Every girl’s new must-buy? Eco-logical fashion

I took a stroll down my local high street recently. In Primark, bikinis and strappy sandals drew a crowd. But the mood was sombre compared to the consumer glee of previous years.

“We're seeing real fatigue among consumers around the idea of having more and more stuff," says Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion. "There's a drive to entice us to buy, but people are bored with their purchases almost before they get them home."

Partly, we have the recession to thank. It has turned us into a nation of savers rather than spenders. But there is also a growing sense of unease about the environmental implications of disposable fashion. Buying clothes that you wear a couple of times jars with our growing concern for the environment.

Although I am wary of any kind of ethical consumption that encourages you simply to buy differently rather than less, it's pointless to expect people to stop shopping. Even in the thick of economic gloom, we will restock our wardrobes. So, to rescue our planet from further degradation, we need innovative ethical retailers on the high street.

We can no longer ignore the fashion industry's track record. The UK market alone produces two million tonnes of waste each year, 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 and 70 million tonnes of waste water, according to Defra. In the battle for land to grow more food, there is concern that crops such as cotton are taking up valuable space. UN figures show that we need to increase food production by 70 per cent by 2050. On top of this, scandals about conditions for textile workers occur regularly, exposed by NGOs such as Labour Behind the Label.

There are signs of progress, but how quickly can the industry change? And who will back its efforts? Recently, Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council, called on the government to introduce tax breaks for people working sustainably. Meanwhile, a Mintel report suggests that ethical clothing will survive the recession better than most. "Adverse economic conditions are likely to have only muted effects on the ethical clothing sector," it states. This is certainly the case with the leading eco-retailer People Tree, which has notched up a 20 per cent increase in sales over the past year.

With the sector ducking the worst effects of the downturn and acquiring consumer backing, many high-street retailers are falling over themselves to prove their green credentials. In March, Tesco teamed up with the recycled fabrics fashion designers From Somewhere to launch an in-house label. M&S, meanwhile, has reaffirmed its pledge, made in 2007, to convert 10 per cent of all the cotton it uses to organic or fairly traded fabric. And Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of Whistles, proudly revealed in an interview that her chain has a supply base of just 30 factories, compared to Topshop's 700.

It's a promising start, but I suspect that transforming the working practices of the industry will be a bit like trying to turn a juggernaut around. While some retailers will stay ahead of the game, employing sustainability managers and conducting energy footprint tests, others will wait until they are forced to change.

Amid these developments, we must not forget the importance of desirable clothes. For smaller ethical retailers to gain a presence on the high street, they will need to leave behind clichéd staples such as shapeless hemp tunics and make clothes that people want to wear.

Anna Shepard's "How Green Are My Wellies?" is published by Eden Project Books (£7.99)
Mark Lynas returns in August

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil