LFW 2010: How Sustainable is Ethical Fashion?
Published 8 March 2010
It is rather difficult to determine exactly what makes ethical fashion, well, ethical. Or, rather, it is difficult to determine exactly what the term ethical denotes when applied to the fashion industry.
Vanessa Friedman, the Financial Time’s fashion editor, who attended the Copenhagen Fashion Summit which coincided with the UN climate change conference, would seem to agree:
“Here’s the truth: having spent two days in Copenhagen immersed in the concept, and having thought about it over the weeks since then, and canvassed a wide variety of fashion figures, I can honestly answer…no one knows. What’s more, the more you try to figure it out, the more confusing the situation becomes.”
The confusion surrounding the issue of sustainability in the fashion industry becomes more palpable when one speaks to the designers themselves. In her article, Friedman provides a number of wildly varying opinions on the matter by world-leading designers, which, incidentally, was re-printed in the publication accompanying the Estethica exhibit during London Fashion Week. When I approached the designers who participated in the Estethica exhibit and asked them what exactly made their clothes ethical, admitting that I was quite uncertain as to what the term ethical meant when applied to the fashion industry, the majority seemed somewhat perplexed and even mildly amused by my question.
The one exception was the designer of By Stamo who immediately pointed out to me that nobody knows exactly what ethical means, and not just in the fashion industry. She is, of course, right. What ethical means at By Stamo is locally sourced fabrics, locally produced clothing, recycling, and a system whereby the majority of their employees, for whom the label provides training if necessary, work from home. However, after a number of conversations with other designers it transpired that the term ethical could denote a combination of all or any of the following practices: upcycling, recycling, locally sourced fabrics, locally produced clothes, natural fabrics and dyes, and even inspiration drawn from nature. The behavior of the nocturnal bats at Ada Zanditon was cited as an expression of one label’s ethical credentials. While many agree that it is absolutely necessary for the fashion industry to come up with a precise definition of what sustainable or ethical fashion means, most fail to register the main implications of the lack of agreement on this issue.
The retail prices for the majority of the products displayed as part of the Estethica exhibit were higher than their wholesale price, which is not inconsiderable to start off with. In this respect, ethical products are no different from ‘unethical’ products. The implications of this are, firstly, that though they may be ethical, these products remain forbiddingly exclusive. Put in other words, we are still in the realm of high-end fashion which is quite different from the realm of high street fashion. In the former we are dealing with luxury goods, by which I mean goods that are already of considerably high quality, which is precisely what gives this industry a competitive edge over the introduction of ethical principles and practices.
However high street fashion is really the industry that should be adopting ethical values and implementing ethical practices. Secondly, the introduction of ethical practices in the high-end fashion industry is being advertised as a means of keeping brands afloat in these times of economic uncertainty. To put it rather bluntly, in spite of all the talk about the fashion industry’s need to acknowledge that fundamental changes are taking place and that they need to modify their business practices accordingly, the implementation of ethical practices is ultimately being marketed as a selling point for future products. Ultimately, reconciling continued business growth with sustainability is rather impossible and unfortunately, this does not seem to interest many people.
Article written by Jonida Gashi.