Words by: Elaenor Nield
This week the biggest fashion event in the world happened in New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit, better known as the Met Ball. With tickets in the realm of $30,000 it’s primarily populated by the brightest and shiniest stars of celebrity-dom duking it out for the best dressed spot in all the fashion pages. This year Emma Watson surprised everyone by wearing a dress made from recycled plastic bottles to the fashion event of the year. Trust me when I say this is a massive deal. Normally the best conversation you can make from a Met Ball dress is how long can a dress train be at an event that isn’t a royal wedding (go Google Rihanna’s dress from 2015), or how little is too little?
Emma’s dress has started conversations about ethical fashion on a global scale, where previously ethical fashion has been this grass roots whisper chain thing for alternative types. The uncomfortable truth about fashion is that it’s wasteful in the extreme. This didn’t bother me as a student, when I bought a solid 90% of my clothes from op-shops, but now I’m a working woman with basically no time to op-shop I find myself more and more hung up on what my consumer habits are doing to the planet and to the people stuck at the bottom of the supply chain.
Beyond the environmental impact, the fashion industry has a profound impact on the people who manufacture the clothes we buy. We’ve all heard about the sweatshop conditions faced by workers in Nike and Apple factories across the world, yet regardless of this generally accepted knowledge Nike and Apple are industry leaders in their respective fields of trade. My natural instinct (in basically all situations) is to find someone to blame and my ire is drawn instinctively to the (what must be) greedy capitalist dogs who drive the profits of these mega brands. But the truth is, as Woody Harrelson said in a recent video I watched on Facebook, “if a company pollutes the environment or uses bad business practices, if you don’t buy their stuff they will change”.
Basically, whenever we buy products from mega brands that exploit their workers or pollute the environment, we condone their business practices. As long as people are buying their products these companies have no reason to change. I think Woody is right when he says that the way we spend our money has influence. For my entire adult life I’ve seen consumerism as a kind of societal cancer that I’ve been bound to my whole life. But I’m realising that consumerism is also a kind of power.
The consumer choice is one of the most powerful weapons you have in this capitalist society, buying power is king, friends! But…and it is a big but, you need to be informed to be able to use your consumer choice well. You need to know what kind of buying will drive change and, aside from driving change, you need to weigh your ethical responsibilities with the practical implications. Can you live with the choice you make, but can you also live without an iphone?
In reality, one of the biggest impediments to ethical consumerism is a lack of transparency in the supply chain of the products we consume. Consider this, would you buy a pair of shoes if on the tag it listed exactly how much each person involved in the manufacture of the shoes had been paid (and below living wage), or if the tag stated clearly that the materials used were not biodegradable, or that their production had a negative impact on the environment? Probably not, right?
Honestly, that is never going to happen. It matters to capitalist governments that consumerism moves apace, it is after all what drives our economies. We may never have clear supply information from companies with opaque policies but there has been an increasing trend of companies providing extra supply chain information as a way of boosting consumer confidence. Think of Woolworth’s latest ad campaign proclaiming their own magnanimousness in labelling all the products they stock with at least some supply chain info, like where the food is from or where it is packaged. Our consumer culture is changing, more people want more information about where their food is from, who made their clothes, whether the base materials were ethical farmed or manufactured. As a society we are already, if slowly, developing a culture of mindful consumerism (I hope).
What does that mean for small time fashion fiends like myself? Basically I suggest checking out ethical fashion blogs, websites and guides that list brands and labels that don’t wilfully exploit people, or pollute the environment. I particularly like Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide (go ahead and Google that) and Shop Ethical (check it at guide.ethical.org.au), there are loads of other resources for different products all over the place so have a look around for one that suits your needs. My latest purchase was a pair of tights from the Girlfriend Collective that are made from recycled plastic bottles Just like Emma Watson’s dress (maybe me and Emma can trade fashion tips about recycled bottle clothes now). Loads of fashion companies are investing in developing ethical options and the rise of these sustainable fashion brands is driven primarily by changing consumer patterns and awareness of the broader implications of their buying habits.
Emma’s Met Ball dress is a game changing moment in fashion not just because it is gorgeous and sustainably made, but because it tells the world that even at the upper echelons of the fashion industry there is a growing demand for ethically sourced and manufactured fashion. People, we can change the way the fashion industry operates, we have the power to choose what we wear and that can change everything! I encourage you to go out into the world and wield your consumer choice like a mighty sword, or at least try to make informed choices about what you buy so the planet, and other people, don’t suffer for the sake of your cheap arse jeans.