It is a fact universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a hemp garment must be in need of a good sartorial dressing down. Up until a few seasons ago, ethical fashion was a phrase that brought together such polar opposite ideals as to be deemed oxymoronic. Personally, when I think of organic fibres, I think of trying to detach myself from the enlightened gap-yearer at a house party as she tells me about her experiences cotton-farming in India, and how the Primark dress I am wearing is the equivalent to murdering a puppy in negative karma points. Alternatively, I think of escaping the eccentric ‘aunt’ (of dubious actual relation) at a festive gathering as she describes to me that exact same tale. The predictability of the details of the story, despite the 40 year age gap, just goes to show that while Vogue may be peddling Louboutins in September and sliders in October, Hippies are invariably wearing hemp (and telling you that they are).
It is somewhat comforting however in the fickle world of fashion to know that someone, somewhere, is always typing ‘organic cotton’ into the search engine of ebay. But what does it say about the industry when we can start asking the sales assistant at Topshop that same query? More intriguing is the implications of discovering that the product we find at the end of our journey through the labyrinthine floor plan of the store is not the expected pair of beige sack-cloth dungarees, but an on-trend garment that you would not be surprised to see hanging off the fragile frame of Alexa Chung herself.
While we might be so naïve as to believe that the power-houses of fashion have all simultaneously had a visit from the ghost of seasons yet to come; prophesying a solitary grave for all those outsourcing their intricate beading work to impoverished Bangladeshi communities, it is more likely that they are just jumping on the newest bandwagon and ‘going green’ in the hunt for the real green; money.
As consumers, we are undoubtedly differentiating between brands in every sphere of our lives on the basis of how virtuous they appear; the success of companies touting a philanthropic image such as Pret a’Manger and Innocent are testament to the cash-cow that is the Puritanical PR agent. While in the food industry, it is possible to incorporate ethical procedures into business procedures, the fashion industry is not founded on the stable business model of filling a tummy-shaped hole. Instead, the 1.7 trillion fashion industry thrives on the principle of making people buy things that they do not actually need.
How is it possible then to reconcile this ruthless capitalism with a moral conscience? While ethical brands make buyers feel good about themselves, fashion has historically undermined the consumer’s self-worth to the point where, after reading this month’s Elle, I feel like the only way that I will ever be a legitimate woman again is if I immediately order a pair of pink jelly shoes. So too does ‘ethical’ mean encouraging sustainable financial practices, yet fashion’s success is rooted in our sense of greed and willingness to recklessly spend half our monthly pay packet on something, or a few somethings, that sparkle.
So how genuine is this ethical fashion revolution? If concern for the environment and developing countries is at the heart of H and M’s Consious range, or ASOS’s The Green Room, then why have the principles of these collections not been extended to the whole of these shops’ product range? The very fact that these collections occupy segregated sections of the brand website and are demarcated from normal stock with trendy brown paper labels shows how green clothing is just another fad to be given its allocated square metres of shop floor until the next load of deliveries roll in. If these brands were dedicated to reducing their use of petro-chemical based materials, poisonous dyes or internationally outsourced manufacturing lines then they would be attempting to incorporate these considerations into every product made, rather than the few in their designated eco-collections. The fact is that, unfortunately, ethics and capitalism really are irreconcilable; when forced to choose between sourcing material at 20p a metre from China as opposed to supporting local manufacturers at home at five times the cost, we all know what Phillip Green’s business-savvy minions are going to pick.
So for the girls and guys surrounded by the allure of the top that you wear for 24 hours until it falls apart on the dancefloor, is renegated to the depths of the ‘don’t wear unless you’re redecorating’ drawer, or is thrown into landfill, how feasible is going green (without also turning into a supercilious twat)? Luckily, the most green you can get in fashion is by never visiting the Westgate centre again; the most you could do for the ethical fashion movement is to sit tight in last year’s jeans and not buy anything at all. And for those of you who just can’t contemplate becoming a consumerist void, the second greenest option available to you is to buy second-hand clothes; both saving them from going to waste and stopping the need for new clothes to be produced in their place. This means, fortunately, that vintage skirt = a clear conscience as well as a more healthy bank balance.