History

The Emergence of Ethical Fashion

How did ethical fashion first come to be?

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Ethical fashion first emerged in the 1960’s with the movement of hippie counter-culture that involved a variety of social concerns and beliefs. Hippies believed in a range of different things some of which included; the rejection of middle-class values, they opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War and had believed in eco-friendly and environmental practices. The hippies often dressed in mostly bright colored clothes and were influenced by their aversion to commercialism. In doing so, majority of their clothing was in fact purchased either from second-hand shops or flea markets.

Hippies believed in a range of different things some of which included; the rejection of middle-class values, they opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War and had believed in eco-friendly and environmental practices. The hippies often dressed in mostly bright colored clothes and were influenced by their aversion to commercialism. In doing so, majority of their clothing was in fact purchased either from second-hand shops or flea markets.

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Katharine Hamnett 1983 protest. Image Credit: Katharine Hamnett advertising campaign shot by Peter Lindbergh, 1984. Source link.

The eighties bought the ‘green design’ movement whereby greater emphasis was made on recycling, design durability, energy efficiency and the overall area of production of garments. In bringing these issues to light, emphasis was made on efforts to move away from toxic chemicals in clothing production, within synthetic fabrics. In doing so, a movement was made towards use of natural fabrics, such as linen, to be used in clothing. Although the change was a great move in bringing these issues to attention, the change itself was made to fulfill individual concerns with health rather than global concerns.

But it wasn’t until 1983 where fashion began broadcasting social protests and raising awareness of ethical issues in the industry. English fashion designer, Katharine Hamnett at the time had protested wearing her t-shirt line. Her shirts were printed with phrases such as the Save the World and Education Not Missiles. Her protests and ethical business philosophy lead to Hamnett being named Designer of the Year and has since been known as the pioneer of the organic cotton movement.

Towards the end of the nineties, the interest and concern in eco-friendly practices grew further and workers rights were being brought to attention in the public eye. This was a time where environmentalists had taken charge and began investigating the labels of their own clothing items and the factories that produced them. The exposure of sweatshops such as the Levi Strauss sweatshop story in 1992 had resulted in many retailers being pressured and questioned on how they treat their workers. Issues such as minimum wage, child labor, discrimination and many different types of exploitation were being questioned.

As important ethical issues were being brought to attention, campaigns and politically charged organizations started making a stand. These included organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and the International Labor Organisation. This had then led to big corporations making changes to the manufacture of their garments and making efforts to change the way their workers are treated in sweatshops.

Discussion in ethical fashion has since been a hot topic in the fashion industry and continues to flourish with eco and socially conscious fashion being brought to attention. Recently, major retailers such as H&M and Top Shop have made efforts to tackle ethical fashion related issues and have their own eco-fashion collections. Smaller companies have also been on the rise and a credible part of the fashion industry, with brands and organizations such as People Tree, Mantis World, Junk Styling and Eco-Age, leading the way.

Nikki Stear, Editor & Founder of Live Eco & The Remake Design Challenge states that: “The future of sustainable fashion will not rise out of a lower-priced T-shirt, the next 3-D printed creation or cool-looking wearable tech gadgets, it will come alive in how our fashion finds are made, how they’re used, and how they’re disposed of or reused — cradle to cradle, from seamstress’ fingertips to consumers’ hands.”