Bless me father, for I have shopped
In our era of ethical shopping, it's no longer a question of what's hot this season so much as what's right this season.
Nowadays, shopping ethically is such a mindfuck. Once upon a time, you knew to plump for the backstreet shop that stank of hemp and was stocked with African sackcloth, but now every boutique on the high street promises to sell you something that’s super-moral for the new, ethical you. It’s not a question of what’s hot this season; it’s a case of what’s right this season.
On London’s Brick Lane, French boutique, Miame, sells belts made out of old bicycle tyres, instantly branding your hips with proof of your commitment to the green routine of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. If you happen to have a toddler available you can mark out its green credentials with outfits made out of discarded cord and worn-out workshirts from www.restitch.co.uk (a snip at just £32.99 plus postage and packaging).
Oasis and Topshop are at the vanguard of the high street green crusaders. Topshop has teamed up with People Tree to produce a range of nine fair trade tops just in time for Fairtrade Fortnight. Marks and Spencer, meanwhile, is proud of the fact that it is ‘the first major high street retailer’ to support fair trade clothing, and it also enacts a double whammy on your conscience by promising organic fair trade cotton, using adverts to promote the range in-house, like ‘Bless our organic cotton socks’. It’s a great way to make things difficult for Marks and Spencer’s ‘thousands of fair trade farmers in India and West Africa’: cotton is the world’s most sprayed crop, using a quarter of the world’s insecticides each year – for a reason.
But then there are the air miles, that indelible carbon footprint. Restitch, the small, ethical company for toddlers, has got this covered. Justin Freeman, a spokesperson for the brand, highlights that their material is all ‘sourced in the UK and handmade by locally based seamstresses. Moving along the line of production from raw material to shop window involves each item travelling on average less than nine miles.’
He poured scorn on other companies who make ethical clothing abroad and ship it to the UK. The concept of a product being ‘carbon neutral’, he argued, is not one that ‘has been properly worked out’, and lack of debate on what can be done to cancel out a garment’s carbon footprint might leave ‘the average punter disillusioned, despondent and resigned to the status quo – still buying [children’s clothes] from a supermarket for an unbelievably low price…. Someone somewhere is paying for the fact that a school uniform can be bought for £20. You’re very unlikely to meet them and planting a tree in Ross-on-Wye isn’t going to effectively compensate them.’
So when you’re in the city centre this Saturday, jostled by bargain hunters, red-faced and huffing in the changing rooms or queuing at the slowest till, the message is to look down at your assorted purchases and think, is it fair trade, is it organic, is it reused, is it recycled, is it sourced from the UK or shipped from abroad, how many trees have been planted for it, was it made in an ethical workplace, what are its ‘toxins’ and what, ultimately, will its impact be on the planet? Am I purchasing a handbag or pushing the climate into apocalypse?
The irony of ethical fashion is that it demonstrates not that fashion can become ethical, but that ‘being ethical’ is a fashion statement. Being ‘seen to be green’ – whether it’s with your hybrid car, your roof turbine or your fair trade threads – is all the rage. And if buying a recycled workshirt does, in reality, bugger all for the planet, it certainly does wonders for the mental well-being of ‘me, me, me’.
Gone are the days when you could go shopping to meditate on whether ‘my bum looks big in this’. Or perhaps not: one high street brand that’s bucking the trend is Diesel. Diesel is sticking to selling fashion as fashion and shamelessly mocks ethical consumer concerns in its current ad campaign, which encourages its customers to be ‘global warming ready’. In Diesel’s world, a warmed-up world looks a pretty fabulous place to be. There are parrots instead of pigeons in Venice’s St Mark’s Square and palm trees around Mount Rushmore. The Eiffel tower’s in the tropics, London’s an island and there’s a very beautiful girl in tiny white shorts racing out of it on a speedboat.
The message from Diesel is that global warming is an excellent excuse to get a tan and admire the new wildlife. And after a long day’s mindboggling over whether ‘bamboo really is best’ the sight of one of their billboards says something about what fashion has always been: an outrageous break from the dreary and nothing at all to do with a higher calling.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.