Does my conscience look big in this?

Before being wooed by the new season’s fashion trends for Autumn, consider giving your wardrobe an ethical makeover. What you wear could change someone’s life as Catherine Francis reports

Trendy or classic, glamorous or quirky, most women love clothes. A new outfit can make us feel more confident, more attractive – and if we manage to get it at a bargain price, more savvy. Cut-price clothing chains such as Primark and TKMax mean we can now buy a new top for little more than a handful of change. And we’re seeing a new inverted snobbery around fashion – instead of showing off about how much they’ve spent on an outfit, women now boast about how little they’ve paid.

But where there are winners, there are also losers. The fact is that it’s impossible to sell clothes for such low prices without someone, somewhere, paying the cost. And that’s almost invariably the workers in developing countries – 85 % of them women – who cut, sew and finish the garments that hang on rails in high street shops across the UK . . . and, most probably, in your wardrobe at home.

It’s not just low-cost clothing stores that make their profits off the backs of the poor. Many high-street clothing chains, and even top designers charging extortionate prices, lower their production costs by having garments made in factories in the developing world. For instance, in Bangladesh, almost 1.5 million people work in the textile industry, producing clothes almost exclusively for the West.

In the UK alone, consumers spend £30 billion a year on clothes – that’s an average of £500 a year each. But very little of that cash finds its way into the pockets of the people who actually make the garments.

Tearfund, a Christian charity fighting global poverty, reports that in China, the wage that is required for a basic standard of living is 60p an hour. But the standard pay in clothing factories is 16p an hour. This leaves workers unable to feed or educate their children, or get access to safe water and sanitation. And in Bangladesh, it’s common for factory workers to labour for 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for which they are paid about £7.50 a month.

“The Bible tells us to clothe the poor, but today it is the poor who are clothing us,” says Tearfund.

Not only do many factories pay incredibly low wages to their employees, who have no other means of income, but many developing countries do not have sufficient employment legislation to protect workers from being exploited – so the hours are long, the conditions unhealthy or dangerous, and the workforce may include young children.

Due to conditions in textile factories, many workers develop breathing problems from dust in the air, eye problems caused by bad lighting, and skeletal problems from spending so many hours a week crouched over their work stations. Accidents are common – more than 200 workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh in the last decade.

In many factories in developing countries, workers are locked in and not permitted breaks, even to go to the toilet. Workers may be physically abused or beaten. And if they miss work through sickness, or try to stand up for their rights, they are simply sacked.

While many Western companies claim to have codes of conduct which their overseas suppliers agree to comply with, these often don’t encompass the requirements of International Labour Organisation (a benchmark for human rights in international labour laws), such as no child labour, equality of treatment, a living wage, safe working conditions, and no forced labour. And they may not be independently monitored, which renders any code of conduct unenforceable. Research has found that in many clothing factories around the world, workers don’t even know that a code of conduct exists; or they can’t read it as it is in English instead of the local language.

“Many companies move around from country to country, frequently changing where their clothes are produced, in search of cheaper production prices,” adds Tearfund. “This makes it hard to track down the factories they use for inspection for health and safety standards, and to check how much factory workers are being paid and how they are treated.”

What can I do?

There are a number of campaigns that are fighting to improve the lot of garment workers around the world. The Clean Clothes Campaign is an international organisation which is mobilising consumer power to pressure clothing companies to improve working conditions. It’s campaigning in nine European countries, including the UK, where it works under the name Labour Behind The Label.

“Consumers are not only interested in the quality of the products they purchase, but also the work behind the brand names – the social and environmental conditions under which these items are produced,” says a spokesperson from the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Therefore, garment manufacturers are more and more concerned about how consumers perceive their companies.”

So arm yourself with information and start asking questions. Ethical Consumer magazine is an invaluable resource for people who want to shop ethically. Bi-monthly for £3.75, it gives regular assessments and ratings of the ethical status of all kinds of products, including clothing brands, on criteria such as workers’ rights, oppressive regimes, environmental impact and animal rights.

“If prices are low, they are low for a reason,” says Ruth Rosselson, spokesperson for Ethical Consumer. “Shoppers must start asking questions of retailers: Where is this made? How do I know it was made under good conditions? Then companies will realise that people care.”

And most importantly, put your money where your mouth is. There are ethical clothing companies springing up all the time. That means you can now fill your wardrobe knowing that the people who made your clothes were paid a proper wage for their labour, and were able to work in decent, safe conditions. And don’t worry, it’s not all hemp sacks and tie-dyed hippy looks! There are now fairtrade clothes available for every style and taste.

Ethically produced garments might cost a bit more than on the high street – but that’s because the people who made them weren’t ripped off so you could bag a bargain. So turn to Your Ethical Clothing Directory (below) and start shopping. Looking great has never felt so good!

The environmental cost

The textiles industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. Cotton farming uses around 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10 % of its pesticides. Not only is that appalling bad for wildlife and the environment, it also has a serious effect on the health of cotton farmers – according the World Health Organisation (WHO), pesticide poisoning is responsible for around 20,000 deaths a year in the developing world.

Once harvested, raw cotton has to be washed, bleached and dyed before being turned into fabric. Around 8,000 different chemicals are used in these processes, many of which are classified by the WHO as acutely hazardous. Most of these petrochemicals are non-biodegradeable and are flushed straight into rivers used for drinking and washing.

In addition, 45% of cotton is genetically modified. Plus it’s one of the most heavily irrigated crops, so uses up huge amounts of much-needed water in developing countries.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, leaves soil fertility undamaged and the soil unpoisoned, allowing farmers to safely grow food alongside their cotton crops. Hemp is another option – it produces a similar fabric to cotton, but relies on far fewer agrochemicals.

‘Non-iron’ or ‘easy care’ items have often been treated with formaldehyde – classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) under conditions of prolonged exposure.

You can buy organic clothing from companies such as Greenfibres, Clothworks Boutique Ethique and Natural Collection. For a list of companies selling organic clothes, visit or call 0117 929 0661.

The cruelty cost

Most of us now know enough about the horrors of fur farming to never knowingly buy real fur. And with the quality of fake fur these days, it’s hard to tell the difference anyway. But therein lies a new problem. Real fur trims are sneaking back into UK stores via cheap fur farms abroad – often dog and cat fur, as well as rabbit and other cheap furs. And recent research by Respect For Animals has found that, because the law doesn’t require real fur to be labelled as such, customers often have no idea they’re buying real fur – and neither do shop staff!

Animal Welfare Sunday on 7th  October is this year focussing on the issue of fur. For more information and free packs to share with your church, contact the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals – visit or write to ASWA, PO Box 7193, Hook, Hampshire RG27 8GT.

Other fabrics that involve cruelty to animals include silk, feathers, sheepskin, leather and suede. Silk worms are boiled alive to obtain the silk from their cocoons. For cruelty-free silk, check out Ahimsa Peace Silk – an Indian silk-making collective that uses cruelty-free techniques, eco-friendly processes and practises fairtrade.

The income from feathers and especially leather/suede makes up 10% of profits from factory farming. Leather isn’t always a by-product of the meat industry – animals are sometimes slaughtered purely for their skins, and very soft leather for items like gloves may be obtained from aborted animal foetuses. Advances in fabric technology mean modern leather and suede alternatives look, feel and function like the genuine article, and prices are around the same. For non-leather footwear, coats, belts and other items, check out companies such as Ethical Wares, Vegan Store, Vegetarian Shoes and Freerangers.

Your Ethical Clothes Directory

* Adili: 01258 837437,
* Ahimsa Peace Silk:
* A Lot Of Organics: 0845 094 6498,
* American Apparel: 020 7734 4477,
* Bishopston Trading: 0117 924 5598,
* Bourgeouis Boheme: 020 8408 2220,
* Clothworks Boutique Ethique: 01225 309218,
* Ethical Catwalk: 07855 756953,
* Ethically Me: 0870 005 7080,
* Ethical Superstore: 0845 009 9016,
* Ethical Threads: 020 7241 1717,
* Ethical Wares: 01570 471155,
* Freerangers: 01207 565957,
* Get Ethical:
* Gossypium: 0870 850 9953,
* Greenfibres: 01803 868001,
* Hug: 0845 130 1525,
* Natural Collection: 0845 367 7001,
* People Tree: 0845 450 4595,
* Tearcraft: 0870 240 4896,
* The Hemp Store: 01223 309993,
* Vegan Store:
* Vegetarian Shoes: 01273 691913,

Take it further

* British Association of Fair Trade Shops:
* Clean Clothes Campaign:
* Ethical Consumer magazine:
* Fairtrade Foundation:
* Labour Behind The Label: 01603 666160,
* No Sweat:
* Sweatshop Watch:
* Tearfund: 0845 355 8355,