Questions around ethics in the fast fashion industry have been high on the agenda ever since the tragedy of the 2012 fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka. This horrific incident urgently brought to our attention the human cost of fast fashion, highlighting serious health and safety concerns and paving necessary steps for safer worker conditions.
Documentaries such as The True Cost and the BBC's Blood, Sweat and T-shirts have also shown us the stark reality of where fast fashion comes from - and joined the dots between our insatiable appetite for new clothes and the production processes behind it.
According to the 2016 Ethical Consumer Markets Report, the value of all ethical spending in the UK grew to £38billion in 2015. This trend was also mirrored in the Organic Market 2017 report, which revealed sales of organic food and drink have grown by 7.1% year-on-year, whilst non-organic food continues to show decline.
So what are the reasons behind this shift, and which brands are already leading by example?
Why are we shopping more ethically?
One reason we're thinking about shopping more ethically is because of increased awareness of the impact our shopping habits have on the environment. According to Greenmatch and multiple sources including Eileen Fisher, fast fashion is the second largest polluter in the world, after the oil industry. Unilever research revealed a third of consumers (33%) are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good, with 53% of shoppers in the UK and 78% in the US saying they feel better when they buy products that are sustainably produced.
However despite this feel-good factor and our moral compass imploring us otherwise, when it comes to consumers choosing between ethical brands and the mass market, the decision can often be made based on the cost factor. Ethical products are generally more expensive to produce because of their production processes, sourcing of ethically-produced raw materials, labour costs, and commitments to environmental conservation
What are the hurdles to overcome?
Although statistics imply that ethical consumption is on the rise, the reality is there's still a long way to go before they reach anywhere near the turnover fast fashion brands are seeing.
The higher cost of slow fashion items and the anti-consumption ethos promoted by the movement can be obstacles when it comes to triggering purchase. Our appetite for newness is entrenched; hardly surprising when you consider that Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year and H&M offers 12 to 16, refreshing them weekly.
A study by YouGov and GT Nexus revealed 45% of consumers would pay more for responsibly produced clothing and footwear. Although this is heading in the right direction, it seems that price sensitivity is a crucial tipping point when it comes to shopping more ethically, and many consumers can't see past the higher price tag to justify the extra pounds.
As well as the hurdle of higher prices, there is also an argument that we have become so pre-conditioned to shop readily-available mass market brands and products that it takes a shift in mindset to consider branching out to more ethical choices.
This disconnect between our ethical intentions vs. actions is explained well in the Journal of Business Ethics' paper Why Ethical Consumers Don't Walk Their Talk: "In the context of ethical consumerism, where the ethical purchase intentions of the 'ethically minded' may often be competing against long-term habitual non-ethical shopping behaviours, the formation of implementation plans may be crucial in setting up new and ethical shopping routines, which then become automatic."
The brands leading the way
Ecommerce and social media have evolved to offer ethical brands the flexibility they need to market their often-unique products and be active participants in the promotion of their clothing, accessories and ethical principles.
Here are some of the brands I think are blazing a trail:
1. Girlfriend Collective
This athleisure brand has a firm focus on ethical practices throughout its entire production process. Each pair of the brand's leggings starts with material made at its own fair trade facility in Taiwan with 25 recycled water bottles. They are also committed to a fair and safe workplace; their SA8000 certified factory in Vietnam uses no forced or child labour, mandates fair working hours and safe conditions, allows unionisation, and pays living wages.
2. Freeset and Beulah
Fair trade brands Freeset and Beulah have partnered on a range of canvas bags, with profits going to the Beulah Trust. These profits then pay for skill courses giving women who have been victims of sex trafficking and abuse the chance to find work, generate an income, and live a self-sufficient life, free from abuse. With high-profile fans including the Duchess of Cambridge, these brands are doing remarkable things to both raise awareness and provide practical solutions.
In the battle against food waste, this start-up sources, packs and delivers wonky or surplus fresh produce that would otherwise have gone to waste. Shoppers can order the boxes online, and although the company currently only delivers to SW and SE London postcodes, there are ambitions to grow and take on more suppliers. Considering the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, this is a welcome step forward.
Changing the habits of a lifetime
It would be unrealistic to think that every shopper is going to boycott fast fashion and seek the more ethical choice every time they go shopping. That would require a massive mind-set shift which isn't going to happen overnight. It also comes down to increased choice and availability: fair trade, ethical or organic options still tend to be in the minority in mass market retailing.
But there are certainly signs that we're becoming more conscious of our personal impact on the planet and our role in maintaining unfair working practices - and this is a step in the right direction.