I have always been an environmentalist and with three children, I am naturally concerned about their future. Relating to fashion, I think it really started in 1990 when I commissioned some research on the impact of the clothing and textiles business on the environment. I was horrified at what I found. The first issue was that there are 10 thousand deaths every year due to conventional cotton agriculture, mostly from pesticide poisoning. It was a real shock, because we designers thought we weren’t doing any actual damage using natural crops when actually we were having this colossal impact. I did a talk in New York telling people involved in the clothing industry about this. I think that was the start of the whole organic cotton trend. It took many directions including the whole eco-look, which became ugly and unaffordable. People don’t like clothes that look like charity.
I’ve carried on the research and the picture now is even blacker. You can’t separate agriculture from the clothing and textile industry, just like you can’t separate gold mining from the jewellery industry. The clothing and textiles industry is probably the third or fourth largest industry in the world; add that to the agricultural industry (cotton and sheep farming for example), then there is a huge impact on the environment.
How do you tie these issues into your designs?
First of all, you have to research all of your raw materials and be responsible. You have to look at what impact the material has on the environment. There are also wider implications such as the slave labor involved in the clothing industry. You have to support fair labor.
Organic natural fibres are the obvious choice for designers, where do man- made fibres fit into ethical design?
There are certain things that I think you have to avoid. I avoid viscose because, although you obtain eco certification on it, the actual process is carried out in the Third World using vast amounts of sulphuric acid, which is then dumped into the environment causing massive pollution in countries such as India and Mexico. You really have to do your homework.
What we need is a website with a global directory of sustainable materials, traditional skills and sustainable processing, even for buttons. A site that does it all and is readily available. It would be a very useful tool for the industry.
It seems that you get very involved as an individual outside of your designs.
Yes, at the moment, I am involved in a project with the Intermediate Technology Development Group and the Royal College of Art, setting up a PhD research project to do with something called a widget. It boils sea water with solar energy to produce fresh water and electricity. This has got fantastic potential for drinking water and irrigation. You have to think that at the bottom of the supply chain, there are people dying of pesticide poisoning, so by providing clean drinking water, you give something back. And if you take a long-term view of the clothing and textiles industry, you have to protect the supplies of raw materials. I think you have to treat the whole process holistically.
How do feel about the way UK design colleges deal with ethics?
I don’t think they do it hard enough. I think you have to teach people to design responsibly. As a designer, everything that you produce is man-made and it is your responsibility as a human being to make sure that what you are doing isn’t going to mess things up further. Right now the planet is dying and it is dying fast.
How do you balance a profitable business with ethical issues?
You have to try very hard and you must be competitive. There is no pity in the market. It’s much easier to be a slob, we could all be slobs and use anything. Fur, PVC you name it. But who said designing was meant to be easy?
How can the average consumer support the move towards cleaner clothes?
I think they should be asking questions, asking: what is it made out of? Is it certified organic? Also, consumers should ask where it’s made. You need to avoid places that don’t have good labor laws.
Most ethical fashion companies seem to be setting up on the web. Why isn’t there more availability on the high street?
Mail order is good and it’s cheaper. The web is good, you have your independence and I think that is very important. You find companies involved with huge conglomerates can have their hands tied on environmental issues. It’s very hard to separate the environment from politics and you will find that the slightest whisper of any political implication and any company which has a backer won’t be allowed to do anything. Their backers will silence them, because the conventional business wisdom is that you shut up about such things and get on with it.
How can ethical fashion become more competitively priced?
I think what is needed is to go along the same lines as organic food to achieve that level of cool chic. We need to give organic clothing a gourmet market; it needs to be seen as an affordable luxury.
Organic fabric is available. It is cheap. Sixty per cent of a farmer’s expense is agrochemicals, so farming organically is actually cheaper. However, there are all these agents jumping on the eco-bandwagon and adding extra amounts, like a dollar per pound, onto the organic cotton prices. There are farmers in Zimbabwe who are growing cotton organically although they haven’t got a market for it and they are selling it to the conventional cotton mills. They are growing it organically because it’s cheaper. We can get there!
About the author:
I work for the ethical clothes directory which also sells fair trade clothes, plus we have Ethical Company articles for you to read or publish.