by Professor Rebecca Earley
Part 1: Why Go Green?
We all love to look good, and we want our kids to be well dressed, but whilst the price of fashion can often be a bargain for our wallets the cost to the planet is far from cheap. However, research shows that even the greenest of green people find it tough to economically clothe themselves and their families in a totally ethical way. I’m not here to slap your wrists for occasionally buying baskets of fast fashion. Rather this is a guide to help us all shop a little greener, buy with a conscience and discover the high street or online good guys.
I contacted some old friends and asked these eco activist mums how they clothed their kids and these are the ideas they shared.
BASIC GREEN FASHION PRINCIPLES
The eco kids wear story is currently mostly about looking for 100% certified organic cotton and fair trade made, but there are a few other things to think about.
Good quality fabrics and strong stitching – So many ecomums say that when buying new it’s worth buying from brands like Boden, as they stand the test of time. Look for organic cotton, and the new cellulosics like tencel and lyocell. Try to buy monomaterial clothes – all made from the same fibre rather than a mix of fibre types (e.g. cotton with polyester), for easier recycling at end of life.
Colours and material finishes – no patent leather shoes or fluorescent colours, which are very toxic! Darker colours mean more dyestuff has been used and that’s not good for the environment. Go for prints – they hide the dirt and stains and don’t have to be washed so often.
Multifunctional garments – trouser legs that zip off, garments that can be worn inside out.
Sewing – look for good hem allowances on clothes so they can be altered, and items that come with spare buttons and repair patches.
GOING GREEN ON THE HIGH STREET
Many brands are now signing up to be greener producers of kids’ clothes – to varying degrees. Right now there are a few that are doing just that little bit more, so it might be worth rewarding them with your custom.
Cheap to Mid Range
In Sweden H&M has long been considered a very good choice for babywear. They were amongst the first to use organic cotton and non-toxic dyes in their ranges, and have recently won awards for their ‘Conscious Commitments’. Look for the green labels in store that show items are part of the Conscious Collection range – I think their recycled polyester stuff is particularly good.
In the UK it’s M&S that comes out top in my poll. Their Plan A work is considered world leading, and the company is dedicated to making a holistic swathe of improvements across their product ranges. (You might feel a bit bored by the design from time to time – but I have inside knowledge that a new designer there is shaking it up a bit, so keep an eye out for the new range!)
Next is another ‘good guy’ – I visited one of their factories in China last year and was really impressed with the conditions and quality (and food – I had lunch in their workers canteen!). Finally, I am currently avoiding the brands that haven’t signed up to the Bangladesh Safety Accord like Gap (who have implemented their own system of standards). More than 170 brands have signed so there are plenty to choose from, including Debenhams, Fat Face and Mothercare.
Mid to High End
Head to Zone 1. Peter Jones or John Lewis – I love their democratic staff policy, who doesn’t? – are increasingly investing in sustainable fashion, so I always head first for People Tree and Polarn O. Pyret. If you want something more upmarket, then Stella McCartney has been working for a long time on the fabrics for her kids line – the organic cotton jersey and wovens are gorgeous, and her packaging is all recycled and recyclable – it all counts!
I would consider the most special upmarket clothes to be bespoke and made especially for you, and for this I recommend Sasti in Portobello. Rosie makes to order, and has the most edgy and fun designs. I really believe UK handmade, in second hand vintage fabrics, is worth saving up for, and may give you a richness of user experience you don’t get with the regular brands.
GREEN ONLINE SHOPPING
By far the biggest selection of green kids clothes can be found on the internet. The small labels are generally able to have greater control over their supply chains – working with smaller producers who offer better conditions to workers for instance. You may pay a bit more here, but consider it an investment. The more small green companies there are, the more the big companies will feel the competition and adopt better practices to try to attract the green pound. These small lines mostly focus on fabrics like organic cotton and fair labour conditions – not unlike the high street brands – but they also produce smaller runs of quirky, unusual designs, and you will be supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses as well.
Our cover features clothes made by Swedish brand Mini Rodini, available in Selfridges and online, which holds sustainability, the environment and fair labour at the heart of its core values (minirodini.com). The Fableists is an uber-cool brand, which is chemical and sweatshop labour free – they use 100% organic cotton and their factories are either Fair Wear or Fair Trade. They set up the label to ‘stop the cycle of kids making clothes for other kids’, as they put it (thefableists.com). Frugi clothes are really fun, well made, and designed to last a long time (welovefrugi.com). A Chelsea textile graduate set up Little Green Radicals and as you would expect the fabrics are gorgeous. They even sell real nappies, and are working with Ecotricity, a green energy provider (littlegreenradicals.co.uk). Eternal Creation has a great transparent ethical story – made in the Indian Himalayas – and beautiful clothes to boot, especially their animal print shirts (eternalcreation.com). For school uniform Eco Outfitters are trying really hard to offer a range of well-priced basics (ecooutfitters.co.uk). Ask your school if they have heard of them.
BEFORE YOU SHOP, WORK THOSE BAGS
When you are planning a shopping trip take an hour to double-check what you already have. My ecomums all work a system of hand me downs – and the more organised they were about this, the better it was for the planet. So developing a five-bag system is the key first step:
1. Best Friend Bag.
In here put the nicest hand me downs. If you have a friend who gives you stuff, have a look at what they have given you recently. There is often a bigger anorak or pair of wellies lurking that I had forgotten about – and I end up being able to cross that item off the list.
2. Shwopping Bag.
When you have given away the best stuff to a friend, save a bag for the shwopp! TK Maxx and Cancer Research UK have led the way, running their joint clothing collection campaign since 2004. Give Up Clothes for Good has raised £17.6 million, with £13.1 million funding ground-breaking research into childhood cancers. M&S has recently teamed up with Oxfam, aiming to reduce the volume of clothes thrown into landfill and its environmental impact while supporting Oxfam’s many campaigns.
3. School Fair Bag. Especially good for uniforms, and great for passing on toys and books.
4. Charity Bag.
Avoid chucking any clothes in the bin – no matter how stained and tatty they are your local charity shop can benefit from your donation. Clothes that are not fit for wearing will be sold on to industry as ‘wiping rags’ or to be made into shoddy (a kind of industrial felt material). Bundle shoes together with an elastic band (essential tip!)
5. Mending/Making Bag.
If you or your kids love craft, this bag can be used for projects (old tights for stuffed toys especially good), and mending other clothes with nice fabric patches.
SOME OTHER ORGANIC AND FAIR TRADE BRANDS worth looking at include: Maxomorra (maxomorra.com), Slugs & Snails especially for boys tights (slugsandsnails.ie), Smafolk (smafolk.dk), Toby Tiger (tobytiger.co.uk), Sgt.Smith (sgtsmith.com), Ava & Luc (avaandluc.com), and Pigeon (pigeonorganics.com).
Chiswick-based mum of two Rebecca Earley is Professor of Sustainable Textiles and Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and Director of the Textile Futures Research Centre. She trained in fashion at Central Saint Martin’s and has taught textile designers at Chelsea College of Arts for nearly twenty years. She currently advises design teams in fashion companies in Sweden, Denmark, USA and the UK about how to design lower impact, longer lasting clothing.