Sunday, 6 May, 2012 - 14:51

Ethical fashion: Can high street fashion be fair?

by Emma Dixon

We live in a world addicted to so-called ‘fast fashion’ - and chances are, we’ve all been there. Whether it’s £3 pumps or a whole new outfit for under £50, big name brands such as Primark, H&M and Forever 21 are offering new and affordable ways of keeping up with fashion and adding to an ever-expanding wardrobe. But how often do we actually stop and think about how these products can possibly be so cheap? In other words: what is the real cost of fast fashion? Big brands aim to get customers to buy their products, and one of the largest factors for many people when buying clothes is price; how cheap can I get what I’m looking for? Would this be cheaper somewhere else? It seems that quality is often taking a back seat to how much money we can save, especially in bad economic conditions. For instance, a Cambridge University report shows that in just 4 years, the amount of clothes bought rose by a third-despite the recession. As a result of this, clothing firms need to get their production costs down as much as possible. The best way is to take advantage of low production costs in countries like China and Bangladesh. Here, factories don’t have the same health and safety standards that we’re used to in the Western world. Wages are notoriously low and employees work for long hours without breaks and in bad conditions. Therefore, the clothes, shoes and accessories that hang in our wardrobes can then be sold for a much lower price…and we rarely think about the people thousands of miles away who made them. The fact is, most people just don’t have the money to buy ethically produced fashion, especially when they can buy a similar item somewhere else for a third of the price. It seems then that there has to be a change. Is there a way to produce ethical fashion but keep the price reasonable? According to H&M, there is. The Swedish fashion giant has netted 412 million US dollars in profits so far this year and is known for its cheap fashion fixes. Recently however H&M has taken a bold move towards producing more ethical fashion for its customers. With more and more exposure of oversees sweatshops it seems the demand for fair but affordable fashion is gradually growing, but the supply unavailable. Is H&M therefore the brand to offer an ethical solution? The answer is somewhat of a grey area-but they certainly are changing. The head of sustainability at H&M admits that ‘guaranteeing’ ethical fashion in their shops is harder than it seems. With loyal customers used to certain standards, the conditions in which to change are challenging. The brand is however heading in the direction of improving conditions abroad and has real goals they aim to achieve in the future. Just last month, a report showed that H&M used more organic cotton than any other high street group, and they aim for 100% of their products to be using this by 2020. In addition, the new ‘conscious collection’ uses organic and recycled materials to create a line of fashionable, affordable and fairly sourced clothes. It is H&Ms 30-50 fashion collections per year though that is the real grey area. To produce so many different collections 100% ethically in a short period of time cannot be achieved overnight. The brand doesn’t own any of its factories abroad, and so they are able to distance themselves amid reports of bad conditions. Furthermore, communication about problems is often done via other people and companies, rather than H&M addressing problems such as fire safety worries and dirty factories directly. They have been applauded, however, for their ambition. Unlike many other high street stores they have a clear vision in mind and aim for ethical fashion collections to grow over the years. In addition, the exposure of this problem isn’t set to stop. Next time you go shopping, why not look for fair fashion collections on the high street, head to a second hand shop-or even learn to sew and make some clothes at home?
Language level

Do you shop in H&M and Primark? Do you worry about whether your clothes are ethically produced? Do you have any good ideas for dressing fashionably and ethically without spending loads of money?

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