Fashion Statement

Ethics have a role to play in our individual fashion statements
In France, not to dress well is considered impolite - one makes an effort for others, non? And a world away, in an African refugee camp, a resident will typically dress as fine as they might when there is no other possession to show: a matter of self respect. Being well groomed can be a picture of one's inner state of being, a declaration of how we encounter society. A hearty shoeshine says it's time to step into the world; wearing a favourite article of clothing walks you cheerfully through a day. On weekends, getting the gardening clothes on prepares the will for work; party clothes define the evening; and the right colours make conversation between who you are and the mood of the season.

The fashion world, at its very best, provides ways and means for such creative self expression and practicalities. Yet how quickly it can get out of hand!

Fashion used to change with the season, but the industry promotes changes in-season, to keep the ka-ching flinging, and the treadmill turning. Imelda Marcos, wife of the Filipino dictator, once corrected a slander against her own over consumption, by forcefully explaining: "I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes: I had one thousand and sixty!"

If we grasp that the fashion game can promote over consumption under the guise of helping us feel good about ourselves, what's less talked about is the human and environmental costs of this mass production of clothes: pollution that plagues the planet.

One of the thirstiest crops in the world is cotton. The third largest inland sea in the world, the Aral Sea, has been drained by unbridled irrigation; the Murray-Darling struggles dry with water siphoned off. Then there is the chemical use. According to WWF, although cotton is only 2.4% of the world's cropland, it accounts for 24% of the pesticide market. These pesticides are highly toxic; at least half are listed by the World Health Organisation as hazardous. Monocrotophus causes paralysis in children. Endosulfan killed 40 people just in one season. One drop of Aldicarb can kill an adult, yet it is the second most commonly used pesticide for cotton.

The denim capital of China, Xintang, produces 200 million pairs of jeans, or roughly half the number sold in the United States each year. The white cotton thread is boiled in indigo dye vats, and woven into fabric. The untreated blue-black wastewater pipes directly into the Pearl River delta, amidst serious concern from the residents and those downstream that the heavy metals are neurotoxic and carcinogenic.

In Guangdong Province, China, a textile worker sands jeans all night, while his fellow workers scrub, spray and tear at denim fabric, all breathing heavily irritating blue dust into lungs. We know it's not good for workers' health, but we are still only in the middle of the story...

In the first half of 2010, 43.2% of all Chinese rivers were so bad, that they were unfit for human contact. Now the number of dyeing houses in Shaoxing, a key Chinese textile hub, is being cut in half by government edict, because of the oxygen exhaustion of the rivers, algal blooms, and other serious pollution. The Chinese government deemed more than 2,000 factories were meant to close by the end of last month, because they were too polluting or energy intensive.

All this devastation is cast to one side, and ends on a rack at a shop near you and me. And the fashion items are as cheap as chips, in all colours, and all styles, ready to put through the eftpos. Even the more extensive items do not add to the price the cost to future generations.

None of us wants to trade in misery; but few really know the truth. Occasionally, the facts slip. In Robert Altman's Pret a Porter, the chic fashion figure chides the journalists for their meaningless fashion questions, and so there comes a whammy: how is that fashion produces half the pollution in the world? The fashionista cannot say.

So what are we to do? There's a tool called the "waste hierarchy", which basically recommends steps for action, which maximises ecological action and minimises waste. We can apply it to fashion equally as we can to plastic bottles.

We can start, by Refusing or avoiding getting sucked into meaningless levels of consumption of clothes fed by changing styles. We will need to educate each other, and find ways to support the young. As every teenage girl learns, there's a tougher side to fashion, heavily marketed. The trip downtown often raises more questions than it gives retail answers. This may go with that, but does it go with me? This jacket may be popular, but does it follow I will be popular? Must I keep up with the fashions, or find a style that endures? Elders, give a hand! If we buy less, we can afford to pay more often for the clothes made from organic farming, or purchase quality fabrics that will last a long time. Then we can Reuse our clothes. Mend and re-cut, so that we get more from less.

Being ecologically minded doesn't start with Recycling but that's the next step, and what op-shops are for! Beyond that, there's less to do with the consumer, because the Recovery part of the waste hierarchy involves trying to extract fibres and turn them into resources. Only then, and as last resort, should clothes be turned into energy or disposed of in landfill.

As a young person I knew nothing about landfill. I belonged to that group of 1970s environmental carers who have a lot to learn about dressing well. In 1972, I believed the salesperson who told me that the lurid lime green Speedos were going to be very popular that year. (If you weren't around: they weren't.) In 1976, my first girlfriend talked me into buying platform shoes. (I wore the shoes once, and quietly found a nice op shop to move them on to.) I still need help shopping - that what looks good on a rack might not look good on me.

So fashion dances between questions about our own self worth, and the value we give to the earth. It juggles our need to stand out as well dressed, and the call to stand up for better treatment of workers in far-off lands. It is about wanting to buy cheap, and yet beginning to notice what this cheapness costs someone else, whose name you and I do not know, who lives in China, or Bangladesh, or Fiji. We may hesitate at paying higher prices for organic T-shirts, or fair trade clothes, but we may be making a life safer than it would have been, and a river cleaner.

When fashion has virtue, there is style. When fashion goes into excess, there's a wide selection of vices to choose from. So much of it seems beyond our control. But check the label of the clothes you are wearing right now. Think of the person who made them. Quietly send them a thank you, in your mind or in your heart. A different kind of fashion statement, non?