Some issues to consider around ethical menswear
Exactly what constitutes ethical menswear is a tricky question. One might as well ask what are ethics? Or, indeed, what is meant by menswear? For me, as an older man, it is about developing a personal style through choices that do not have a negative effect on the wider world. Essentially, it is about building a wardrobe within which the clothes and accessories have been chosen with due regard to the impact of every stage of their life cycle, from raw material to finished product and beyond.
While discussions in this area are becoming more common online, they are still largely the province of women’s rather than men’s fashion and, for that reason, I am writing this post for the man who is concerned about his style and its impact on his world. In this post I will discuss some of the ethical issues arising around clothing with a particular emphasis on making ethical choices for men on a limited budget in the real world. To do this, I will be considering various aspects of the clothing industry with the aim of helping men make more considered conscious clothing choices.
You may be familiar with the #whomademyclothes hashtag which came to prominence after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 and which is credited with bringing the issue of ethical fashion into the wider public discourse. For an overview of some of the issues which I will be discussing below, the 2015 documentary The True Cost is a good place to start. While not without its weaknesses, this film does introduce many of the issues involved in ethical fashion to a non-specialist audience. I will be posting a review of the documentary on Ethical Style Matters shortly.
The hashtag #whomademyclothes deals primarily with the issue of employment practices in the developing world. However, that is only one of the issues that must be addressed in the context of ethical clothing. The ethical shopper needs to follow through on the other interrogatives: the where, the what, the why, the when, and the how of the clothing industry.
There are a lot of issues to be discussed here and, accordingly, this is a long post. Even so, it will just skim the surface of some important questions. I hope to examine these issues in greater depth in later posts.
Who made my clothes?
Understandably, the ‘who made my clothes’ question as a popular hashtag deals primarily with the production of cheap garments in developing countries, in particular, for the fast fashion industry. The idea that our increasingly disposable fashion is the product of cheap labour, including child labour, in unsafe sweatshops that are making millions for big business is reprehensible to most. It is also a relatively easy place to start. Most clothes come with a “Made in …” tag that can be easily checked. As a rule of thumb, products from certain countries and are more likely to have been produced in unsatisfactory conditions. More likely but not necessarily, as more brands pay attention to the conditions their clothes are made in, the fact of being made in a developing country does not in itself mean that the product is unethical.
Conversely, clothes made in the developed world are more likely to have been made in a more acceptable manner. Within the European Union, EU regulations, presuming they are implemented, guarantee workers basic rights. However, labels can be misleading. Due to the complex nature of EU regulations, clothes that are largely made elsewhere can still be labelled as made in the EU. Furthermore, Made in Europe is not the same as Made in the EU.
Presuming that you are satisfied that your clothes actually were made where the label states, it should be borne in mind that clothes made locally are maintaining jobs and local communities. Until the advent of the industrial revolutions most clothing was made locally and a significant percentage of the workforce was employed in these industries. Since the second half of the twentieth century this local industry has largely been destroyed by globalisation. This shift to a profitable international garment industry has, in the process, destroyed not just jobs but the communities that grew up around the centres of production. The globalised fashion industry is here to stay but for the conscious consumer buying local is buying back into your own community.
As discussed further below, locally made products can also be more environmentally friendly as, at the very least, the garment will not have to travel too far from producer to buyer. Again, in many developed countries environmental protection legislation is more rigorous and more likely to be implemented. There may, however, be issues around the origin of the raw materials used. The “Made In” label usually only refers to where the actual construction of the garment took place.
Fair Trade menswear
One way to deal with the issue of exploitation of garment workers is to look for the Fair Trade Label. As an internationally recognised and regulated standard it goes someway to reassuring consumers that whatever products they buy are produced with some respect for the manufacturing labour. However, the absence of a fair-trade mark does not necessarily mean that the garment was produced in a sweatshop. Certification can be difficult and expensive to obtain and many ethically produced brands do not have it.
Also bear in mind that locally made products, particularly in the EU, are, theoretically, made in conformity with the relevant regulations that ensure workers are properly looked after, although, sadly, that is not necessarily the case, particularly in relation to the gap between minimum and living wages.
Where were my clothes made?
The question of who made my clothes also leads directly to the next question you should be asking: where were my clothes made? As mentioned above, clothing made in the developing world is more likely to have been made with some degree of respect for the garment workers and to environmental legislation.
It is not just about the workers though. Aside from the social impact of outsourcing manufacture away from local communities, there are also the potentially harmful effects of mass transport on the environment. If your fair-trade, organic vegan t-shirt was made 20,000 km away, what is the environmental impact of shipping it halfway around the world?
Environmentally friendly menswear
Transport is only one factor in the environmental impact of the clothing industry. To fully understand the environmental impact you have to follow the entire production cycle from beginning to end.
Clothes do not grow on trees although they may be made from them. The ethical consumer should consider the agriculture or industry that produced the raw material; the processing involved in the material prior to actually being made into clothing; the industrial processes involved in creating the clothing; and, as mentioned above, the supply chain processes from point of origin to point of sale.
The bulk of our clothing is textile based. Textiles may be natural or man-made or a combination of both. Agriculture is labour, resource and chemical intensive. Synthetic material production by its very nature requires the use of chemicals. The processing of materials, whether natural or manmade, requires more labour, more resources, and more chemicals. Each of these steps is potentially harmful to individuals and to the environment.
Animal products also feature, most commonly leather but even in simple details such as mother of pearl shirt buttons. Again, there are environmental implications in the production and processing of animal products as well as the separate issue of animal rights which I will look at in more detail below.
There are no easy answers as to how to factor the wider environmental issues into your wardrobe choices. It is possible to find out some details of the material processes involved. Again, this does require transparency from manufacturers and retailers as much as hard work from the consumer.
One of the most obvious responses to environmental issues involved in the production of clothing is the adoption of organic materials in the manufacturing process. This can include the material itself, so organically raised or grown fibers for example, and the processing, the use of natural material for treating or colouring the material.
In theory, organically produced products will use fewer chemicals in the production process. I say fewer because it often allows for the use of natural, that is organic, chemicals. Just because something is organic or natural does not mean that it is good for you. There also seems to be wide variation in the regulation of organic labelling. For example, an item does not have to be made from 100% organic material to be labelled organic.
Alternative fabrics for ethical menswear
Clearly organic cotton is better than industrial cotton yet it is still resource intensive and environmentally damaging. I am not saying that we should abandon cotton altogether but for those interested in the environmental impact of their clothing there is a growing range of alternative materials available within the ethical niche that are worth considering. These include traditional natural materials such as linen and silk; newer natural based materials such as hemp and bamboo; and innovative semi-synthetic materials such as plant based rayon. Of course, all of these materials bring their own ethical challenges with them and I will look at them in more depth in later posts.
Ethical menswear and animal rights
For some, it is not enough that fashion respect human rights; it should respect animal rights too. Vegan fashion is still very much a minority interest but if you care about animals it is an area to investigate. Personally, I can’t adopt a Vegan diet yet, I love cheese too much, but I respect the viewpoint and there are valid environmental and ethical arguments in favour of a vegan lifestyle. However, vegan does not automatically mean environmentally friendly. Vegan leathers, in particular, use chemical and synthetic products that can be every bit as polluting as traditional animal leather. Although, one should bear in mind that traditional animal leathers also create huge polluting waste in the process and cannot be claimed to be environmentally friendly.
Even if you are not vegan, you should bear in mind that modern industrial farming is undoubtedly cruel to animals. Some animal by-products, such as wool, do not involve the slaughter of animals and are, arguably, sustainable or, at least, renewable as the wool grows back every year. There are a few producers claiming to produce cruelty free animal fibers and textiles for those who wish to investigate this avenue.
Ethical menswear and style
One of the big problems I have found looking for ethical menswear as an older man is not just that there is relatively little available, but that which is available is very often styled by and for younger men. It is perhaps unsurprising that a fashion niche driven largely by supporters of alternative lifestyles is disproportionately dominated by casual wear, sportswear, and ethnic design. This may be great if you are a young hipster, but is less good for those of us who have had to grow up and adapt to the more restricting dress codes of modern life and parenthood. Much ethical menswear is great if you are a nomadic surfer but less suitable if the only surfing you do is at your office desk.
I will be giving this particular subject, clothing for the older man that is both ethical and stylish, more attention in the coming months.
Ethical menswear and affordability
For the man on a budget, affordability is possibly the biggest hurdle to adopting a more ethical lifestyle, let alone an ethical wardrobe. Ethical fashion is not cheap. While less may be more, every man needs a certain amount of clothing for purely practical purposes. If green fashion is twice as expensive, and often it is more expensive by a factor of many 100%, then the conflict between income and ethical choice is thrown into sharp relief. This aspect is often overlooked by many of those promoting the ethical lifestyle. The reality is that the majority in the supposedly developed world have seen their real incomes drop dramatically in recent decades. They may be well off by international standards but that is a meaningless statement for those struggling to make ends meet.
Nonetheless, there are ways for the man on the average income to find affordable ethical menswear. The most obvious way, even for those not concerned primarily with the origin of their clothes, is through upcycling and recycling of existing products. Indeed many style savvy men are already aware of the sartorial benefits of recycling whether that is through thrift shops or dedicated vintage stores. Budgeting and conscious consumption also help if you are willing to take the time to work out exactly what clothes you need and then search out the best value solutions with an eye to both ethics and budget. Affordability is a big issue for me and will remain at the heart of this blog.
The factors I have looked at so far are individual elements in a much larger picture. We must put them together and talk about the overall sustainability of the menswear industry. When I talk about sustainable menswear I mean an industry that minimises its impact on both the environment and on the world’s peoples. Ethical fashion is about bringing together these disparate threads and weaving a sustainable clothing industry from them. It is not enough for materials to be just fairly traded, or just environmentally friendly; they must be part of a wider sustainable process. From farm or factory to your wardrobe and then onto future disposal, every step of the process should be as sustainable as possible.
While it is, currently, inconceivable that we will see a completely sustainable fashion industry in our lifetime, we, as individuals, through our choices can do much to bring this about. It may sound like a tall order but we have only one finite planet and are running out of time to manage it sustainably. To recycle some old green movement slogans: think globally, act locally and always remember that every individual can make a difference.
It is human nature to consume; it is a part of our life cycle. Along with food, clothing is one area where you cannot avoid a certain level of consumption. In fact, the right to adequate clothing is recognised as a basic human right in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 25).
We cannot stop consuming but we can change how much we consume and how we consume it. As demonstrated in this brief overview, the clothing industry encompasses far more than the manufacture or sale of garments. To make your wardrobe as ethical as possible you must be conscious of as all that is involved in the existence of any given garment. Unfortunately, there are few short cuts and many retailers are deliberately vague in the information they provide. The onus remains on us as consumers to do our own research. Fortunately, in the ethical menswear niche, the brands that do recognise the importance of sustainability are much more likely to be transparent in providing information on their products.
Avoid green guilt
Ultimately, ethical menswear is about making considered choices, it is about maximising the wider benefits and minimising the damage done by your wardrobe choices, and sometimes it is about choosing the lesser evil. That you have read this far and that you are considering the implications of your choices, is, in itself, a good thing. It is better to try a little than not at all. The reality is that no matter how lightly you try to tread, you will leave a footprint on this earth. The ethical man will try to reduce that footprint while knowing he can only achieve so much. It is enough to try, to fail, and to try again.
Unfortunately, there will always be those who purport to be greener than you. I have many years of experience volunteering and working for environmental NGOs and am acutely aware of the traps of comparative and competitive caring. There’s not much that you can do about it except to take criticism on board, politely ignore the vanity of others, and concentrate on what you yourself can achieve.
As stated at the outset, this is a brief overview and intended only as a starting point for investigating the many aspects of the menswear industry in future blog posts. What do you think constitutes ethical menswear? I would love to hear any suggestions you might have for further research and, of course, any suggestions on ethical menswear brands or alternatives in the comments below.