PUBLISHED: 12:37 28 October 2014 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 May 2015
Promotional feature: When choosing a garment, should we be thinking beyond whether it fits, looks and feels right? Gilly Aspey of Slate Clothing thinks we should.
When I go buying for our three shops, I am focused on choosing clothes that I think my customers will want to buy. My mind is on style, price and quality - and I also need to constantly think about whether I am buying the right mix of styles, colours and sizes. Is there room in my brain for ethical considerations?
We buy nearly everything 6 months ahead of the season, which is quite scary. I visit the labels at showrooms in London and Manchester or see them at one of three trade shows to view all their samples for the season ahead. The buying season lasts for only a few weeks and the shows are only on for two or three days. For some labels this is your only chance to see them and place an order. Just getting round them all is a frenetic business and even when you have placed your order there is no guarantee that every item will make it to production.
Putting ethical considerations into the mix makes the buying process even trickier and it would be easy just to ignore them completely, but would that be right? The answer has to be “no”, but I confess that I have only just started to grapple with this issue and it is far from straightforward. To begin with, what does “ethical shopping” mean? I have made my list and offer my thoughts on each item, including what we plan to do at Slate Clothing.
Standards of production
Most but not all of the labels moved their production to the third world in recent years for sound economic reasons. To do otherwise in a competitive market would probably have sunk their businesses so we can’t really complain, nor is it automatically a bad thing to introduce work to third world countries that need our trade, but we must be interested in the conditions of production and the safety and pay of their workers.
Very few labels can claim to design and manufacture entirely in the UK but one of our favourites, Out of Xile, does exactly that. You can read The Story of an Out of Xile Garment at: http://www.outofxile.org/Blog/Post/7/The-Story-of-an-Out-of-Xile-Garment
Another of our labels, Two Danes, takes a keen interest in the welfare of their production workers and raises an interesting dilemma about child labour. They stay very close to their manufacturers, some of whom are quite small businesses and they, in turn, sub-contract work out to home-workers. Often, the whole family is involved in the business and children get involved as soon as they are able to start learning the trade. Now we in the UK say that children can’t work in full-time employment until 16 but, if that were applied to India, many small family businesses and the children in them would be so much the poorer. You can read more at: http://www.twodanes.com/Environment.193.aspx
Which way is right? I confess I am unsure - but Joe, my husband and business partner, vets all our suppliers and is now challenging those who don’t supply information on their websites about their methods of production.
I instinctively like natural materials and I suspect most of us feel somehow better and more responsible for choosing clothes made of wool, cotton, silk or flax; but let’s be honest, wool doesn’t just jump off a sheep’s back straight onto ours. Every cloth, whether it is natural or man-made, has to be processed, shipped about the place for production and just because it is natural doesn’t mean it keeps its shape or quality. Carbon footprint is a consideration, but a garment containing man-made fibre may actually travel far fewer miles in the production process than a woollen or cotton one and do less damage to our ozone layer. Natural materials don’t necessarily mean lower CO2. Fur and leather raise particular issues for some people. I think this is one for our customers to choose.
We sometimes think we are drowning in packaging when our deliveries arrive but we patiently break down all the cardboard boxes and then pay to send them off for recycling. I wish clothes didn’t have to come in polythene covers but it protects them so, on balance, it is a good thing and we recycle that too.
One of my favourite labels is Creenstone. Their coats are beautiful of course but, even better, they arrive by van on clothing rails and are transferred directly onto our rails with no cardboard packaging. I will take issue with labels that use too much packaging.
That’s business-speak for charitable work but I think it is important. Businesses and the people who run them that do well should not just take but should put back into society. The USA and its business leaders have a much more generous culture of charitable giving than we do in the West but things are slowly changing. I tend to cringe when the airline cabin staff ask me to hand over my small change to their favoured charity but I shouldn’t. To channel our money to a good cause has to be a good thing.
Another of our favourite labels, Monari, scores well on ethical standards and contributes extensively to long-term charitable
projects supporting children and young people in East Africa and Romania as well as children’s cancer charities in Germany.
In less than three years, through the generosity of our customers and therefore a bit like the airlines, our own charity fashion shows have raised nearly £10,000 for Acorns Children’s Hospice and The Contented Dementia Trust. I hope we can keep adding some fun to charitable giving.
Now I’m pretty sure that, if I were to demand rigorous standards of ethical behaviour on all fronts from every one of our labels, we would struggle to stock our shops at all. We have to start somewhere though because I am also pretty sure that our customers would want us to do what we can to ensure that the clothes they buy are responsibly produced. I think we have made a decent start but there is still plenty for us to go at!