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The Student Problem: Ethical Fashion

08/07/2014 14:51 BST | Updated 01/09/2015 09:59 BST

Unethically-produced clothing: it's a company's responsibility to refuse to sell it and the consumer's responsibility not to buy it. Right?

Theoretically yes. But in practice, there are thousands of broke students all over Britain wanting the best deal on a new dress. The average shopper's thought process (including mine, when I've needed cheap and smart work clothes) usually evades the subject of ethics and working conditions.

For this we can blame an attractive mix of capitalism and consumerism. People keep clothes for a short amount of time: we don't want to buy expensive, on-trend items only to throw them away a month or so later. Fashion's quick turnover and our materialist culture have us believe that the latest gingham dress is crucial in ensuring a happy existence. And this would be fine, because gingham is great and makes everyone look cute, but when buying it enables the low wages and poor working conditions of a company's employees to continue, then we have a problem.

It seems impossible to pinpoint the truth about the manufacturing processes of the big companies. Retailers from the Arcadia Group (Topshop and team) to the ethically-conscious Marks and Spencer are all differing degrees of evasive when asked about their supply chains - and it's hard not to be sceptical of their Yes-Sir-Definitely-Ethical-Sir rhetoric and 'sustainable-and-green' jargon on their websites - all complete with images of happy, well-treated workers.

When companies make headlines for all the wrong reasons (despite their reassuring website images), very little action is taken. The recent messages hand-stitched into Primark garments were dismissed by the company as a hoax. Sadly this is the tip of the iceberg in a recent storm of tragedies involving garment manufacture. In 2012, more than one hundred people were killed in a fire at Tarzeen Fashions in Bangladesh - and it was only last year that Rana Plaza, a factory in the same country, which manufactured Primark clothing, collapsed and killed over one thousand people and left many more severely injured. Interestingly, Primark was the first to affirm its responsibility, but the other twenty-eight companies whose clothing was produced in the factory refused to confess their involvement.

The deadliest structural collapse in recent history, Rana Plaza spurred long overdue dialogues about ethical consumerism and garment manufacture. But, hoax or not, the hand-stitched messages in Primark's clothes bring renewed attention to the continuing maltreatment of factory workers. The problems are persisting - and companies are failing to act in any significant way, so the responsibility finds itself on consumers' shoulders.

It's a catch twenty-two: if we buy cheap, we risk fuelling the maltreatment of employees. If we don't buy cheap, our lack of custom could mean the loss of jobs for workers in developing countries.

The research executive, Elaine Giles, behind the 2007 TNS Worldpanel Fashion study, commented that '7.1 million consumers say ethical issues are important to them but feel availability of such items is poor.' And the problem still stands seven years later: we want reasonably-priced and ethically-manufactured clothing. But in order to support this, existing companies need to change their policies. At present, ethical equals expensive, which is money most of us don't have. Most cheap and affordable clothing is produced by brands renowned for their unethical procedures (or companies deliberately evasive about said procedures) - but for those of us on a student budget (or any kind of budget), there are currently very limited high street options.

Students are left with a dilemma. How do we acquire budget-friendly clothing without supporting unethical companies? Student discounts of ten percent are great in theory, but sadly make little impact on high street price tags. Clothes swaps with friends, car boot sales and tracking down ethical fashion brands are all good ways to go (for the latter, see the Guardian's directory). Charity shops are also a great student-friendly way to purchase cheap clothes (and various other bits and pieces. Green leaf-print teapot, anyone?). You're supporting a charity with your money and returning to your flat with pieces that won't damage your student loan too heavily. And it seems that charity shop spending is on the rise: the Co-Operative's Ethical Consumer Markets report in 2012 reported that spending in charity shops increased by 7.2% - and sales of ethical clothing increased to £1.8 billion.

In the last fifteen years fashion consumerism has undoubtedly undergone major transformation. The Co-Op's report found that 42% of people in 2012 purchased an item primarily for ethical reasons, as opposed to 27% of people in 2000. Celebrities Emma Watson and Cate Blanchett have spoken out against inhumane garment manufacture: Blanchett told Voguethat 'Like climate change - we need to change the way we consume fashion. And if more individuals do then we make a change collectively'. Articles everywhere from the Guardian to Ethical High Street include helpful how-to guides for ethical shopping; months after the incident the minimum wage in Bangladesh was increased by 77%; the law has been changed to allow factory workers to form trade unions and a factory in Dhaka was deemed unsafe so both Tesco and Primark refused to manufacture there.

If cheap fashion fuels cheap labour, it's about time we accepted a rise in clothing prices to ensure a rise in wages for labourers. As consumers, I think it's time to screw our ethical heads on and shop with a conscience - or perhaps save our student loans to support companies who value all branches of their employees, not only the ones sat in their head offices. Brands are slowly moving toward safe, ethical production, but developments are still to be made - and our duty as consumers is to fuel this progression toward a more ethical fashion future.