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Sustainability and Ethics Should Go Hand-In-Hand With Fashion Design

26/06/2013 10:59 BST | Updated 24/08/2013 10:12 BST

I didn't know it at the time but the subject of sustainability was one of my major fashion influences and instrumental in my becoming a fashion designer.

In the late 70s as a cash-strapped family my mother would habitually drag me into Oxfam shops and auctions to hunt out clothes to supplement our wardrobes.

She had a good eye and was adept at finding vintage clothes of great quality - a trait she taught me through endless hunts for junk shop treasure.

A good trawl would often unearth wonderful finds - a full-length 1940s coat with beautifully tailored shoulders, a 50s boned sundress with spaghetti straps, an amazing print and heaps of petticoats, or a 30s silk velvet opera jacket.

Each trip to Oxfam was a journey into the past and a lesson in fashion history right at one's fingertips. Being able to touch and wear these exquisite clothes gave me a remarkable lexicon of quality fabrics, complicated garment cuts and couture construction techniques.

Even in the 70s when fashion wasn't quite so 'fast' there was a marked difference between the clothes we found in Oxfam and the clothes on sale in the high street. The fabrics were often of inferior quality and the beginnings of mass manufacture were evident by poor construction that gave rise to built-in obsolescence that in turn spawned throwaway fashion.

Buying clothes from Oxfam was seen to be strange behaviour in the 70s, yet this was the era of punk rock, where youths expressed their individuality through clothing and lifestyle.

So, as I got older we embraced the notion of looking different and standing out from the crowd in clothes we found at second-hand shops and vintage fairs, mixed with pieces we adapted or made ourselves.

Punk bands and the politics of the era also cultivated in me a keen interest in military uniforms; the background noise of our lives was dominated by incessant talk of impending apocalypse, the result of the Cold War with Russia.

This culture of fear gave rise to earnest discussions with my peers as to what the perfect survival gear would be for a nuclear winter. The phrase 'protect and survive' was used frequently, a nuclear explosion seemed a real threat, much as terrorism does today, and vintage military clothing was not only a fashion statement but a necessity befitting this seemingly imminent tragedy.

Uniforms are notoriously well designed for many reasons. They must be functional enough to deal with diverse climates and situations but they must also make the wearer appear to be a believable opponent. The variety of ingenious details in each garment, the economy of cut and the quality of the tailoring all have a lot to teach a fashion enthusiast.

Today we see many sustainable brands borne out of this love for vintage , Christopher Raeburn and Junky Styling London, to name but two. However, as the market demands clothing with a conscience more sustainable fabrics and ethical means of manufacture become available.

The new wave of ethical clothing is not upcycled or recycled but is produced in a way that has minimal effects on the environment and communities.

As a positive response to this I have just completed writing the UK's first Fashion Design degree which has sustainability and ethics at its core, for Buckinghamshire New University.

The degree starts in September 2013 and I hope it will provide the opportunity for students to study in an experimental and creative environment while understanding the importance of ethics and sustainability within fashion.

Six years ago the British Fashion Council launched Estethica at London Fashion Week as a forum for designers committed to eco-sustainability, and today dominant high street brands like H&M are now appointing heads of sustainability.

The debate is becoming louder and more mainstream, and not before time.

The Sustainable Clothing Roadmap was launched in 2007 by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Its wide-ranging actions and projects are beginning to have an impact and catalyse debate around the concept of sustainable clothing - but there is a long way to go yet.

In the UK we discard about a million tonnes of unwanted clothing a year, 50 per cent of which ends up in landfill. The Defra report points out that 'as 90 per cent of UK clothing is imported, our activities have a significant overseas 'footprint', particularly in India, China and other developing countries.'

It is now difficult to find fashion inspiration at charity shops as they are full of low quality clothing mainly from cheap high street stores - the miserable legacy of 'fast fashion'.

Nowadays a real vintage piece it will have a hefty price tag as in the event of Ebay and upmarket vintage stores everyone knows the value of everything and finding a gem from the past is a sadly a rare thing.