rated in any tables I could find (though their Ethos page reads well), and the price was at least 5 times what I would usually pay in Tesco.

The school trousers came from Eco Outfitters and my son first complained of ithchiness (he may be allergic to dye and after a wash they caused no problem) and that they were brown, not grey. Eventually we convinced him to wear the ‘warm grey’ trousers and he (and we) are happy. Cost: about double what I would pay at M&S or John Lewis.

Some of these smaller websites had obviously not been through tens of thousands of pounds of user experience and user interface design and improvements – they were slow and sometimes difficult to use. As small businesses, they seem to prefer to be understocked rather than overstocked, or they don’t have the management systems in place to be ‘correctly’ stocked (if that’s ever possible – much has been studied about Just In Time manufacturing). The dedication to green and ethical fashion goes beyond higher prices. It also takes more time to research and patience to deal with a customer experience not smoothed out by large marketing and ecommerce budgets.

Wanting to find out more and concerned that complacency would again take over, I started to read To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World by Lucy Siegle, who writes about ethical and green living for The Guardian. The first 11 chapters are fairly bleak, giving the background on how our fashion consumption has changed and examining the terrible environmental and human impact of all materials from cotton to wool, cashmere, synthetics, fur and leather. I could only manage a few pages at a time and was wondering if the answer was simply to run around naked.

The KonMari tidying method from Japan’s Marie Kondo is very popular these days. Yes, there will be a post about it on this blog! I’m sure there has been an upsurge in charity shop donations because of it. Chapter 11 of To Die For follows clothing from our homes to Oxfam and beyond, and it is not a happily-ever-after story.

Thankfully I’ve made it into the final 4 chapters which provide a guide on how to clothe ourselves in a more ethical and environmentally-friendly way. As you can imagine, it means not following each and every trend and buying fewer but better-quality and ethically-made clothes.

“The Neurological Pleasures of Fast Fashion” in The Atlantic illustrates how fast fashion is literally addictive. Just as it’s difficult to resist a glass of wine at the end of the day, it may take exposure to shocking facts to keep your hands off Uniqlo’s colourful and cheap cashmere cardis. Start by watching The True Cost if you want to sober up.

I’ll keep you posted on how (or to be honest, if) I resolve the conflict of working with fashion clients who are not as ethical or green as they could be.

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