HOW TO CLOTHE KIDS IN AN ETHICAL WAY (AND RAISE THE ECO-CONSUMERS OF THE FUTURE)
I’ve been aware of the murky side of fashion supply chains for a long time, but becoming a parent put a whole new perspective on things. I remember wandering round a shop one day browsing the rails of colourful clothing when a question dropped into my head: “What are the chances that child labour was used to make these clothes?”.
Eugh. If I’m honest, it was kind of annoying. Most of the time my head feels full just thinking about everything that needs to happen for us all to get through the day. School runs, getting to work on time, wondering WHERE on earth all those Tupperware lids go and WHY on earth it’s so easy for my kid to distribute her toys all over the floor in every room of the house but so hard for her to put on a pair of shoes without being asked 17 times. Then there’s the eternal question (in my house, anyway) of what to make for dinner (probably pasta. Again. Or fish fingers), food shopping, house cleaning and all the other stuff that makes up the treadmill of daily life. I should probably also be thinking about going plastic-free and zero-waste and organic and probably vegan too, except that would rule out one of my main go-to dinner options, so there’s that.
Like most of us, I didn’t need yet another thing to wrap my head around. And since my equivalent of me-time these days consists of locking myself in the bathroom for a few moments, I didn’t feel I had the time either. Unfortunately the question was more persistent than a toddler on the other side of the bathroom door, and when it just wouldn’t go away I decided to pay it some attention. I started to think about the options I had for buying clothes for my kids (and myself) in a more ethical way, and here’s what I came up with:
It’s all about small steps. Start where you are, do what you can & drop the guilt
When I became a mum I suddenly realised how much pressure parenting brings. There’s a constant barrage of (often conflicting) messages about how to raise our kids to be half-decent humans and a whole load of guilt thrown in the mix too.
Whether or not you’re a parent, it’s easy to feel guilty about not knowing enough or doing enough about all the things that are going on in the world. My general approach to this is: “NOPE.” Instead, I acknowledge that this stuff exists, that I’m probably part of the problem, and that there are most likely some changes I can make in my life to do something about it. When I feel like I’m not doing enough, I remind myself that I’m doing the best I can. That’s enough.
Get the tiny humans involved
According to Ethical Consumer, the average child in the UK is exposed to 10,000 TV ads each year. Kids are encouraged to become consumers from an early age, and advertising that targets children aims to influence patterns of behaviour that will last a lifetime. It got me thinking about how we can equip our kids to critically analyse what they see and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of of the things we choose to buy. The thing I love about kids is that they’re so open, imaginative, creative and resourceful. They’re also not as cynical and jaded as the rest of us grown-ups (or is that just me?). As we think about the impact of our choices on the world and try to make better decisions, why not include them in the process? Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People That Make Our Clothes shares a bedtime tradition with his daughter of looking at the labels of their clothes to see where they were made:
“It’s a simple act, just looking at the label, and letting your mind open up to think, these pyjamas came from Bangladesh, which is on the other side of the world,” Timmerman says. “You’re never too young to be amazed by that, and explore what it means.”
You could follow the journey of a t-shirt together to see how far our clothes travel before they end up in our wardrobes or discover what happens to clothes we no longer want. If you’re a teacher, Fashion Revolution has some great free resources to spark conversations and ideas for taking action. If we can get our kids thinking about this stuff from an early age, there’s a greater chance we’ll be helping them to become the ethical consumers of the future.
Buying second-hand is great for saving money and preserving the planet
It’s also good if you don’t like the idea of giving your cash to brands that can’t guarantee that they’re treating their workers well. The downsides are: it’s often not as convenient as shopping for new clothes, it can be time-consuming and you don’t always find what you’re after. It can also end up being expensive if your competitive side draws you into a bidding war on Ebay…so I’ve heard (Rule no.1: set limits and stick to them!). Overall I’ve found some amazing bargains through buying second-hand, and the clothes I’ve received have been in great condition. Kids tend to wear out their clothes more quickly, so if you’re worried about the condition of second-hand, try looking for clothes that are unworn. Plenty of sellers are trying to get rid of clothes that are basically brand-new and some of them still even have their tags on (aka: BNWT aka: THE ULTIMATE BARGAIN).
Buying better quality helps you buy less (and so does a bit of needle and thread)
A lot of the clothes we buy today are cheaply-made and not built to last. Most of the time this isn’t a huge problem, because low prices enable (and encourage) us to just keep buying more. The flip-side of this is that our ever-increasing rate of consumption is having a huge impact on the earth’s natural resources, and it also has a part to play in the poor working conditions of the people who make our clothes. Not only that, the rate at which we’re getting rid of clothes means we’re sending the equivalent of one truckload of clothing to be dumped in landfill or incinerated every second. Yikes. Buying less is one thing we can probably all do, although that’s often easier said than done when it comes to kids because of the whole constantly-growing thing. Even so, I try to look for clothes that have been well made so that they’ll last longer (if we’re lucky, they’ll last long enough to be passed on to a younger sibling). I also try to repair clothes instead of buying new, when I can. Currently, my repertoire of repair skills consists of sewing on the odd button…and that’s about it. Anything more complicated gets delegated to my friend Pip, who knows what to do with a sewing machine. So buy less, buy better quality, and find yourself a friend like Pip (or look up your local tailor. Or use the Clothes Doctor).
If you want to (or have to) buy new, take a look at ethical alternatives
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the ethical options that have cropped up during my research. Although ethical brands are often (but not always) pricier than high-street alternatives, it’s worth remembering that the cost represents the way they do business. Using ethical and sustainable production methods is more expensive than producing high volumes of cheaply-made clothes at speed. I love the idea of putting my money behind brands who can guarantee that their workers are treated fairly (I mean, who doesn’t?!) but often the price tag puts these clothes out of reach. If this is the case for you, try signing up to a brand’s newsletter to find out when the next sale is coming up - often you can end up snagging clothes for less than 50% of the original price tag. If you’re still unsure, Rachael Smith (of Our Beautiful Adventure fame) has a few ideas on how to shop ethically when you can’t afford it. And if you’re wondering where to find ethical brands for kids, watch this space (we’ve got an ethical edit for kids coming soon!).
You don’t have to boycott the high street. But if you want the high street to change: say something
I figure if brands are happy to accept my money for their clothes, it’s not unreasonable for me to ask them a bit more about how and where those clothes are made. Over the years I’ve asked a lot of brands for more information about the people and processes behind their clothes, just by sending a quick email or posting a message on social media. You don’t have to be an expert on any of the issues to do this. If you care about an issue - whether that’s child labour, water pollution, slavery, labour conditions, waste or anything else - ask brands what they’re doing about it. Sometimes I get nothing more than a stock response with a copy of code of conduct and at other times a brand will provide an answer that gives real insight into how they do business and what they’re doing to work to high standards. I think the openness and detail contained in the answers gives the true measure of a brand. Most brands aren’t perfect, but some are much better than others. While asking questions might not always get us the answers we want, it helps us see which brands are serious about treating people and planet with respect and sends a clear message that as consumers, we’re looking beyond the price tag towards the true social and environmental cost of our clothes.
So there it is. It’s probably not perfect, but it works for us! I’d love to hear your thoughts, tips and questions on how we can help our tiny humans to think about these issues and learn about your own experiences of clothing kids in a more ethical and sustainable way. Say hello in the comments section below or send a message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram