September 19 2009
Emily Westfield works in fashion but prides herself on having a social conscience. She recycles fastidiously, offloads unwanted clothes on eBay or at Oxfam, and even disposes of old furniture and household paraphernalia via Freecycle. She hates excess packaging, was ahead of the curve on plastic bags (she hasn’t accepted one for years), and although she can’t quite bring herself to use low-energy light bulbs – the light is so harsh and unflattering – even her washing-up liquid is from Daylesford Organic.
But for some time now she has been worried that there is what she terms a “disconnect” between her job as fashion editor of Lustrous magazine and her concern for the environment. To feed the readers’ insatiable desire for the new she compiles a weekly column of high-street “must-haves”. In truth, she knows that most of the items she features are “must-nots” on a fast track to landfill. And while encouraging readers to buy all kinds of cheap disposable tat, her own personal mantra is “Buy fewer, buy better.”
In private, she declares that she would rather go naked than wear anything from the discount retailers “littering the high street” and professes to feeling physically ill at the sight of giant carrier bags stuffed with “disposable fashion”. Nonetheless, Emily concedes that it’s not easy shopping ethically, organically and sustainably. In recent years she has looked into clothing made from hemp and woven bamboo, but the designs were always – for her – a little too “hair shirt” to actually wear. She finds it hard to get excited about oatmeal-coloured separates and can’t quite bring herself to wear plastic shoes. And although she knows that snakeskin is not without its ethical issues, she couldn’t resist her python-skin clutch bag.
Still, she loves Eco Age in Chiswick, owned by actor Colin Firth’s wife, and she recently invested in a pair of Sharkah Chakra jeans, handmade by fair-trade farmers in India. At £195 a pair, they’re not cheap, but Emily consoles herself that it’s the price of a clean conscience. She also likes Luva Huva knickers (though not enough to kick her Agent Provocateur habit) and stocks up on organic cotton Fairtrade T-shirts at Marks & Spencer, whose CEO, Stuart Rose, she has regarded as a hero ever since he banned hydrogenated fats. (After all, if the government really wanted to improve the nation’s health, rather than spend public money on patronising ads telling people to wash their hands, it should follow the lead of California and pass laws to ban these artery-clogging fats.)
But recently Emily has found an issue that gets her even more worked up. Unethical cotton – particularly that from Uzbekistan – is still a below-the-radar subject but it is, she believes, the unmitigated evil of our times. Ever since a PR friend pointed out that cheap cotton often involves child labour and other exploitation, and uses more lethal pesticides and chemicals than any other non-food crop, Emily has been passionate about the issue. She supports the Environmental Justice Foundation, owning a T-shirt from its “Pick Your Cotton Carefully” campaign, and further applauds M&S for banning Uzbek cotton. She buys Fairtrade-certified whenever she can, boycotting retailers whose policies are suspect, so that she can sleep easily in her M&S Fairtrade organic cotton sheets at night.
But when a striking cotton sundress arrives in the Lustrous fashion cupboard from a particularly suspect retailer, Emily’s eco-diva principles are put to the test. She is about to go on holiday and the rose-print dress is just what she has been looking for. She wonders if she can ignore her scruples just this once. While her friends in the UK would most certainly recognise the dress and its suspect origins, in Spain, she tells herself, no one will.
After a battle with her conscience, the desire for the dress wins and she sneaks off to the Oxford Street store, hoping she won’t meet anyone she knows. Feeling contaminated by the contact with the eco-ignorant hordes, she emerges with her guilty purchase hidden at the bottom of her handbag.
She gets her karmic comeuppance, however, when her holiday companion posts a picture of her on Facebook, sipping cocktails, in the incriminating garment. And it’s not just her eco-credentials that end up in pieces: the cheaply made dress falls apart the first time it’s put through the washing machine.