ONE thousand people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, making it the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. Cracks had appeared in the building the day before yet workers were ordered to return to their machines.
A fire a year earlier killed 111 workers in Dhaka. Investigations revealed the fire escapes had been locked, and managers had told staff the fire alarm was just a rehearsal.
Poor conditions, shocking pay – as little as £22 a month – child labour. All have been well publicised, yet we continue to demand our cheap, fast, fashion fix.
Not Helena Murphy. She remembers seeing a protest outside a Gap branch in her home town of Glasgow when she was nine years old. From that day, she refused to let her mum buy anything from the US jeans store. The ethical die was cast.
Now 23, she recalls: “I said to my mum, ‘I don’t want anything from there any more. It’s made by children and they weren’t paid for it’. I’ve always had that in the back of my mind. I don’t think I can justify spending my money on things I know were made in poor conditions.”
In 2012 she graduated with a degree in sustainable development at St Andrews University – “I did a lot of research on where clothes are made and the conditions in the factories, the materials, that side of the retail fashion industry in particular” – and almost immediately set up September Street, an online boutique with a solidly ethical and sustainable ethos. The designers she stocks include Scot Hilary Grant, whose luxury knitwear is made and hand-finished here; London label Antithesis, which supports UK manufacturing; and Beautiful Soul, with its focus on sustainable textiles including British wool and lace, vintage and organic fabrics, and unique signature prints. She also works closely with Joanne McGillivray, 2012’s graduate of the year at the Scottish Fashion Awards, who manufactures in Scotland.
“My main criteria,” says Murphy, “is that it must be made in Britain, which means the clothes’ carbon footprint is much smaller than if it came from China. It will also have been made in good working conditions because we have a lot of laws in terms of safety and fair wages. Then we have things that are made of sustainable and recycled materials – things like organic cotton and T-shirts made of a fabric called Tencel, which is a by-product when you make paper. We also have ethically mined gold and silver for our jewellery.
“And we have two designers whose work is made in fair trade factories – one in Turkey, and the knitwear is made by a minority group of women in Bolivia.”
With the business just a year old, she says it has snowballed and now includes “stylist parties” in customers’ homes as well as online sales. “That way people can try it on, they can feel the fabric, and they know they’re getting a quality product.”
And while ethical fashion has faced an image crisis in the past – crocheted truck tyres from Ecuador, anyone? – she says things are changing for the better. “There’s now a green fashion week in London. I’m just back from fashion week in Hong Kong and there was a green showcase there, so people are more aware of ethical fashion.
“Times are tight for pretty much everybody right now so I think if you’re going to be investing in something, you want to make sure it’s going to last and it’s high quality. If you spend £150 on a bag, you can say, ‘Well, it was made in Britain and I’m supporting the industry’, and you feel that little bit better about it.”
The packaging September Street uses is recycled, and all office supplies – right down to the printer ink – come from clean sources. “I have to make sure I’m sticking to my values right across the board,” she says. “I will never have someone work for me and not pay them. I know lots of start-ups have unpaid interns and it’s not illegal if it’s work experience. But I don’t believe anyone should work for you for free.“
She admits the business could move faster, but the ethics come first. “You have to be a lot smarter with your money. You have to think a lot more about what you’re spending on, but we still make a profit, so it’s obviously possible to do that and still be ethical.”
You can’t say fairer than that. n
• September Street will host a pop-up shop from Friday to 9 March in Princes Square, Glasgow, second floor.