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Dressing with a conscience

 The Big Issue in the North (UK) 27 September 2019

To meet our demand to buy cheap clothes, the price workers pay is often sweatshop conditions. But thanks to determined pioneers and concerned customers across the UK, there’s a growing number of ethical suppliers. Sarah Irving explores how easy it is to dress with a conscience. (1465 Words) - By Sarah Irving

The Big Issue North_Ethical clothing

A cotton boll opens at the No. 143 Farm run by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Group, near Shihezi, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. China's top cotton growing area of Xinjiang in the northwest will likely have a bumper crop this year even though the harvest could be delayed by two weeks, industry officials said. Photo: REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

From Bangladesh to Mexico, Laos to Pakistan, Indonesia to Nicaragua, China to Mauritius, millions of workers - many of them women, some of them as young as 13 or 14 - work up to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, often in dangerous conditions and for tiny wages, to make clothes for the British high street.

Every time there is a newspaper article exposing the slave-like conditions in which clothes for Primark, Tesco, Asda, Sportsdirect, Levi, TopShop, Miss Selfridge or Dorothy Perkins are made, the big names promise they'll clean up their act. But follow-up research often reveals few changes in these sweatshops, because in the end we - the consumers - are still happy to turn a blind eye and carry on buying.

Some high street brands are making ethical progress. Marks & Spencer and Tesco offer a range of basic adult t-shirts and vests in Fairtrade-certified cotton - and both now also sell budget sweatshirts, shirts, blouses and polo shirts suitable for many school uniforms.

New Look and Hennes both run occasional lines made from organic cotton, and a few of TopShop's bigger stores offer space to ethical or upcycled (converting waste materials into something better) garments from small designers. But consumers need to remember that although an individual product from a big store might have ethical credentials, the rest of the shop's range is likely to be as bad as it's ever been.

One important development is the growing number of mainstream and ethical brands offering ethical clothing for men as well as women. Ethical pioneers People Tree now sell t-shirts and sportswear, M&S stocks chinos made in an "eco-factory", Green Fibres offers polo shirts, shirts and hemp jeans, and ethical designer label Kuyichi has a range of jeans. This is especially important because campaign groups report very poor working conditions in many factories making sportswear. The Play Fair 2012 campaign, co-ordinated by the TUC and Labour Behind The Label, is asking that sports brands linked to the London Olympics are made in sweatshop-free conditions.

Men's brands such as Ben Sherman often lag behind women's clothing companies, often not even having codes of conduct by which any improvements in their ethical performance can be measured, while G-Star Raw came in for heavy criticism in 2007 after it tried to silence revelations about sweatshop conditions in an Indian supplier factory by threatening critics with legal action.

Cottoning on

It's easy to think that because cotton comes from a plant it is "natural" and therefore somehow ethical. But according to the Pesticide Action Network, up to a quarter of the world's pesticides are poured on to cotton crops. Most of this cotton is grown in majority world countries where toxic chemicals are often sold and stored without proper labelling and instructions, leading to several deaths a year from accidental poisoning.

Many of these deaths are children who drink from unlabelled bottles or eat recently sprayed food crops close to cotton fields. Genetically modified cotton is also widely grown in the US and China, which campaigners claim harms the environment and ties farmers into damaging deals to buy expensive GM seeds.

Perhaps the worst examples of the horrors behind cotton come from Uzbekistan, where cotton growing is controlled by a dictatorial state. Huge areas of land have been rendered toxic by massive over-use of pesticides, the giant Aral Sea has almost dried up because of the demand for water for cottonfields, and hundreds of thousands of children - some as young as nine - are forced to spend weeks every year harvesting the crop.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, Uzbekistan produces 800,000 tonnes of cotton a year, and most of it is sold to Europe, including the UK. Because of the way the fibres are mixed in the supply chain, only cotton labelled organic or Fairtrade can guarantee you a garment free of Uzbek cotton.

Boycotting Caterpillar

Human rights campaigners in Palestine have called for a boycott of the Caterpillar brand of clothes, boots ands bags because this is the same Caterpillar that makes D9 military bulldozers. These have been used on many occasions by the Israeli army to bulldoze houses and olive groves in the West Bank and Gaza, and a Caterpillar D9 was used to kill American human rights observer Rachel Corrie in 2003. The Corrie family tried to sue Caterpillar in the US but the case was thrown out on the grounds that it was a "political" issue. In 2006 the General Synod of the Church of England voted to withdraw church investments from Caterpillar, although this was not acted on by the Church Commissioners.

Britain's carbon footprint

Politicians are fond of telling us that the UK's climate change impact is being tackled, while blaming "developing" countries such as China for continuing to pollute the atmosphere. But in 2009, the government's Chief Scientist, Professor David MacKay, called our cuts "an illusion", pointing out that what China is doing to pump out greenhouse gases and other pollution is - making things for us. With the closure of most of the manufacturing industry in Britain, and over three-quarters of the clothes on our high street coming from abroad, we have effectively exported our pollution (along with thousands of jobs) to other countries. The only way for Britain to really cut its climate change impact is for all of us to think more about what we're buying, and why.

Good fashion

The north of England is home to some of the most innovative attempts to make fashion truly ethical. In Manchester, Junk (, 0161 238 8517) has led the trend in upcycling. This means taking secondhand clothes that may be made of great fabric but are out of style and re-sewing them to bring them up to date.

Junk now has shops in the Northern Quarter and West Didsbury and last year was awarded a major contract to produce original pieces for Oxfam boutiques.

In Swaledale, Isobel Davies (above) has created the Izzy Lane (, 01748 813695) range of high-end tailored wool fashion from the fleeces of her herd of rescued sheep.

The yarn is spun in the last of Calderdale's worsted spinning mills, using machinery that dates back to the Victorian era. The prices for Izzy Lane garments are probably out of most people's price range but keep an eye out for a possible high street line. For internet shoppers, growing ranges of organic and fairly traded clothes are available from sites such as and, and in its 2009 report, Ethical Consumer magazine flagged up Bishopston, Gossypium, People Tree and Traidcraft as leaders in ethical clothes. All of these have online stores.

Throwaway fashion

One of the reasons that conditions in fashion sweatshops are so bad is that we keep demanding clothes that are cheap and also imitate the latest catwalk looks as soon as they appear. In 2006, a Cambridge University report claimed that we were buying 30 per cent more clothes than just five years earlier. Workers are paid tiny sums to sew budget clothes, and they're forced to work 12-13 hours a day, seven days a week to make orders up at top speed.

A lot of the time, those £3 tops and £7 dresses will be worn once or twice before they start to fall apart - which means they waste energy and resources too. The best way to make fashion more ethical - and save money - is to buy a small number of well-made, ethical garments and jazz them up with accessories, rather than loading up with bags full of cheap fashion every Saturday. And secondhand doesn't have to mean greying castoffs; try dress agencies for genuine high fashion labels at a fraction of their original price.

• Environmental Justice Foundation on cotton in Uzbekistan:

• Background on cotton and pesticides:

• Ethical guides to clothing brands, including children's clothes, urban fashion and outdoor gear, at

• High street and ethical companies selling certified Fairtrade cotton clothes:

• Labour Behind the Label, a coalition of UK campaign groups working on labour rights worldwide:


Originally published by The Big Issue in the North. ©

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