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Green is the new black

Irish fashion designers are carving out an ethical niche for themselves

Ireland’s environmentally green reputation as a unique and naturally beautiful island has made us a stand-out for the ethical fashion trail. The world-renowned quality of Donegal tweeds, Dingle linens, Foxford wools and Kenmare lace, with their indigenous crafts and traditional skills, have also helped the Emerald Isle spearhead the rise in ethical designs and eco-fashion labels by creating the right environment for the latest eco-labels to blossom.

Irish fashion labels are reaping a good living by doing the right thing with sustainable, eco-friendly, organic garments. They also have the global reach of the internet to access influential customers who care more about where their clothes are from than grandiose designer endorsements.

For the celebrity set, it's no longer about who you wear but how it was made – think Sienna Miller, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, who are fans of Ciel, People Tree and Stella McCartney.

Irish companies like Grown, the Tweed project, Prairie Organic, Sophie Rieu, Keem and Ethical Silk hold steadfast to the principles of fair trade.


"Fair pay for a fair day's work" is the near universal motto, along with no chemicals, accessing organic materials and using fabrics from ethical producers. Edun – the fashion offspring company of Ali Hewson and Bono is also flying the banner for ethical fashions and fair trade by setting a moral standard that highlights the plight of underpaid workers in sweatshop factories in corrupt regimes around the world. They have emphasised the need to create self-sufficient industries in Africa and to buy from manufacturers who adhere to fair trade principles.

High-street stores

During the recession, many Irish shoppers understandably migrated to high-street stores for cheap and disposable clothes. They deliver a quick hit for those requiring some instant retail therapy, but like sugar or alcohol, the feel-good factor is short lived.

After a few spins in the washing machine, most of these garments turn into rags anyway – handy for washing the floor or the sink – but more likely to become fashion fodder for landfills. In fact, many of us are beginning to realise that spending a bit more and buying a little less guarantees us something a bit more special that’s eco-friendly and fair to workers as well.

Ethical Silk (www.theethicalsilkco.com) is the creation of Dubliner Eva Power, who started her fashion business after having her two children. She found an ethical silk manufacturer in India where she enlisted the assistance of a small group of women who manufacture pure silk. They create the pure silk without boiling the silk worms. Instead, they wait until the moths have vacated their cocoons before using the incubators for silk processing.

Power’s silk pillowcases are very popular and also beneficial for your skin as they maintain a moisture barrier. Silk guarantees less frizzy hair and sleep creases down your face when you wake up, unlike abrasive polyester. One pillowcase costs €40 but they make a lovely gift that will be cherished and kept and possibly monogrammed as an extra personal touch.

Silk also minimizes overheating under the sheets or hot flushes and is known as the sleepwear of sweet dreams. The Ethical Silk range is taking off in both the US and Canadian markets, as discerning customers there are particularly vigilant about purchasing ethically produced clothes.

“The beauty of silk is how it remains valuable over time so you can keep these treasured pieces for many years,” says Power. “I do most of my selling on line to keep costs down. The website keeps the prices more accessible as you don’t require a shop. The Craft Fair at the RDS is a great showcase for my products and attracts a lot of business for us.”

Power is also designing her own loungewear for relaxing daywear – the range includes wraps, camisoles and silk pants.

Sophie Rieu (www.sophierieu.com), although originally from France, is one of our original ethical clothing pioneers. Fashion buffs will recall she started off with her clothing label Unicorn. Now she is going by her own name and is based in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, making exclusive commissioned pieces as well as restyling customers' coats, jackets or skirts at her weekly sewing classes. "In my classes, people will bring along clothes that they want to redesign or give a new lease of life with upcycling ideas.

“As an ethical designer I think we should build on what we have as there is no reason why a tweed coat bought 10 years ago can’t be revised and enhanced with the addition of a new skirt. This is also the essence of sustainability.”

Rieu also gives classes on designing and making skirts as well as sewing classes for children. “There are enough clothes manufactured so let’s make the most of what we have already before creating more! I believe that we need to keep the mass production of clothes lower so I am maintaining this principle by producing less this year. So for summer I am going to add certain satellite garments to the winter basics like linen and lace tops and skirts. I source my tweeds from Magee of Donegal and the linen from Dingle.”

Sustainable employment

Edun (www.edun.com) is an ethically conscious clothing company launched in spring 2005 by Ali Hewson and Bono. The company's mission is to create beautiful clothing, while fostering sustainable employment in the developing world, particularly Africa. The label is a flagship for the future of environmental fashion and the aim is to inspire others to follow in its footsteps. Although it reported losses for 2016, the high-profile label has been influential in shifting consumers in the US slightly away from mindless consumerism to more considered purchases.

‘We are Islanders’ is best described as a romantic ethical Irish clothing company that brings a stunning version of ecolux. Its latest range called Tidal is produced locally using only sustainable materials – the label is dedicated to pure materials yet very fashion conscious. The ethos of the brand puts a contemporary twist on heritage pieces, merging craft and innovation.

The Tweed Project is part of the slow fashion movement, where fashion lines and craft take priority over trends. The owners Aoibheann McNamara and Triona Lillis create handmade one-off pieces that combine beautiful Irish fabrics with modern tailoring for a life-long lasting garment.

Prairie (www.prairietraders.com) is inspired by nature and marine life. The label is best known for its messaged tee-shirts in soft organic ringspun fabric that are available at the T-Shirt Company in Dublin as well as its flagship shop in Corofin, Co Galway. The company ensures the cotton has no GMO chemicals and uses clean water supplies with a low carbon footprint. According to co-owner Mark Wells: "People are prepared to pay that little bit more knowing that human rights are being upheld. Everyone involved in the supply chain of creating a garment is fairly treated."

Their collection includes hoodies, sweatshirts, tee shirts along with hats and accessories.

His partner Mary McGovern ensures their garments are made from 100 per cent organic cotton from India. Many of these fashion designs and ideas are inspired by nature – from the coastal seascapes to rich forestry and indigenous plants and fibres.

Wells, who grew up in New Zealand, worked in the textile industry before returning to Ireland and settling with McGovern in Corofin. "Our market is growing as people are changing their perception of clothes. The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 where 1,129 people died and 2,500 were injured made many shoppers think about where their clothes were made."

The collapse of the eight-storey factory in Bangladesh is considered the worst factory accident in history and the garment workers were forced to work even after structural cracks were found in the building.

“It’s cool to be ethically minded like bands such as Coldplay and Radiohead, who are totally into fair trade. It’s a case of consumerism versus quality. We care how workers are treated and how our manufacturing impacts on the environment,” Wells adds.

Grown was founded by Dublin-based Stephen O'Reilly and Damian Bligh. "We plant one native tree for every tee-shirt that we style and design in Ireland," says O'Reilly. "The tee-shirts are made from this incredible stuff called Tencel. It's a fibre that is made from the wood of a eucalyptus tree. The pulp is dissolved in a non-toxic solution and then extruded through fine holes to make fibres that are then woven. It feels like an incredibly soft organic cotton but it is a cellulose fibre and very good for sensitive skins.

‘Platform for change’

“We started the company because we didn’t like the brands we were wearing. We wanted Grown to stand as a platform for change in the community. We planted 550 trees all round Ireland last year. We love the Patagonia range too as they are world leaders in ethical wear. The circular economy means things can be recycled, revamped and reworn and are biodegradable.”

Keem is another burgeoning label that specialises in contemporary separates that can be combined and worn regardless of transient trends. Founder Denise Thomas is a fashion and photography graduate who fell in love with Keem Bay in Achill.

Irish consumers can aid the growth of this native sustainable fashion industry simply by cutting down on waste and putting a little more thought into what they buy and where it came from. It is becoming increasingly unacceptable throughout the western world to buy clothing made by children who are forced to work in degrading sweatshops or the adults who are paid €38 a month for slaving in factories in India and being forced into mandatory unpaid cotton picking in Uzbekistan.

For many people, excess is now synonymous with ignorance and shelves of barely worn shoes in vast walk-in wardrobes is reminiscent of Imelda Marcos rather than perceived as something to aspire to.

In this sense, moral fibre is gradually taking over from exotic fibre as a fashion statement. Celebrities with a conscience like Cameron Diaz, Mischa Barton and Charlize Theron are showcasing sustainable fashions and ethnic organic linens to emphasise the importance of being ethical.

And ethical fashion is no longer about sackcloth and hemp worn with Jesus sandals. In fact it is more the preserve of trendsetters. And they are not alone.

Such is the demand that many high-street stores are now introducing their own ethical lines. In London, Oasis has launched a range of 100 per cent organic denim and jersey at some of its stores while Topshop is now selling ethical fashion label People Tree.

Credit must also go to Marks & Spencer, which is expanding its range of fair trade cotton tee-shirts and underwear. The company also has a proven track record of commitment to fair trade principles. Its "Plan A for 2020" aims to make the company the most sustainable retailer and it has introduced a number of key measures to improve the lifespan of clothes with certain technologies. Also, its "Schwopping" campaign, which encourages M&S shoppers to donate their used clothing to Oxfam, has raised more than €15 million for the company's fair trade projects overseas. These include financial literacy projects in India and chemical free cotton farms.

All these initiatives are not only contributing to a better world but also provide ready markets for the new breed of Irish ethical designers and fashion labels.

Top 10 benefits of ethical fashion

  1. Maximise social benefits and minimise the impact on the environment
  2. Sustainability: to meet the needs of the present – without compromising the environment of the future
  3. To counteract fast, cheap clothing and conspicuous superfluous consumption
  4. Defending fair wages, safe working conditions and workers rights
  5. Reducing usage of toxic pesticides and chemical use
  6. Using eco-friendly fabrics and components
  7. Minimising water usage
  8. Recycling wastage, upcycling old clothes
  9. Protection of animal rights, anti-fur, unnecessary suffering in production
  10. Promoting new technologies like ecolux fibres from eucalyptus trees and bamboo

What is fair trade?

Fair trade is about better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers. It’s about supporting the development of thriving farming and worker communities that have more control over their futures and protecting the environment in which they live and work. Fair trade promotes respect for the environment and its cotton standards prohibit the use of genetically modified seeds in production.

Fair trade prohibits child labour or enforced labour and gender discrimination. It promotes opportunities for disadvantaged producers and is transparent and accountable in terms of working conditions and balance sheets.

Business Ireland (published by The Irish Times) is a quarterly print magazine produced in association with the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. The next issue will be published on Thursday, April 27, 2017. For more see www.irishtimes.com/special-reports/business-ireland-magazine