Blog: Leonie BarrieIs fair trade fashionable?

Leonie Barrie | 25 February 2009

Looking through the list of pledges in the British government's new Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), it’s hard to see how it adds to what should, surely, be the basic requirements of any responsible apparel firm’s supply chain.

The roadmap wants companies to work towards alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.

It says they should focus on improving environmental performance across the supply chain, including sustainable design; fibres and fabrics; maximising reuse, recycling and end of life management; and clothes cleaning.

They should also, it adds, raise awareness about the sustainability of clothes, promote markets for sustainable clothing, and improve traceability along the supply chain.

Among the soundbites from the various companies who have already signed up to the initiative, it’s clear these companies are the ones who are already committed to change.

Marks & Spencer has its Plan A 'eco-plan', its Oxfam Clothes Exchange, and eco-factories. Nike already combines innovation and sustainability into all its products through its Considered Design ethos. Sainsbury's claims to sell a T-shirt made with Fairtrade cotton every ten seconds. And Tesco is rolling out a pioneering system across its supply base which traces the country of origin of the cotton it uses.

Of course there’s no doubting the environmental impact of cheap, throwaway clothes – dubbed the "Primark effect" after the popular budget clothing chain that sells fashion at rock-bottom prices. Indeed, it is estimated that around 2m tonnes of clothing clog up landfill every year.

But there are also complex challenges facing both the industry and the consumer. For example, how to balance the vast amounts of water required to grow more organic cotton versus the use of man-made materials that cannot easily be recycled. And how to encourage involvement from those companies and shoppers who will not see the immediate benefits of any change in the way they go about their business.

Of course debate on the issue should be encouraged. But it could well be that there's no black, white or even green answer to this particular dilemma.

UK: Retailers sign up to action plan on sustainable fashion


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