Interview: Tansy Hoskins – Can fashion ever be ethical?


The North London Star spoke to Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up – the anti-capitalist guide to fashion in the run up to her Camden talk ‘Can fashion ever be ethical?’.


tansy ethicalHow unethical are the clothes most of us buy?

The fashion industry is a deregulated, subcontracted, trend-based industry that relies on selling billions of short-life units every season at a maximum profit. Production involves some of the most exploitative industries in existence – from agriculture, pesticides, chemical textile dyeing, and of course the sweatshops of the apparel industry.

Any product encompassing these industrial processes is being made using the exploitation of human labour and the planet.


What needs to happen to make the industry more ethical?

Ultimately I don’t believe the fashion industry can ever be ethical under capitalism because this is a system that requires inequality and exploitation. But even within capitalism things would be vastly improved with environmental legislation – the fashion industry is China’s third worst water polluter, out of all the country’s industries. There is also a desperate need for the implementation of a global minimum wage to prevent the continuing race to the bottom.

We also need minimum standards in factories in terms of building structures and health and safety to prevent things like building collapses and fires. We also need minimum standards legislation for other industry employees like models, many of whom are young girls working alone overseas.

In terms of reworking the ethos of the industry, in Chapter Ten of my book Stitched Up I look at how factories could look if there were no owners or bosses. The 1,134 people who died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh were forced to work in a factory that they knew was unsafe. Without capitalism, the owner of Rana Plaza would have been working in the factory like everyone else and it would also have been his life at risk from criminal practices. We need socially owned and organised production – this would also end over-production because no one, not reliant on wages, is going to vote to work 15 hour days seven days a week on an assembly line to produce a 20 billion pieces of clothing.


Can we have the clothes we have today but made ethically, or do the clothes themselves have to change?

The clothes themselves need to change. People should be extremely concerned about the chemical content of the clothes we are being sold. Studies by Greenpeace have shown that clothes contain carcinogens and hormone disrupters which as well as being absorbed into the skin end up in our seas, rivers and drinking water as they go through the laundry cycle – they do not break down once in the environment. As well as being sold short life items so that we have to frequently replace them, we are also being sold poisons.


How much power do consumers really have to promote an ethical society?

Corporations like to go along with the idea that consumers are in control but if people only change their shopping habits this has little or no effect. Even if 20,000 people decided to boycott a company like Gap or Primark the impact would be marginal to none. However if those 20,000 people decided to do something more proactive like picket or sticker stores, write articles, make films, protest, occupy headquarters and so on, then you can get a company’s attention.

Focusing on trying to shop ‘better’ is the wrong way of approaching the crisis in fashion. People need to stop looking for individual solutions to this crisis – like looking for that one ‘perfect’ brand of clothing – and instead start thinking systemically. I always think – what is the point of making yourself feel good about shopping choices when people and planet are still enslaved? What is one rack of less exploitative clothes compared to 50 billion pieces churned out of China each year? We need to overhaul our entire system not rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.