BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Thursday, 7 February 2008, 15:42 GMT
How ethical is your fashion?
By Madeleine Holt

Primark opening
Police prevented a crush when Primark's Oxford St store opened

What was YOUR reaction to those pictures of the new flagship Primark store in Oxford Street being mobbed by hungry shoppers?

Did you wish you were there bagging a bargain? Or did you find the whole thing an extraordinary example of Britain's obsession with shopping?

If your answer is the latter, you are in influential company.

Jane Shepherdson, the woman who turned around Top Shop, believes the whole thing is proof we have become a nation that's gone nuts about throwaway clothes.

"It feels like something that has gone too far", she told me.

"It feels like people are addicted to shopping and consuming and having new things all the time. I think it has become really boring. Things are so accessible, you can look like a celebrity immediately and for a fiver."

And does she think people look good on fast fashion?

"Not particularly, no."


But Shepherdson, who became chief executive of the Whistles womenswear chain last week, reckons things are about to change radically.

Ahead of the 2008 London Fashion Week, and in her first television interview since leaving Philip Green's empire, she told Newsnight: "Things go in cycles. I feel we are about to come to an end of a cycle and go somewhere different. I think people have become a bit bored with the idea of 'isn't it great, it is so cheap', I am hoping people will start to want to be a bit more individual again."

Jane Shepherdson
We need to be tempted into buying beautiful, ethical, sustainable clothes
Jane Shepherdson
So what are people going to start buying instead? Shepherdson has been doing her own research over the last year, and reckons there is a gap in the market for quality, beautifully designed pieces that last.

In the end, they offer more value than all those fast fashion pieces that fall apart after a few months as a result.


"Buy less!" is just the clarion call that campaigners for a greener and more sustainable fashion industry have been waiting to hear.

We are buying a third more clothes than we were a decade ago. Every year we buy around 2m tonnes, and about 1.5m tonnes end up in landfill. The clothing industry is a close rival to the chemical industry in its levels of pollution.

We recycle only a fraction of our wardrobes. And clothes are now so cheap because we pay so little to the people who make them in developing countries far from our gaze.

Key voices within the industry are starting to call for a rethink on our extraordinary levels of clothes consumption.

The head of the London College of Fashion, Dr Frances Corner, sets out her stall: "We have to think more carefully before we buy, we have to buy fewer clothes anyway, and pay more for them - and not subsidise people who're living sometimes on 15p a week so we can change our image all the time."

Dissolving clothes

We are spending a third more on clothes than we were a decade ago
Dr Frances Corner, London College of Fashion
Some of the big high street retailers are making efforts to tackle this, but it doesn't change the fact that people ultimately need to buy fewer clothes.

Sainsbury's is helping fund an innovative project at the London College of Fashion: making clothes that dissolve over time. The practical applications are not yet clear.

For now, the point is to promote a debate on sustainable fashion.

Dr Corner is calling for a return to the way we used to dress in Britain - buy classic pieces that last, and develop your individuality through your clothes.

It doesn't mean returning to austerity times - instead it's about finding the fun in holding onto your clothes for longer.

"Customise them," she suggests, "exchange them with other people, eventually recycle them into something different. I think it will be much more fulfilling for people in the end than the throwaway frenzy we have now."

Democratisation of clothes

Sale crowds
Have we become addicted to cheap fashion at the expense of morals?
Everyone agrees it means clothes will have to cost a bit more if they are going to reflect their toll on the environment - and ensure the people who make them are paid properly.

But the argument that low-income shoppers will be excluded from sustainable fashion gets short shrift from Dr Corner: "We are spending a third more on clothes than we were a decade ago, so the money is there."

In other words, the much lauded "democratisation" of clothes is really about everyone now being able to buy LOTS of clothes.

Jane Shepherdson thinks that in a quality market there's scope for sustainable fashion - with one big caveat: it has to look great.

"The whole ethical clothing market has got a long way to go," she says, "We don't want hair shirts, very few people are doing anything interesting and design is critical. We need to be tempted into buying beautiful, ethical, sustainable clothes; not being made to feel guilty… At the end of the day the consumer dictates. The best way to encourage her to buy is to make it as beautiful as you can."

So bury the morals - a depressing message, but doubtless commercially savvy.

Something else that would help is government legislation - for example targets and indirect taxation - to make non-ethical clothes less competitive.

In the words of Britain's first professor of sustainability, Tim Jackson, of the University of Surrey: "All the studies find that even people with strong pro-environmental values find it very difficult to maintain those values. They struggle to lead the lives they want to lead. That is where legislation can help."

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