Alternative clothes shops
The score table above does not include companies that only produce one kind of garment, for example just T-shirts, or just yogawear or sportswear. Those you see in the table offer a range of different garments for either men or women or both.
Most of the companies on the scoretable are small, family-run businesses who have close, long-standing relationships with their suppliers. Their entire business models are often created around the desire to do business better.
Why is ethical fashion still a niche activity?
Fashion kills. The first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in which over one thousand sweatshop workers died in Bangladesh is a grim reminder of how people are still losing their lives to feed our addiction to cheap, disposable clothing. The good news is that the ethical clothing industry here in the UK is made up of small, dedicated and hard-working companies who are on the front line of giving shoppers a more ethical option for their skirts and shirts.
The bad news though – yes I’m afraid there’s more bad news – is that, largely thanks to the recession, ethical clothing companies, like many other small operations, have been having a hard time in recent years. The result is that a number of key pioneering ethical clothing companies have been unable to survive the downturn and have gone bust.
How to survive
So how have the surviving companies managed to hang on in what is one of the most cut-throat industries in the UK economy? And is ethical fashion condemned to always being a niche activity? “We’ve kept going through sheer hard work and by slashing costs to the bone which sometimes has involved working for free,” admits Gav Lawson from THTC which has been making organic and hemp t-shirts for over 15 years.
Mark Bloom who launched Komodo over 25 years ago agrees with Lawson in that keeping going has been hard work but believes that ethical fashion is here to stay: “The sector has established itself and isn’t just a fad that’s gone away, we’re still here.”
Ethical fashion always niche?
But whilst organic carrots and Fairtrade coffee are now mainstream items and can be found in every High Street, why is ethical and Fairtrade fashion still such a niche sector? “There’s a fundamental difference between buying a jar of Fairtrade coffee and a pair of ethical and organic jeans. Buying clothing is much more complicated,” says Bloom. “Comparing buying food with buying clothes is an unfair comparison.”
Fair enough, but how do we roll out ethical clothing to the masses and consign sweatshop labour to history? Frustratingly, for all the well-intentioned talking, the reality is that nobody’s got an easy answer. If there was an easy answer, then ethical clothing wouldn’t be still stuck in the same position as it was ten years ago.
“It is disappointing that ethical and sustainable clothing is still having a hard time,” admits William Lana from the pioneering ethical clothing company, Greenfibres.
Sure, price is an issue with many ethical clothing items being beyond the budget of many cash-strapped shoppers, but not everyone agrees that sweatshop-free clothing is necessarily more expensive.
“If you’re paid above the living-wage then ethical clothing is affordable and isn’t that expensive,” says Ethical Consumer’s Bryony Moore. “The problem is that the vast majority of ethical fashion isn’t on the high street so shoppers just aren’t aware of it and so it isn’t normalised. All that shoppers see are the worst excesses of fast-fashion which is driving the continued need for sweatshops.”
What’s needed is a complete re-think in our attitudes towards fashion says Moore:
“We should be prepared to pay a little more for something that lasts longer and to support the idea of slow-fashion which like the slow-food movement, focuses on quality and knowing the provenance of the product.”
“We should be supporting companies who have shorter and more transparent production lines and who cut out retailers who take the bulk of the profit by connecting directly with producers in countries such as Bangladesh.”
Phil Scott who recently launched Cock & Bull Organic Menswear agrees with Moore: “It’s definitely time for us all to take a deep breath and look closely at our culture of disposable fashion, to ask some difficult questions of ourselves and of others around us,” says Scott.
“We should then vote with our pound and say no to companies making disposable fashion, say no to the fickle, flighty culture of trends and embrace a more meaningful and sustainable style.”
See our ethical fashion section for a beginners guide to sustainable fashion