Can a dress change your life? Depending on your disposition, it might. But the right dress can change the lives of people thousands of miles away.

I’ve never been much of a fashionista, but every year I liked to treat myself to a few new pieces from my favourite clothing brand Oasis. Sadly, like so many other struggling brands, Oasis went into administration in April. When Oasis was bought by the online retailer BooHoo you’d have thought I’d be happy with this news, but with BooHoo facing modern slavery allegations after a coronavirus outbreak in one of their factories, I’ve been rethinking my relationship with fashion.

In the past, I hadn’t given much thought to where my clothes came from. I was more concerned with how much they cost and would wait until seasonal sales, happy that I had gotten a bargain. I hadn’t thought about the true cost or the broader implications of my shopping habits. Today, I now know that fashion is one of 5 industries implicated in modern slavery.

Every year in the UK we each spend £526.50 on clothes. But who makes these clothes? 75% are women between 18 and 24, and it’s estimated that less than 2% of those women earn a living wage.

‘A 2018 study by the Fair Labour Association found the average garment worker in Bangladesh would need an 80 percent pay raise to begin earning wages even close to the most conservative living wage benchmark the report considered.’ – Business of Fashion

The figures are overwhelming and dispiriting, and it’s hard to know how we can help these women. Could their counterparts in Europe help? People aged 18-24 are known more commonly as Generation Z. They are touted as the most socially aware demographic. A study from McKinsey shows that nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe that companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues. Being a Millennial, I’m a little late to the party, but lockdown gave me the time to look for ethical and sustainable fashion brands, brands like People Tree.

Established in 1991 by Safia Minney, People Tree seeks to ensure that every product is made to the highest ethical and environmental standards.

In a 2010 interview with the Guardian, Safia Minney explained that she felt uncomfortable buying new clothes when she realised the more unsavoury side to fashion.

‘We now know it’s ethically wrong for a top to cost as little as a sandwich. Nine years ago, when we started People Tree, people thought we were crazy. But in the past five years, there’s been a huge change – people are more uneasy about fast fashion.’ Safia Minney

With my birthday in June, I bought myself a new dress from People Tree. When the dress arrived, the label informed me that it had been made in Mumbai by a social enterprise called Creative Handicraft, which works to empower disadvantaged women from local slum communities. I wanted to learn more, and so I went to the People Tree website, where I read more about the farmers, artisans, and producers who make their products.

‘At Creative Handicrafts, we are grateful for a continuous flow of orders from People Tree as it is here that we can give hope to women of less fortunate backgrounds. Their orders make the women push their technical and tailoring skills to a level they did not see possible, and they are thoroughly surprised with the beautiful garments they are able to produce by standing up to the challenge. The People Tree team, constantly innovating, give our women an opportunity to learn, and women with little or no basic education have a chance of becoming financially independent. Through our work, nameless, faceless individuals are able to find an identity of their own. Truly there is no better joy than to experience smiles on their faces when they speak about becoming financially sustainable and thereby being able to educate their children and create better prospects for them.’ – Amanda, Creative Handicrafts employee.

Dresses from People Tree range from £50-£100+, and for many, buying clothes within this price range isn’t an option. I understand that being able to shop ethically is a privilege. But if more people call out brands with questionable values, they could be forced to change their ways. Following the allegations of modern slavery, BooHoo saw their shares drop 18%, which wiped more than £500m from their value. They have since announced that they’re carrying out an independent investigation into their supply chain, but many have already decided to boycott the brand.

The good news is that people are slowly beginning to realise that while fast fashion is affordable, the price comes at the expense of others. For many, this isn’t a price worth paying anymore. A survey into fast fashion, sustainability and Gen Z found that 40% of younger consumers find it hard to know if a brand is behaving ethically and more than a third want fashion brands to be more transparent. This consumer shift has seen the market change; from 2017-2019, there was a five-fold increase in the number of items labeled as sustainable, but these items only made up 1% of products on the market. There is still a long way to go, but I hope that with brands like People Tree leading the way, we’re heading in the right direction.

Find out more about People Tree

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