The fashion industry is global by nature. Cotton is grown in Pakistan, which is then spun into yarn and dyed in India. The fabric is cut and sewn in Bangladesh and Indonesia, embroidered and embellished in Turkey and Portugal, showcased in the UK and USA, sold in Japan and China, then resold after use to South Africa.

But in our fast-paced, internationally connected world, there is an increasing desire to slow fashion down, and reconnect with our neighbours. I believe that locality is a powerful force in the fashion industry, particularly at a time when ethics and sustainability are finally at the forefront of public conversation. We are reaching a tipping point for human, animal and environmental wellbeing, but an achievable first step to reaching a sustainable solution is supporting creatives where we live by investing in local art, craft and design.

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The ‘shop local’ movement was established partly as a response and an antidote to chain stores pushing out independent boutiques; overtaking the community hubs and high streets of small towns, and partly as a way to keep money flowing through the local community, fighting unemployment and poverty by creating valuable, fulfilling jobs and encouraging people of all generations to flock to, and remain within, rural areas. It’s not just good for businesses either; customers who regularly shop in small local stores are usually getting better value for money with high quality products, unique creative design, and a rewarding sense of pride for supporting their community.

In recent years, the movement has gained some much-needed momentum as more and more people want to experience the antithesis of stale, standardised shopping malls. The #shoplocal hashtag currently boasts over 17 million posts on Instagram, and the popular Small Business Saturday campaign attracts millions of customers across the UK every year to discover the hidden gems in their towns and cities. An interesting initiative called Just A Card, established in 2016, encourages people all over the world to buy from designers, makers, independent galleries and shops by reinforcing the message that all purchases, however small, even ‘just a card’, are vital to the prosperity and survival of small businesses.

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Local and independent brands are also often ‘ethical by accident’. Unlike large design houses and fast fashion retailers who manage complex, outsourced supply chains, small businesses are more often than not a one-man-band, so they can control every step of the process, from fabric selection and dyes to finishing processes and aftercare, so each decision is conscious and close to home.

These emerging designers may not necessarily have sustainability at the crux of their brand, or set out to create a specifically ethical product, but by proxy they are better for the environment and for people than the fast fashion alternative because they are handmade by people with a passion for their work, they are made from materials chosen for quality and integrity, they are constructed in a way that’s made to last for a long time.  Creatives in rural areas should take advantage of this current trend towards slower, more sustainable fashion, by engaging in both traditional crafts, and contemporary design.

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But the shop local movement is not intended to limit the message to a very nationalist or separatist point of view, because it is truly incredible that we live in such a closely connected and diverse world; that should be celebrated, not stigmatised.  Part of shopping ethically is being able to support larger international brands that similarly think ‘locally’, using their business to invest in small artisans and give back to their community. Glasgow-based fashion brand Nu Blvck does this by viewing each and every collection of luxury women’s accessories as a global collaboration. Often, their pieces are designed and materials sourced in Scotland, but the brand’s founders are inspired by artisanal craft in small societies, so the products often go on an enriching journey to remote places- like the Maison Bengal social enterprise who weave beautiful baskets from seagrass and jute in Bangladesh- in order to introduce niche crafts to a mass market, develop and sustain valuable traditional skills and support fair trade principles.

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We have an amazing opportunity to build a brand new fashion industry in our own hometowns, for our own folk, and we can do it the right way with sustainability and ethics at the forefront of what we do. Rather than following in the (carbon) footprints of the global fast fashion giants who exploit the people who make our clothes, we could create truly transparent, integrated supply chains that value local skills and artisanal craft.  For too long the fashion industry has been city-centric, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As consumers, we have the power to demand more for our communities, and the important responsibility to support small businesses operating just around the corner.

This article is written by ethical and sustainable fashion writer Ruth MacGilp, check out her blog for more posts advocating for change in the fashion industry and follow her on Instagram for sustainable style inspiration.

The shopping ladies are illustrated by Susie Purvis whose prints can be purchased on Etsy or follow her on Instagram.

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