Please dress responsibly - meet the dedicated followers of ethical fashion
As Fashion Revolution Week kicks off in Ireland, ethical clothing has never looked so good
Think ethical fashion and what springs to mind? Hemp, perhaps. Fisherman pants, tie dye and blousy cotton cover-ups, almost certainly. H&M's recent announcement that it will soon be making fabric from cow manure isn't doing much for its image.
But ethical fashion is no longer something to be sniffed at. With the impact of climate change impossible to ignore, the rise of veganism and the power of social media to rally the troops, ethical fashion is banging its (sustainably sourced) drum louder than ever before - and the clothes are looking pretty good too.
On her press tour for the hit Disney film Beauty And The Beast, Watson championed sustainable fashion with a wardrobe of show-stopping looks that were all eco-friendly. Livia Firth, Colin Firth's wife, is a vocal ethical fashion activist, while stars including Margot Robbie, Emma Roberts and Sophie Turner have taken the Green Dress Challenge, opting for sustainable gowns on the red carpet.
Designer Stella McCartney, herself a lifelong vegetarian, is a staunch advocate of animal-free fashion as well as eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester and 'forest friendly' viscose. Labels like Armani, Hugo Boss and Vivienne Westwood are among a bevy of designer brands that have ditched fur.
Parisian sneaker brand Veja is a favourite of celebrities like Emma Watson, Marion Cotillard and model Lily Cole. Its stylish kicks are leather-free and crafted from organic cotton and wild rubber sourced sustainability from the Amazon, the only place on the globe rubber trees grow wild.
Going cruelty-free is to be applauded, but absconding from using animal products doesn't seem enough when you consider the environmental impact of making, say, a cotton t-shirt. National Geographic estimates it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one shirt, while synthetic materials like nylon are non-biodegradable and a derivative of petroleum.
So, maybe hemp is the answer after all? Not quite. Designer and high street brands are championing innovative fabric made from recycled materials to combat the impact of clothing production on the environment.
Along with its promised 'manure couture', in March H&M released its sustainable, and rather beautiful, Conscious Exclusive collection that featured the sleek sounding BIONIC, a polyester made from plastics collected from shoreline waste. In February, Mango launched its first ever Committed range, again a capsule collection of ethically made clothing, featuring recycled cotton and polyester, as well as Tencel.
The aforementioned Stella McCartney champions everything from regenerated cashmere to vegetarian leather, while eco-chic label Reformation uses vintage and 'deadstock' fabric, otherwise destined for landfill, to create their garments that have developed a cult following among the fashion set.
Rosie O'Reilly of Irish fashion initiative Re-Dress, who have worked within the ethical and sustainable fashion sphere for more than 10 years, points out that our consumption levels have increased dramati-cally with the rise of fast fashion.
"We consume four times the amount of fashion items today than we did 20 years ago," she says.
"Profit margins are the only consideration in such a model and the environmental and human impact has been horrifying. The fashion industry is now the second dirtiest industry after oil extraction and production, and, as the Fashion Revolution campaign highlights, is a huge violator of human rights."
Four years ago in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1,138 garment workers died when the factory they were working in collapsed due to significant structural issues. The horrific Rana Plaza tragedy brought global attention to the appalling working conditions in the garment industry, particularly in the Third World.
To commemorate the victims of Rana Plaza and to incite change in the industry, Fashion Revolution was born. Founded in 2014 by campaigner and designer Carry Somers, along with designer Orsola de Castro, the UK based not-for-profit organisation has been embraced around the globe.
The brands with links to Rana Plaza read like a who's who of fast fashion: Primark, H&M, Mango, GAP, Walmart and more. All of those listed swiftly donated to a compensation fund for victims and their families. Other brands involved did not contribute, or else did so months or even years after the tragedy.
Rather cleverly, Fashion Revolution has hijacked social networks beloved by fashion brands, like Instagram and Twitter, to directly engage with them by asking #whomademyclothes. Supporters of the campaign are encouraged to take a snap of their clothing label and tag the brand with the image and hashtag. Thousands of these posts are live across social media and the hashtag is expected to trend in the coming week with the start of Fashion Revolution Week (April 24-30).
More than 90 countries will participate in the week-long call to arms. O'Reilly and her team at Re-Dress are the co-ordinators for the Irish arm of the campaign and are overseeing a diverse range of events happening around the country. Highlights include an 'Upsew' pop-up in Galway's 2020 Hub, as well as a special screening of the documentary Tana Bana in Dublin's Fumbally Exchange and a 'Haulternative' walking tour around some of Dublin's best kept vintage and second-hand shopping secrets.
Initiatives like Fashion Revolution and harrowing exposés like the 2015 documentary The True Cost are making it more difficult for garment companies to rescind on sustainable and humane practices. Not even celebrities are immune to scrutiny, as seen with the furore around Beyoncé's Ivy Park collection for Topshop last year. The clothing range and its famous designer were criticised for allegedly using sweatshop labour, which Topshop vehemently denied.
GAP came under fire for the use of child labour in New Delhi-based facilities, despite the company's social audit system designed to detect and rid their supply chain of any unscrupulous practices. As was the case with GAP, it is often subcontractors employed by unsuspecting big brands who force employees into appalling working conditions.
Sweatshops are not just confined to the Third World. A Channel 4 documentary aired in January uncovered instances of hazardous working conditions in British garment factories, such as blocked fire exits and workers smoking inside, as well as employees paid well below minimum wage. The factories in question supplied brands like River Island and New Look.
O'Reilly points out that defining ethical fashion can be difficult for both brands and consumers as there doesn't appear to be one brand that counts itself as 100pc ethical. While there is still a long way to go, perceptions around sustainable, humane fashion have shifted dramatically.
Forget everything you thought about ethical fashion; the revolution is happening and change has never looked so good.