I’ve finally broken up with fast fashion. It’s something I’ve been working towards for more than a year but, just like that boyfriend you know is rubbish, I’ve not had the smarts to walk away.
Fast fashion (cheap, trendy clothing) is familiar, it’s easy and it’s, well, fast. At the click of a button (and with the rise of buy-now-pay-later apps there’s no need for available funds) we can purchase whatever we want, when we want. But as we enter the festive season and Black Friday (the day after US Thanksgiving but now synonymous with retailers’ special offers – November 29 this year) approaches, we need to question our choices with greater urgency. Overproduction thrives on discount culture and it’s up to us to look past these clever marketing ploys and be more conscious consumers.
So, am I saying we can’t have nice things? Absolutely not. I am simply advocating for more awareness in our shopping habits and greater transparency from brands. But fear not, there are cracking independent businesses out there offering just that. They include Dirty Word, a Wirral-based ethical clothing company which produces a range of inclusive feminist t-shirts and jumpers.
“I knew that I could get Dirty Word up and running overnight if I got products printed in China and sold them for a ridiculous price,” says owner Jade Rice. “But I hated that idea of fast fashion and jumping on the pop-feminist, pop-sustainability bandwagon.”
Instead of using the first cheap option she could find, Rice spent 18 months researching the industry. Each item in the Dirty Word collection is created in the UK by OctoMuffin, an independent screen-printing business in Kent, using eco-friendly, water-based inks. They’re then packed by Rice using 100 per cent recycled packaging materials.
So, where did Dirty Word begin? Rice has a background in corporate marketing but after realising the corporate world was “extremely masculine” and “not the right fit”, she joined Blackburne House Group in Liverpool, one of the country’s leading education centres for women, as the head of marketing and fundraising. It was there that the idea for Dirty Word was born. Such is her admiration for the centre, Rice donates 10 per cent of Dirty Word’s annual profits to the charity because “as incredible as it is, it is a small charity and relies on donations”.
Both Rice and I identify as intersectional feminists (if it isn’t advocating equality for everyone, it isn’t feminist), and we chat a little about the privilege of being white, cisgendered consumers (cisgendered means relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex). With Dirty Word, Rice has kept the garments as simple and neutral as possible. Even the slogan ‘ethical clothing for the feminist mind’ doesn’t allude to a brand exclusively for women. Rice says: “If you identify as a feminist, I want this clothing to be accessible to you.”
As a new business still finding its feet, initially the sizes available aren’t as broad as Rice had hoped. But after receiving a comment from an “incredible” Instagram follower regarding the limited sizing, she implemented quick changes and now stocks up to 6XL in every style. “I’m not perfect but I am learning,” says Rice, who has recently started an MA in Gender Studies. “And I hope that it’s clear in the brand that I will take on board feedback and I will always do what I can. Jameela Jamil writes in her Instagram bio ‘feminist-in-progress’ and I really like that because you can only do your best until you learn, and I absolutely am learning every day.”
A more cynical mind might suggest feminism is currently a fashion statement and a way to pedal a brand.
“I am keen to not just jump on a bandwagon with Dirty Word, but I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing that feminism is trendy and reaching more people right now. If it is encouraging people to learn and understand the concept, I don’t think that can be a bad thing. It also opens up the doors for those who do have more experience and knowledge and want to promote other elements. It gives them a bigger audience to reach.”
In garment factories across South Asia and India, millions of women work long hours for minimal wages in uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions making clothing for women (and men) in first world countries. According to the campaign Labour Behind The Label, approximately 80 per cent of garment workers are women aged 18-35. Considering this, does Rice think you can call yourself a feminist and still consume fast fashion?
“For me, feminism relates to the inequality of women but also inequality full stop. I would struggle to say that I am a feminist and contribute to fast fashion.”
I am guilty of purchasing feminist tees from fashion giants while being unaware of their dubious sustainability practices. In fact, I was once the proud owner of a 30 per cent discount card at Topshop. But as the slow fashion activist Venetia Le Manna says, we are all “recovering hypocrites”. Calling out an individual (or yourself) is counterproductive when, really, we should be holding the industry to account.
“Everyone is growing, and everyone is developing and learning, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” says Rice. “What’s important is that you take on board and try and do better rather than being aware of it and continuing to do the same. Maya Angelou said, ‘do your best until you know better and then do that’ and I think that’s all we can do. So, you do as much as you possibly can do until you learn more, and once you learn more, you take that information on board and try and make yourself better for it.”
But in an industry where the ‘knowing better’ isn’t exactly transparent and greenwashing (the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are environmentally sound) is commonplace, it’s hard to see when the wool is being pulled over our eyes.
“It’s dangerous,” says Rice. “And we must educate ourselves as much as we can, but it’s hard when there’s these huge brands with incredible marketing teams behind them making it look one way when it’s actually another. But the more independent brands that come about who are trying to work sustainability and ethically, and the more they’re given a platform, then the more greenwashing will be seen for what it actually is and it will hopefully start to resonate with people.”
It’s hard to view sustainability statements as truthful when bosses proclaim that fast fashion contributes to only a ‘small environmental impact’ when in reality the fashion industry as a whole is the second biggest polluter in the world, topped only by the oil industry.
Rice says: “I passed Topshop and saw a dress which had a label that alluded to being consciously made and I couldn’t understand why. When you think about it, the angle is ‘this is conscious, isn’t it incredible?’ when the whole range should be operating like that. In the same way that men shouldn’t be given kudos just for being a decent human, I don’t see why brands should be given a pat on the back for having a conscious range. Why isn’t it the norm?”
So, does Rice have any advice for people out there looking to bring more sustainable brands and clothing to their wardrobe?
“Get lost down a rabbit hole of social media posts. There are so many people out there who know so much. It isn’t necessarily the academics who are writing big scholarly texts about it. For Dirty Word especially, social media has given me a platform that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and being able to connect me with people.”
She continues: “If you are going to buy new, research the brands. Learn about where your clothes come from, watch documentaries. Ultimately, it all comes down to education. It may not be reading up about the sustainability side but looking to other people who’ve done it and how they’re doing it.”
To my delight, the Dirty Word site also includes a monthly book club exploring fiction and non-fiction feminist texts. “It’s just a bit of fun really,” explains Rice. “I just wanted to introduce texts that I have found interesting either written from a feminist perspective or by a female author. It’s created to give you food for thought.”
So, what’s next for Dirty Word? “I want to expand the range to include a few accessories. But I want to make sure it doesn’t dilute the quality or the style. I am hoping to do more of an online book club and get more of a community to talk about the books.”
A feminist book club, you say? Sign me up.