There was a time when the words "ethical" and "fashion" would have been unlikely to appear in the same sentence. But with concerns about climate change and world poverty at an all-time high, the fashion world has had to adapt. There is now so much choice of clothing with a conscience from slinky lingerie and cosy knitwear to practical outdoor gear and cutting edge fashion that there's no excuse to buy clothing that is anything other than ethical this Christmas.
One issue that has been high on the agenda is the impact of producing the raw materials to make the clothes. Conventional cotton farming, for example, uses one quarter of the world's pesticides and can have a serious impact on the health of cotton farmers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 20,000 people die in developing countries every year from pesticide poisoning, much of which can be attributed to cotton production. Health concerns such as headaches, nausea, eye problems and skin irritation are also common among farmers and their families including children, who often help to apply the chemicals.
The reliance of cotton farmers on pesticides and chemical fertilisers can also have a detrimental impact on the condition of the soil, causing long-term damage to its fertility. In a vicious cycle, this often leads farmers to sink into debt buying more chemicals to achieve a crop, often leaving them with little or no profit on which to survive and feed their families.
And the damage does not end there. After the cotton is harvested, more than 8,000 chemicals many classified by the WHO as "hazardous" may be used in the various processes it must then go through, including washing, bleaching, dyeing and printing.
But organically-grown cotton is different. Many of the 25,000 farmers who now produce it in 22 countries report that by using non-chemical alternatives to pesticides they are able to avoid getting into debt and enjoy farm land on which they can grow food safely for their families. "Crop rotation is a major principle of organic farming," explains Damien Sanfilippo from the Pesticide Action Network-UK (PAN-UK). "When you allow farmers to grow organic cotton, you know you are also helping them grow a large supply of organic food for themselves and their community."
Thankfully, such messages are getting through and there has never been more choice for consumers wanting to buy clothing with a conscience. Sanfilippo says that the number of cotton farmers going organic is growing by around 50 per cent every year, while the Soil Association estimates that the UK market for organic cotton products will be worth 107m by next year.
Such advances can be linked in part to the support given by pioneering fashion companies such as People Tree and Gossypium, both of which have long-term commitments to the farmers who produce the raw materials for their clothing. The high street, too, is beginning to take notice. Debenhams, Topshop, Next, Oasis and Monsoon are among mainstream retailers to bring out ranges made from organic or fairly-traded cotton, while Marks & Spencer was the first major retailer to sign up to a PAN-UK target ensuring that 10 per cent of all cotton goods in the UK are made from organic cotton by 2010. Supermarkets, including Sainsbury's and Tesco, have also begun to include organic cotton in their clothing.
Clio Turton of the Soil Association says such moves should be welcomed. "People are becoming increasingly interested in the stories behind their clothing, and in extending their organic lifestyles beyond the food they eat," she says. "You no longer need to choose between style and having an organic wardrobe. Forget hair-shirts, coarse hemp fibres and undesirable, frumpy jumpers organic clothes are now the height of fashion."
Christmas shoppers wanting to support this movement should look at Patagonia, People Tree, Hug, Gossypium, Seasalt and Howies, which offer a range of desirable clothing for men, women and children. For more niche products, Enamore specialises in lingerie made from organic hemp, soya, cotton and vintage fabrics while Terra Plana makes shoes from recycled materials. And there are plenty more search the Soil Association's consumer guide (www.soilassociation.org/textiles) for details or look at adili.com for a list of ethical fashion labels.
The issue of ensuring producers in the developing world receive a decent wage is closely linked with the move towards organic, which often results in higher incomes for farmers. Those companies which sign up to the rules of the International Fair Trade Organisation, which campaigns to improve trading conditions and the rights of workers, can be recognised by the FTO Mark (see www.ifat.org).
Traidcraft (traidcraftshop.co.uk), for example, sells a range of clothing and accessories that often combine organic and fair trade concerns. Their 26 hooded tops, for example, are made with certified organic cotton from India and provide well-paid work for tailors in Mauritius.
The high street and supermarkets are also worth a look, with more companies than ever incorporating fair trade and organic materials into their clothing ranges. But Sanfilippo sounds a note of caution: "We need to be careful that the major retailers don't reproduce the same trading habits that they usually apply to their suppliers," he says. "It's a very difficult process for farmers to convert to organic growing, and they need to know their clients aren't just going to go for cheaper cotton elsewhere after a year."
With this issue in mind, PAN-UK toured fashion colleges in Germany, France and the UK earlier this year to raise awareness about the problems of conventional farming among the next generation of fashion designers. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and left Sanfilippo with hope for the future. "In the past, fashion designers haven't understood the supply chain or accepted the fact that they work in the same industry as the cotton farmer," he says. "But that is beginning to change."Reuse content