The fashion world is not noted for its morals. Its use of fur, its exploitation of child labour and its insistence on stick-thin models are constantly criticised.
The industry’s reply is that it gives the people what they want. If the public objects, it only has to stop buying – and start mending instead, as these second world war ladies were forced to do, with fashion, flags, uniforms, everything.
The problem is that, when it comes to ethics, many of us have a tendency to bury our head in the sand. Ten years ago, it looked as if fur was gone for ever – top models swore they’d rather die than wear an animal’s pelt – yet now the shops are full of it. Exposes about manufacturing malpractice in the developing world abound, yet still we query prices, not where products come from. As for attempts to see real figures in fashion – even the voluptuous Sophie Dahl is slim now.
Are things at least beginning to look up? Perhaps. Trade partnerships are attempting to eliminate the exploitation of animals and workers. In response to customer boycotts, multinational brands such as Gap and Nike are having to address their policies regarding cheap Third World labour. And there is real concern about the effects of the heavily toxic cotton industry on fragile ecosystems.
How quickly the situation actually improves depends on the consumer. Fashion reacts fast to dropping sales, and is always ready to adapt to the standards and integrity that we demand. If you want things to change, start the ball rolling by asking how, when and where that £4 pair of jeans or £9.99 top was produced, and follow up with the action that you consider most appropriate.
(First published March 2006)