The UK fashion industry makes up around £26 billion of the economy and is set to grow even more over the next five years. But how much of the clothing is actually ethically sourced and made?
Cotton Incorporated Environment Survey showed 57% of consumers claim they're influenced by clothing companies that place emphasis on sustainability, with 26% of them willing to pay a bit extra for environmentally friendly clothes. That's no surprise - especially with the ever-looming threats of climate change, pollution, increasing population, land scarcity, water shortages and depleting energy resources.
Sustainable fashion is so important to me for all of the above reasons - especially the way workers are treated. At GFW, our shirts are made in London by skilled craftspeople who are paid the living wage. But there are many companies out there who are just simply unethical and unsustainable.
Outsourcing the manufacture of clothes abroad is a common practice businesses use to save money. But, more often that not, many big name brands use sweatshops - sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. There's been a decline in the number of people employed in the UK clothes manufacturing industry, but the industry is booming financially. So, what's going on?
We live in a world where we expect everything in an instant - from a lift home using Uber to 'fast fashion.' Companies are trying to keep up with demand by cutting corners and using unethical means - one of which is H&M. They outsource to manufacturers in Bangladesh - whose suppliers rarely comply with safety regulations for their workers, or use child labour. In the past couple of years there have been hundreds of factory worker deaths directly caused by inhumane working conditions - all for a £12 shirt or a £20 dress. But H&M are in talks about increasing factory worker's pay to at least the living wage by 2018.
Let's not forget everyone's favourite cheap clothing store Primark. The Rana Plaza building, where a lot of the workers made clothing for the company, collapsed and killed 1130 people. Furthermore, officials demanded DNA evidence of the victim's loved ones before they paid out.
It isn't just overseas factories that are harming, and indeed killing, workers. Even in the UK some clothing factories are reported to have paid just £3 per hour to employees working 36 hours per week. Leicester-based textiles factory Fashion Square Ltd was reportedly one of the lowest paying factories and supplied River Island.
So if it's all money money money, is a good ethical reputation not worth its salt anymore? I don't think it's that straightforward. It seems the clothing retailers don't actively find out how the workers are treated and what sort of wage they're getting. If the big brands assigned a bit more time to researching this information, they may find that paying for a slightly more expensive supplier could give their reputation a huge boost.
Luckily, there are more and more clothing companies dedicated to offering clothing made using ethical means such as employing factory workers who have safe working conditions and a decent wage, as well as using natural materials such as linen, organic cotton and wool.
Does this mean that the other clothing companies who don't are just plain greedy?
If greed is the case, then using unethical means to manufacture clothing made from unsustainable materials doesn't make sense when it comes to big fat profits. Clothing returns and refunds for major clothing retailers are, on average, 40 to 60%. Companies are wasting so much money and it's eating into their profits. When a customer returns an item of clothing it uses up a lot of resources and money. Think about it - fuel for the delivery back to the warehouse, worker hours to check and replace the items, throwing away the original garments (yep - this happens!) or selling it for a heavily discounted price and using company time and money to send out a new item all add up to millions of pounds per year. That's not even including the PR disasters that several retailers have been through because they're not paying their workers enough or they're using sweatshops. Damaged reputation can also cost millions.
If clothes are made using sustainable materials by skilled, fairly-paid workers, then this reduces returns / exchanges and avoids any bad press. It could save a big brand millions in wasted resources and PR firm fees - and in some cases, legal fees. Maybe it's time major clothing brands started to get savvy about choosing their suppliers and materials.