Putting an end to sweatshops: Students at Southampton and Buckinghamshire universities are taking up the baton for the ethical fashion movement. Photograph: Shafiqul Alam/Demo
On April 24 of this year, more than 1,100 people were killed as the Rana Plaza building, a garment factory, collapsed in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Since the disaster, more than 50 fashion labels have signed a legally-binding agreement to ensure more rigorous safety standards in the factories that supply their clothes. But the campaign for ethical fashion is going further than that. Two decades since the first sweatshop scandals broke, students across the country are getting involved in a movement for a more ethical fashion industry.
Emma Waight, a human geography PhD student at the University of Southampton, is known in the blogosphere as a key figure in the ethical fashion movement in the UK. She's organised two events at her university this year: The Ethical Fashion Workshop 2013, featuring expert speakers from across the country, and a clothes swap attracting 80 students.
The aim of the swap was to inform students from all courses about ethical fashion. "It's really important to remember that the retail industry has so many areas to it. Everyone buys clothes and students from all kinds of disciplines end up working in retail," said Waight.
Waight's curiosity in the ethical fashion industry was sparked during her BA in fashion promotion and communciation at Southampton Solent University. "I believe that in terms of sustainable consumption, the best thing we can do is buy less. We've got into this culture of buying more and more items because it's easily available, and there's so much choice now," she said.
Charlotte Instone, who recently finished her first year of a BA in fashion buying and merchandising at the London College of Fashion, is another student keen to spread the word about ethical fashion. She read up on the movement after taking a related module during her course.
Instone recently put on an ethical fashion show at her university with a programme of expert panel discussions and clothes stalls from ethical fashion labels. "I wanted to make the event a platform for everything available at the moment," Instone said.
The show raised £900 for Rehema, a charity in Tanzania training women in textile skills, as well as educating fellow students about the industry. Instone has been asked to run it again next year.
One university has recognised this growing trend among students. In September this year, Buckinghamshire New University will pilot a new BA in fashion design, with ethical and sustainable fashion as its unique selling point. The programme looks at the sustainability of various materials and their properties, the conditions for workers in garment industries, and diversity in fashion. Course director Sian Kate-Mooney said: "It's basically saying, 'You don't have to be a size zero, six foot 13-year-old white girl to enjoy and wear fashion'."
The BA has seen a high number of applications, which Mooney puts down to a growing concern with where clothes are coming from and the conditions in which they are made. Speaking about the course at UCAS fairs and open days, she has been encouraged by the number of young people who were interested in the subject.
So why the growing awareness? Could it be that the recent disaster in Bangladesh, which received a good deal of media coverage, has fixed the plight of garment workers and the broader issues within the industry more permanently in peoples' minds? Waight said: "I'm sure it's had an impact – people I've spoken to around university say they're more keen not to buy clothes either from Primark or from Bangladesh."
Instone is also positive that the Rana Plaza disaster has encouraged engagement among her fellow students. "In terms of setting up companies at the moment with how the market is, the only way to do it is to have a really strong USP, and ethical fashion offers something different," she said.
So what are the biggest barriers to engaging the interest of other students? For Waight, it's the cost and availability of ethical products. "Most people do shop on the high street or in familiar places, and unless you're looking for ethical brands you don't find them because they're quite small brands. I think it would be really great if there were more department stores or more independent shops on the high street offering that kind of thing. I think for students, cost is also a big factor," she said.
She also thinks it would be inspirational for young people to have celebrity role models they can look up to for influence in the area. She compares ethical fashion to sustainability and the fair trade movement in the food industry, pointing towards household names such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who champion ethical produce. "I think a lot can be learned from the food industry. People buying free range eggs has no impact on us apart from a warm fuzzy feeling inside, and that's because celebrity chefs have really been heading those kinds of campaigns, so I think we need more of that for ethical fashion," Waight said.
Mooney hopes that once students graduate from the course, they will go to become industry influencers. "Hopefully we will have students who will say, 'That's not ethical, but there are all these ethical solutions.' They will already be equipped to go into the industry."
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