Katharine Hamnett interview: How to shop ethically on a student budget

The designer and campaigner gives her top tips on truly ethical fashion

Claudia Devlin
Wednesday 26 November 2014 13:46

Your clothes' journey from cotton field to shop hanger is still an obscure one; a journey that is usually just accepted by people who don't work in the industry. And it's unlikely to cross your minds as you feel our way through racks of potential buys in a shop.

And even though wide-scale campaigns by Fair Trade and other NGOs have enlightened us to the plight of cotton farmers and garment workers worldwide, the issue has not been dealt with in a society constantly succumbing to the "fast". Fast wifi, instant messaging, fast food - and fast fashion.

Ethical issues are not exclusive to cotton farmers in clothing production. Fairtrade has brought our attention to farmers' rights – they continue to protect the farmers and communities they work with, but they cannot yet help them all.

The designer and political activist Katharine Hamnett spoke to the Independent on a subject that's close to her heart.

“There are about 100 million cotton farmers involved in agriculture and in many cases they are living in conditions worse that slavery,” she says.

Widely known for her hands-on political activism through fashion, Hamnett’s mission is to “change the world through fashion, and make products as ethically and as environmentally friendly as possible”. In 2003, Hamnett was invited by OXFAM to visit African cotton farmers in Mali, to highlight the effect of US cotton subsidies on cotton farmers at the Cancun trade conference.

Once the cotton has left the farmer it travels along a chain of workers who condition it, ready to make the clothes. Often, these factories do not meet safety standards, resulting in disaster – the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 Bangladesh took a harrowing 1,130 lives, injuring many others. It led to the Bangladesh Safety Accord, a legal agreement between international labour organisations, retailers and NGOs to ensure minimum safety standards are met. Meanwhile Fairtrade is developing a Fair Trade Textile Standard to extend protection to workers dealing with Fairtrade cotton.

“If you don’t want to buy clothes that aren’t ethically made – you’re pretty stuffed," says Hamnett of the current fashion landscape.

With ethical issues effecting the whole supply chain, students, naturally fashion-conscious, may wonder how to help on a budget. When your student loan is running low, high-street fast fashion stores can seem like the only viable option.

As it turns out, though, students are not completely stuffed when it comes to ethical shopping. Hamnett continues: “Let’s get fundamental first. I think the first thing to do is to write to your MPs now and tell them that you want. If we cancelled Trident we could have a free education and a grant system. You’re broke, so you need to remedy that so you can afford to shop”.

Hamnett also suggested some advice "in the mean-time", stressing the importance of personal choice when shopping ethically:

  1. Shop vintage: “Obviously vintage is great, and better morally. If you are recycling or upcycling clothing it is really good.”
  2. Green Brands: “Try and shop green bands. Get clever with your wardrobe.” Clothes labelled Fairtrade ensure cotton farmers are getting a fair wage. Some green brands like People Tree predominantly sell ethically made garments. More than 70 per cent of their clothing is made with 100 per cent organic certified cotton.
  3. Buy in one colour: “Pick one colour and get everything in that colour - black seems to be the winner.”
  4. Learn to sew: “If you’re clever you buy an old ball gown for 25 quid, you can just chop it up if you learn how to make a skirt.”
  5. Write to your shops and brands: “Put pressure on the brands.” Hamnett suggests writing to brands to tell them what you want – especially the brands that did not sign up to the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

It seems that by simply becoming aware of issues surrounding clothing production, our choices can become more informed, and this is, for Hamnett, on the rise: “People are much more informed than they ever were.”

By “getting clever with your shopping requirements”, you can shop ethically, even if you are on a student budget.

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