Fashion. We’re addicted to it. Even those of us who try to be conscious with our wardrobes are still susceptible to a panic buy for a wedding or going for that pair of shoes that, like, everyone is wearing this summer. Even if we’re not really into it, none of us is exactly immune to fashion, in that we all need to find something to wear each morning. Whether we care a lot or a little, we all shop for clothes. Shopping has become a social activity rather than an act of necessity. We get something new and feel a buzz of excitement. We’re surrounded by media every day which tells us what to wear and what definitely not to wear. We’ve all seen the news stories and the articles about the atrocities occurring in garment factories and the lack of rights that garment workers have but it’s hard to truly engage with these when it feels so far removed from our daily lives. Many of us even feel like our own personal actions wouldn’t make a lot of difference even if we did change. So we shop on, feeling a mix of relief that we don’t have to worry about it and frustration that there isn’t a better alternative.
A LIGHT APPEARS IN THE DARKNESS
But there is it! The ethical high street collection. The answer to all our issues. We can shop for convenient, ethical fashion that fits with our wardrobes and reflects our personal style. But how ethical are these collections? Do they really live up to their name? Are they a viable alternative for those of us who want to shop ethically? I’ve been digging into the ASOS Eco Edit to help us all understand if it’s really a step in the right direction or a bit of a marketing sham.
THE ASOS ECO EDIT
The Eco Edit first appeared in 2010, named the ASOS Green Room at the time. The original collection included clothing made with traditional African printed material by a company called SOKO in Kenya. This collection is now in its 17th season, called ASOS Made in Kenya and has provided long-term, sustainable employment for the company; which exists in an area that has the highest unemployment rates in Africa. SOKO say they offer training and employment which allow women to have more control over their own lives, to send their children to school and have secure livelihoods. Women can lift themselves out of poverty which is a model I am entirely on board with.
The risk comes when ethical fashion isn’t fashionable anymore. If ASOS decide to discontinue the line then the good work of sustainable employment and women lifting themselves out of poverty is undone. But thankfully – I’m not sure this is going to happen. We’re seeing more and more ethical startups come into the mix and more fashion brands realising that transparency within the supply chain isn’t just desired by their customers, it’s an essential part of their business model if they are to survive going forward. These large high street stores are working within a capitalist model, whereby they have to increase their profits to compete in a crowded market, so change is difficult. But where is it happening, I think there’s something to be encouraged there. We know as consumers that we vote for the world we want to see with our money, so if the big fashion brands are doing something good, then in my view, it’s a step in the right direction.
A COMPLEX ISSUE
The thing about ‘ethical fashion’ is that it’s a complex issue. It’s not just simply about transparency in the supply chain, or simply about sustainable materials or even simply about fair pay for garment workers. It’s all these things combined, and more.
The rest of the Eco Edit doesn’t necessarily have the same credentials. There are currently 36 brands featured in this area on the ASOS website. Eligibility to be featured on the Eco Edit is met when a product reaches just one of the following criteria; lower environmental impact materials and processes, recycled/up-cycled materials, sustainable cotton, small-scale manufacturing in Africa, handmade/handwoven, made by artisans/craftspeople, made under fair-trade principles, vintage, natural ingredients, parabens free or organic ingredients. A product might use sustainable cotton, but be made in a factory with very little regulation or workers rights considered. Obviously, it’s a step in the right direction, but I think it simplifies the issue of ethical fashion for the consumer. It tells the consumer that natural ingredients mean something is ethical when every other aspect of the manufacturing process may not be and goes unregulated. My concern is that this encourages brands to buy into an aspect of ethical fashion, while it’s fashionable, which can be easily dropped when the media furore subsides.
In saying that, I do appreciate the labelling system provided by ASOS – in that all of their items which feature in the Eco Edit are labelled specifically with a heart symbol which makes it easier for the consumer to be more conscious in their shopping. It also explains which of the criteria it meets, which allows the consumer to do their own research into other aspects of the manufacturing process. Okay so it’s made by a co-operative of artisans, but where does the fabric come from? Alright, the cotton is organic but where and how does this company manufacture their clothes? This increased level of transparency allows the consumer to ask questions and understand better who made their clothes and how they were made.
Is the ASOS Eco Edit just another greenwash from a big bad company doing big bad things? Before I wrote this article, I think I would have said yes. But having dug deeper, I think elements of it are actually really good and akin to independent ethical fashion brands I would openly support. There are very few 100% perfect, ethical and transparent brands out there, even the best of the best have to battle issues like packaging, transparency and sourcing. As a consumer, I want fashion brands to be responsive to questioning and I long for transparency in the supply chain. When we’re buying clothes, we need to be aware of the wider issues that fashion brands face and conscious that not all may be as it seems. When we know that these things are complex issues, it allows us to make better decisions.
I think I would shop in the Eco Edit now, but cautiously – knowing that not every product featured on there would be as ethical as it might claim to be. To be honest, I haven’t bought from a company like ASOS in years and tend to avoid the high street. I’m certainly not going to start ordering an entirely new wardrobe from ASOS. But if it’s true that my voting power lies in my purchasing, and an ethical high street is part of a world I’d love to see then perhaps this is somewhere that I could and should invest my money when I need something new.