Most of us enjoy wearing comfortable and good-looking clothes. It's a way to express ourselves, feel good, and communicate. But, maybe thoughts about which clothing brands are ethical have crossed your mind? And what do ethical clothes mean when a brand states they comply and sell precisely that?
Never before has the range of clothes been so extensive. The overall apparel consumption is predicted to rise by over 60%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons in 2030. Fashion brands rapidly produce new styles, stimulating us to keep up with the latest trends. As a result, we use our clothes half as much as we did 15 years ago. Of course, changing our clothes often is not sustainable for the environment, but how ethical is this behavior?
Ethical problems in the fashion industry
At least 25 million people work in apparel manufacturing, and most of these are women. There are approximately 100 million cotton farmers, and over 1 billion people have their primary source of income from the clothing industry. Cotton is primarily grown in the US, China, India, Pakistan, and other countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkey, Israel, Argentina, and Australia.
Many people working in the industry, especially cotton farmers, face social and economic challenges. We still see forced and unpaid manual labour in countries such as China and Uzbekistan. Working with conventional cotton is hazardous due to the amounts of chemical substances from pesticides. It is not uncommon for farmers and other workers to face acute and long-term health issues.
In addition, farmers often face economic problems due to debts and corporate control. It is well known that cotton prices have drastically increased, but farmers are still not compensated accordingly. Instead, they are being pushed further and working at higher risk. Farmers often need to take loans with high interest rates to afford expensive gene-modified cotton seeds. As climate change hits cotton farming areas hard, it is not uncommon with destroyed crops. Economic disaster is then a fact for the vulnerable farmers, unable to pay off their debts. In fact, the pressure has become so high and has contributed to a suicidal pandemic in India.
It is not only cotton farmers that face working under harsh and unethical conditions. In 2013, more than 1100 garment workers lost their lives when the Rana Plaza collapsed in Dakka, Bangladesh. It was the deadliest structural failure in modern human history and evidence that many work under precarious conditions. Not only are people forced to work in unhealthy environments, but many young women do not earn minimum wage, are sexually harassed, face unrealistic production demands and are often required to work excessive overtime, which is usually unpaid.
What is an ethical clothing brand?
An ethical brand treats its workers well. A living wage allows people to live in decent housing, eat healthy food, visit the doctor and send children to school. Many people working in garment production have special skills, enjoy their work, and are proud of what they do. Being compensated fairly with a living wage for hard and specialised work is not a luxury but a fundamental human right. Overtime hours should be reasonable and compensated. Labour should never be forced or made by children, and worker should never be restricted their freedom.
Why is ethical clothing expensive?
When everybody in the product chain earns fair wages, the end product will reflect that price. Here is an example of what it costs to make a bomber jacket at Snella:
- Organic and certified fabrics: €12
- Production cost €20 (It takes approximately 1 hour to make one jacket)
- Zipper €1.35
- Labels, sewing thread, etc. €2
- Total cost: €35,35
- Selling price: €55
As you can see, the profit margin is slim and far below the recommended 350%. However, it's possible to keep it this way in a small personal company. The goal is not to earn as much money as possible but to produce ethical and fair clothing, because we love it. The products are handmade by a passionate seamstress with her own business and studio, deciding over her work. The materials have been carefully sourced to meet high quality and sustainability standards, not because they are cheap. Lastly, the designs have been made thoughtfully to fit children and their needs perfectly.
How to buy ethical clothing?
It is not easy to grasp which clothing brands are ethical. If you are unsure about how ethical the clothes you buy are, there are a few questions you should ask yourself and the brand.
Initially, ask yourself if you need new clothes and try to resist if you can. Then, if you actually need new clothes, choose high-quality clothes that will last through trends and consumption. Finally, think about the price: does it reflect fair wages and safe work environments throughout the entire production chain?
An ethical brand should have a transparent supply chain. They should inform about where their materials come from, what their materials are, and who made their clothes and materials. Certifications are good, but an ethical brand should work beyond these.
Being ethical also reaches beyond producing ethical clothes. Brands should inform consumers how to take care of their items sustainably. Additionally, they should have a sustainable plan for their products post-consumer, such as sharing information on how to recycle, re-sell, up-cycle clothes, or even offering such services.
If you genuinely want to make a difference as a consumer, support the brands willing to communicate where their materials come from, who made them, and how much they produce. Don't solely trust brands with certification logos and vague statements.
There is one last thought to keep in mind as a consumer. If a brand's primary goal is to produce and offer large quantities, almost all environmental and ethical gains made by current initiatives are in vain and considered greenwashing.
Good luck searching for ethical clothes and finding your favourite brands!