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Why I Made the Choice to Give Up So Much to Open an Ethical Fashion Boutique

Like most things, the beginnings of any great change often grows from the grassroots, and in this instance with the individual demanding greater transparency from their retail outlets. If the market dictates cleaner fashion, my hope is that mainstream fashion will start to clean up its act. Only then will I willingly retire.

This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.

To many, my job seems the business. Work begins at 10.45am when I amble into a bustling covered market, known to many as Brixton Village, stalling to say hello to my eclectic fellow traders, before opening the doors to my extended-wardrobe-cum-shop and letting the hours unfold according to the pace and rhythm of that particular day. Being a predominately food-based market, tantalising smells begin to tempt me away from work, and by mid-afternoon I head out to select something from the culinary melting pot that lies in front of me.

Post-lunch routine may perhaps include chatting to customers about the quality of the clothes I stock, flicking through lookbooks deciding what to select for the season to come or perhaps the odd indulgent gossip about market politics to the fellow traders who've now become close friends. By 6pm, the working day is done, and once the shop has been put to bed I'm free to leave...

If only.

Despite not wanting to dispel the myth of such a wonderful working idyll, the life of an independent retailer is more of an exhausting slog and mental rollercoaster than I ever envisaged. As with everything that sounds too good to be true, the seductive allure of running your own business hides a pretty brutal work-life imbalance that takes it's toll.

Like so many of todays workforce enslaved by the frightening pace of technology, checking emails is the first and last thing I do on a day-to-day basis. Then follows the paperwork to sift through, invoices to pay, cash to be banked, staff rota to resolve, faulty items to return and new items to steam, customer requests to follow up, online orders to post and returns to reimburse, a trade show encounter to address, new orders to agonize over, products to upload, a blog post to edit, the monthly promotional event to plan and weekly newsletter to send, tweets to schedule alongside that visually alluring instagram photo.... and all whilst making a packed lunch before heading to work in the hope that the day's sales will help cover my ever growing overheads.

The evenings to-do list is as equally brain sapping as my morning tasks, and amongst this lurks the desire to see friends, or take some exercise as a way of re-filling the motivation tank and escaping an encroaching fear that the good things in life are just passing me by.

Having been a secondary school teacher, and completed a stint in the city, it's not the hard work - the early starts and sleepless nights - that are to be minded. What differs to the days of a monthly paycheck is the physical burden of being solely responsible for something that never sleeps, combined with the financial worries the come with such a fluctuating and fickle market as fashion retail.

So why then, do I continue under such hostile conditions and undue pressure? Without hesitation, my absolute belief that sustainable fashion shops like mine offer customers the choice to take a stand against an industry (ranked #2 most polluting in the world, second only to oil) gives me the motivation to battle on.

The recent and highly acclaimed 'The True Cost' documentary gives an eye-opening insight onto the human and environmental implications of this ever-expanding fashion industry. By taking the audience on a journey into the lives of the many people and places behind our clothes, director Andrew Morgan highlighted a shared belied that ordinary people can help drive change. Yet, unless customers come into contact with equally 'fashionable' alternatives, there is little impetus for the public to take a stand against the injustice of this billion-dollar industry.

Image Credit: The True Cost

In addition to offering an alternative, the sense of independence that sustainable fashion presents to the world is another driving force. My very first encounter with designers who'd adopted a slower paced-less waste, more mindful approach to their collections at Estethica transformed my own approach to buying clothes. Already the bombardment of trends, a constant comparison to fashion 'influencers', the homogenized offering on the high street and the excess of clothes abandoned in the furthest recess of my wardrobe had begun to engulf me. Yet it wasn't until speaking directly to designers about the production of their unique collections; the time and effort that went into researching more sustainable methods; their commitment to working with artisans and producing on smaller scales, that a new realization dawned. Fashion didn't have to feel so superfluous.

Image Credit: People Tree

The gnawing stress and loneliness of running my business can be instantly quashed when encountering a new collection or designer producing stylish pieces with robust ethical credentials. The driving force then becomes an all consuming desire for my customers to know a bit more about what's on the hangers; the designer's personal background; the organic nature of the materials used; where the threads are sourced from; the dying process; who stitched the hem... in my view it's important to share that information so hopefully we'll not only cherish what we buy, but begin to demand greater transparency from other brands.

In the future I'd like to see governments demanding greater supply chain accountability from big names in the fashion industry. Greater knowledge should also be passed onto the consumer through standardized labeling, similar to food, indicating percentage of toxic dyes, volumes of water, age of laborer, carbon footprint. However, like most things, the beginnings of any great change often grows from the grassroots, and in this instance with the individual demanding greater transparency from their retail outlets. If the market dictates cleaner fashion, my hope is that mainstream fashion will start to clean up its act. Only then will I willingly retire.

HuffPost UK Lifestyle is running a special series around Sustainable Fashion for the month of September. Livia Firth is creative director of Eco-Age and founder of The Green Carpet Challenge, and will be guest editing on 18 September. If you'd like to blog or get involved, please email us.