TRAID’s CEO Maria Chenoweth explores the painfully slow progress of ethical fashion and what we can do about it.

Ethical fashion means different things to different people. However, broadly, ‘ethical fashion’ aims to address five key problems in the fashion industry: waste, exploitative labour, environmental damage including water scarcity, the use of hazardous chemicals and animal cruelty.

Ethical fashion, often used interchangeably with sustainable fashion, started to be talked about in the 80s. For many of us, it was a lightbulb moment that fast fashion and over-consumption exploited workers and harmed the planet.

So, fifty years on, what has been done? Our knowledge and data of the socio-environmental impacts of the fashion industry is greater than ever – from oceans full of micro-plastics to desertification. Yet, as I look around, I see fast fashion production accelerating and influencers telling us to buy buy buy.

Opaque supply chains have normalised the endemic exploitation of people, the environment and animals for fashion. For example, it’s estimated that one in five cotton garments in the global marketplace uses forced labour. Right now in China, it is estimated that more than half a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minority peoples are forced to grow cotton as part of a programme of ethnic cleansing.

More than 99% of cotton production is grown using hazardous pesticides and fertilisers. TRAID partner PAN UK estimates that 1-3% of agricultural workers are poisoned every year by pesticides. One million so badly that they are hospitalised while 300,000 farmers die of acute deaths – that’s when you are poisoned so badly that you fall down and die.

Fashion also uses and abuses animals. Fur farm production has doubled since the 90s and, in high street stores, many items include fur trims, often marketed as fake, but in some cases lab tests have shown them to be cat, dog and rabbit fur. These fur trims and pom poms end up on cheap clothes and in all likelihood, will soon be discarded in someones trash. All that harm, exploitation and cruelty, just to be thrown away!

And, although we have declared a climate emergency, we are buying and throwing away billions of items of clothing responsible for generating 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouses gases every year.

What are some of the things we must do?

  • Make Ecocide a law: this is the life’s work of the late earth lawyer Polly Higgins to prevent the destruction of nature by making it a crime. Start with one of Polly’s Ted talks here.
  • Increase not decrease charity clothes recycling banks (less to landfill, more money for good causes). Every year in the UK, we are throwing £140 million worth of clothes into landfill! 
  • Refuse to accept fashion’s horrific abuse of animals for clothes that are barely worn and quickly discarded.
  • Massively increase organic cotton production. For that, we’ll need brands to cough up an initial outlay of £30 per year per farmer to be trained. If TRAID as a small London based charity can commit over £2 million to support thousands of cotton farmers in Benin, Ethiopia and India to grow organically, then imagine what the wealth of big brands could do.
  • No more turning a blind eye to corporate abuse! Brands must be held responsible for the supply chains they profit from. That means for example, ending the poverty wages of garment workers, not allowing child or bonded labour in supply chains and ensuring that people can work in safety and dignity.