Detective work: consumer change?

On Monday June 2nd, our Detective Work team promised to answer ethical fashion questions asked by passersby in Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre. This is the fifth and last of the questions they tried to answer. It’s the broadest. Each one took all week to research, but they are worth waiting for. This are our students’ final ethical fashion thoughts…

vintage shopping

How can we make change as consumers?

Having been asked the question, we were faced with an extremely large and convoluted issue. We discussed how we can change our individual habits, and wan to suggest that the real change needs to be in the way we think about clothes. We need to make ethical fashion, as a thought process, fashionable. Fashionable here means a collective popular movement; not the style of the clothing, but the substance and story behind it. 

Mass consumerism is driven by fashion, what is ‘trendy’ at a particular time. Fashion choices are moulded by the habits of those around you, and what is easily accessible on the high-street, not often whether an item is ethical. The vintage trend has picked up in the last decade, and on a similar vein, it has occurred in health and food. Making wearing ethical clothing fashionable is therefore an important step in forcing corporations to improve their supply chains, and make ethical fashion truly fashionable. 

There is a worrying misunderstanding about what constitutes ‘ethical’ clothing. Interviews held by the Guardian on the streets of London highlight the lack of understanding amongst the British public.  One interviewee suggested that “you do have a conscience about it, but at the same time, money is very tight at the moment” (Fishwick 2014, np).

It seems that people have been judging ‘cheap’ shops as unethical, putting more faith into the more expensive brands. However, it is not always the case that more expensive brands are more ethical. One expensive brand,  French Connection, features very little information on its clothing labels regarding where the clothes are made, and scored only 3 out of 100 in an Ethical Consumer survey ranking fashion ethics (Anon 2009). Whereas a cheaper brand, such as Fruit of the Loom, have introduced high working standards through all stages of production (Anon nd a, Anon nd b).

This indicates that there is a misunderstanding that ethical means expensive. It is imperative that we have more understanding of what ethical fashion stands for, combined with an increase in transparency of production by the large companies.

When speaking to our visiting expert, professor Kate Fletcher from London College of Fashion, the real importance of taking time to think about our clothes came through. If we give ourselves time to consider and appreciate what we have and why we have it, we begin to realise that new clothes aren’t always necessary. One anecdote that was particularly poignant was the example of her friend’s pop up shop in Brick Lane. It was set up as a clothes swap shop, quite similar to our Challenges’ one in the Guildhall this week. However, when the public went to swap the clothes they were wearing, they were asked to take a moment to consider why they bought them, and why they liked then. The outcome was that no clothes were actually swapped, proving that when we start to think about our clothes, we do not make impulse decisions, and consider how much we value them.

As an ethical consumer, it is important to think about the life of our clothes as well their origins.

To create a large enough impact on the clothing industry, wearing ethical clothes needs to become a fashion trend. In various other spheres, fairtrade or ethical trade have become increasingly fashionable. With hundreds of instagram accounts, for example ‘nomyourself’, it is clear there has already been a fairtrade revolution in food. Fairtrade has become fashionable.

With the recent boom of vintage fashion shops after Sienna Miller and Kate Moss made the ‘boho’ vintage style a fashionable option (Dab0 2012), will fairtrade fashion be next?

Whilst vintage is an environmentally friendly choice, the considerations of buying pre-owned clothes have diminished as high street brands such as Urban Outfitters have taken on the style without the environmental advantages. Urban Outfitters has built their brand based on the image of vintage fashion, taking on the style in their stock. However, the majority of their clothes are not all ethically sourced, and the brand scored 0 out of 100 in the Ethical Consumer survey (Anon 2009). The values behind vintage fashion have been removed, and replaced with a superficial image.

In the face of this, we need to make ethical clothing fashionable, so that high street brands include the ethical process of production, as well as the ‘vintage’ style.

The preowned shop ‘My Ex-Wardrobe’ situated in Exeter’s Gandy Street uses the ethos “reduce, reuse, recycle, re-own”. We interviewed one of the shop assistants, who suggested that “people like the idea of pre-owned clothing. The clothes are different to anything else you can find on the high street, and that attracts people”. She added that “One woman who designs clothes for the catwalk likes to come in to look specifically for pre-owned clothes; she likes the idea of recycling”.

There is clearly interest in ethical fashion, but like vintage a few decades ago, it is lying underneath the radar, and needs those high in fashion to advocate the process of ethical fashion. In an interview with Ethical and Fairtrade consultant Clare Lissaman, we learnt that some companies that do produce clothing ethically, only produce them in women’s UK sizes 8, 10, and 12.

The market is being supplied and is not always accessible to the average woman, who is size 16.

What we have learned is that we should take time before we buy clothes to think about whether we need an item, how and by whom it is made, and how we can use it. We need to have a greater confidence in the clothes we own, and our style, so that the fashion industry cannot dictate what we buy. If more people begin to have a more ethical approach to clothes, the supply can only increase. Ethical clothing will become more convenient, accessible and popular.

The change needed is in the collective conscience of consumers.


Anon (nd a) Fruit of the Loom: Quality, Service, Safety. ( last accessed 5 June 2014) 

Anon (nd b) Fruit of the Loom. Free2Work ( last accessed 5 June 2014)

Anon (2009) 19 companies score worse than Primark in new ethical ranking of clothes shops. Ethical Consumer 25 February  ( last accessed 5 June 2014)

Dabo, M. (2012) How to create a bohemian chic fashion wardrobe (part 1). 1 January ( last acessed 5 June 2014)

Fishwick, C. (2014) Did the Rana Plaza factory disaster change your fashion buying habits? The Guardian  16 April ( last accessed 4 June 2014)


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