The need to teach slow fashion

Rob Harrison explains why we may need to look at our education systems before we can find a lasting solution to the problems of the clothing sector.

Although the institutionalised greed of global capitalism throws up problems for people and the environment pretty much everywhere you look, the clothing sector's struggles to adopt ethical approaches have been, in some ways, unique. And, in 2019, the mood is even more downbeat than usual.

As we see elsewhere in our Fashion section, the climate impacts of fast fashion are looking ominous, and the failure to deliver living wages to workers pretty much everywhere seems to be unfixable.

The problem of new entrants and price

One of the biggest problems for ethics in the clothing sector is the ease with which new companies can enter the market. You don't need a lot a capital to buy a few sewing machines and hire a room somewhere. It's even easier to rent a shop or create a website and order some clothes from a Far-Eastern manufacturer online. And one thing that these 'new entrants' can usually be is 'price competitive'.

The reasons for this are complex, but amongst them are the fact that they are not having to pay for some of the social and environmental initiatives that we mentioned earlier.

When we speak to clothing companies about their ethical programs they will say 'we'd love to pay a living wage, but if we did we'd have to charge more for our clothes and everyone would buy from the cheaper new companies instead'. If you believe them, competition in the clothing sector is, in other words, so effective that the pressure on price is forever undermining attempts to create lasting fixes.

The example of Primark 

When Ethical Consumer first wrote about Primark in 1999, its low prices were frightening all the other manufacturers and it said nothing about ethical issues at all.

Since then, pressure from campaigners, and TV and newspaper exposés have forced it to take stock. Although a long way from perfect, it now participates in nine of the eleven global, multi-stakeholder clothing initiatives on our table on page 17, placing it in the top four of UK clothing companies showing ethical
awareness.

Today though, everyone is worried about new brands Missguided and Boohoo, whose £1 bikinis are making Primark look like a luxury retailer!

And, like Primark 20 years ago, they can't really evidence much in the way of ethical awareness either. As campaigners, and indeed for companies who care, if feels like we're having to start all over again.

The role of young people

When we look at the buyers of fast fashion brands we mainly see young people. Indeed, clothing is one of the first items that teenagers will buy on their own as they begin to form their own distinct identities.

Critics of the idea of ethical consumption will often argue that it never really works because people do not really care and are only interested in price. Our repost to this is that consumers can't care if no-one tells them why they should.

Although you and I might know that a £2 t-shirt will barely cover the cost of the material, why should a 14-year-old child know this? And how will they know about the other climate, or pollution or human impacts of these first things they are learning to buy?

The need for formal education

The failures of the clothing sector are a problem with society-wide impacts. And one of the roles of an education system is to teach children how certain behaviours in complex societies can be counter-productive or problematic.

And, although some schools do educate on this, a progressive government should look to make clothes-buying part of the national curriculum. Sustainable fashion commentators are already saying this about clothing repair, but the effects of price-only buying need to be part of this too. 

We talk about how consumers can't solve everything and how regulatory reforms are needed in the clothing sector in our guide to critical fashion workers' rights. But I can't help thinking that, if we don't start talking about this in schools, we're going to keep bumping into the same old problems again and again.

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