An increasingly large amount of people are becoming conscious of how their actions and lifestyle choices impact the environment. Documentaries like Cowspiracy, What the Health and Before The Flood have had a massive impact on how many view the meat and energy industries. Vegan food sales have grown over by over $3 billion dollars in one year and with the prices of solar and wind power dropping drastically, many countries are benefiting from implementing green energy strategies. One of the more understated influences on global environmentalism has been the rise of sustainable and ethical clothing. As someone who couldn’t think of anything worse than frequent shopping trips, I generally try to buy clothes once a year at most and be done with it, because of this I’ve tended to not give too much thought to where my clothes come from. I figured it was a good time to broaden my knowledge of the subject, as it seems as if the environmentally friendly fashion industry is one that is on the cusp of breaking into mainstream consciousness. I caught up with Amelia Steele who runs an ethical clothing company called ‘Rise Outdoors’ with her brother. We met and bonded over stories about travel, environmentalism and veganism. I asked her a few questions and found her answers fascinating. Her passion for sustainability was obvious from the outset and her depth of knowledge was impressive for someone so young.
How did you grow to find the importance of ethical clothing?
I have always had an interest in textiles, teaching myself how to sew as a teenager and pursuing a variety of projects both at school and in my spare time. I found that I wasn’t initially attracted to a career in fashion, being put off by the snobbery of haute couture and having more practical tastes. However, my interest in clothing, fabrics and trends – whether or not I engaged with them, never went away. Furthermore, I have always been interested in the outdoors and the environment. It was probably though, as cliché as it sounds, after spending a year away living in Peru and travelling in South America, volunteering for a conservation organization in the Amazon that I realized that everything we do and every product we consume or use has an impact on the environment and has to be made by someone. I have always been one to buy second hand clothes, because not only are they interesting but it saves them from going into landfill. However, upon this realization I started to search for clothing that had been ethically certified and consciously labeled itself as so, as a way of making a simple statement about sustainability and ethics through what I wear. The more I searched the more I found and the more articles I read about the issues surrounding the garment industry whether it be the miniscule wages people work for in developing countries, the unsafe working conditions, which ultimately resulting in the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, the dumping of toxic waste chemicals into our waterways or the release of micro-plastics from synthetic clothing into the oceans contributing to the marine plastic issue. I felt compelled to start my own clothing brand to show that there is another way for the garment industry.
It seems that ethical clothing for the most part also comes with durability. What is it about the ethical sourcing that leads to a higher quality of product?
Conceptually the two go hand in hand, a piece that is ethically manufactured should also be durable because it directly counters the toxic culture of fast fashion which has permeated society in the last fifteen or so years. A culture in which clothes are created as fast as possible in huge numbers from poor quality materials because they are only going to be worn a couple of times before they are replaced with the next line of items released on the high street the following week. This system of churning out new styles only really has one winner, the directors/investors of the clothing companies, the garment workers suffer, having to create more and more pieces in the same amount of time, the factory managers having to stretch their staff to the limit leaving no spare money to improve conditions, as do the consumers who buy a new piece only for it to fall apart after a couple of uses. When something is ethically made there has been more time put into its manufacture, the workers are being paid a fair wage and less corners have been cut to make it. The fabrics will be much higher quality such as GOTS certified organic cotton, grown without using carcinogenic pesticides, local wool, heavy duty canvas, or recycled polyester fleece or water proof fabric. The amount of ingenuity it takes to make a product from recycled materials means that that fabric is designed to last. Furthermore, many companies with a decent green policy offer lifetime warranty, or a repair service, alternatively they encourage their customers to look after their clothes themselves and provide help and advice for their care and repair. Often ethical companies take inspiration from earlier clothing styles and materials which tended to be more durable because more often than not they were manufactured more locally for a more hardy lifestyle than that of most people today.
Could you expand on the clothing industry in general and why you think the market for ethical clothes has grown so much recently. As we see with the meat or energy industries, the problems that unethical corporations create go far beyond that of the industry itself or the countries selling the product. What are the problems with clothing/fashion industries and how do they impact the wider world?
As with the meat and energy industries it is all about money, exploiting the vulnerable so that corporations benefit, whether the vulnerable are defenseless factory farm animals, delicate natural areas which harbor oil, or people in developing countries struggling to support their families. In this model, the capitalist corporation always wins. Fundamentally the developed world takes for granted everything, which we so often consume, how it was made, what from, where and the time it took to make. Increasingly the comfort and ease with which we are provided makes us forget the people and places facing the true cost of our way of life. I believe that people are starting to see through it, getting tired of this culture of mass and excess ,which contains little real value and is detrimental to general well-being on both ends of the spectrum.
When sourcing ethical creators for your company, what is it you look for, how can you best vet a potential client for ethical standards?
There are some organizations such as the Fairwear Foundation that audit factories/companies, so if a supplier is Fairwear certified then you know that you can trust the ethics of the creation of the product. A few other organizations such as Fashion Revolution are working hard to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the way our clothes are made and pushing to revolutionize the whole industry.
What is the best way for an average person to engage in ethical shopping in a general sense? Are there any pitfalls to avoid or shortcuts to ethical, durable and affordable?
I would recommend people to watch the documentary ‘The True Cost’. It’s available on Netflix and very eye opening to many of the issues surrounding the garment industry. I was recently asked how you know if your clothing has been ethically manufactured or not, my answer was, unless the company that manufactured it shows full traceability of its supply chain, or is audited by one of the organizations above then it’s probably not. I would say, just do some research, many companies will have a section on their website about their ethics or green policy. Some of these are more convincing than others so use your own discretion, but the more clear and honest and the more information they give the more I would be inclined to trust them. I have a few companies ,which I know I can trust and will usually only buy from them. Go into a store and read the labels in clothes, what they are made from and where they are made, if there is no mention of ethics in any way then I probably wouldn’t trust it. Also, I would always recommend rethinking your whole approach to what you wear, think about what it is made from, the processes which went into creating the fabric as well as think about the person that assembled that garment for you and how many air miles it covered to reach you. This will make you rethink your clothes and hopefully encourage a newfound respect for them and those involved in their production. Learn to repair your clothes and use them until you can’t use them anymore. I would also say consider buying something second hand before buying something new, this way you can get excellent quality products, for a better price and save them from going into landfill.
How did Rise Outdoors begin, and what is the company all about?
It began in my final year of University when I was looking for something to stick my teeth into after graduation. I wanted to do something using my skills in creativity, which would also give me a platform to share my ethics and hopefully do good. I decided to turn my hobby of searching for ethical clothing brands, which fitted my personal style into creating that clothing brand myself. My brother Jack worked on the technical side whilst I covered the branding, marketing and logistics and it went from there. We’re all about creating great looking, ethically made goods to be enjoyed in the outdoors by those who share a passion for our outdoor environments and conserving them – and of course we want our stuff to look good too! We sit somewhere between street wear and technical outdoor brands, catering to a market of your average person who may not necessarily be a professional alpinist but loves getting out in the mountains or going for a surf. As we grow we aim to support grassroots environmental causes and run our own projects to help protect our outdoor spaces.