Feature image: Bill Brandt photography, 1959
Something has been weighing heavy on my heart of late.
It’s been brewing for a few years now, though to honest, it shames me to say that it’s something I’ve only become more actively conscious about recently. However, it is most definitely a case of better late than never. Before I begin to elucidate, I want to frame this in reality, what I’m about to highlight is a grave humanitarian issue. The issue is within the framework of the fashion industry, or more specifically the garment-making industry. Yet please don’t be turned off or fooled into thinking this is only a problem “fashion folk” should be aware of and actively trying to change. Unfortunately, most of us who have purchasing power and agency in deciding what clothes we put on our back, whether it be in a physical store or in the comfort of our sweats whilst on our laptops, have bought into a dangerous facade that “fast fashion” companies in particular are taking advantage of.
Those of you with access to a Netflix subscription, I strongly urge you to watch ‘The True Cost’ which is a wide-spanning, docu-film about much of what this post touches upon. The issues are vast and encompass so many areas, communities and aspects of the supply chain, so in order to not depress and overwhelm you entirely, I am going to try and distill some the major issues into key points.
If we go back to basics, clothing is really—as Orsola de Castro so aptly puts it—“our chosen skin”. I love that phrase, as it highlights how incredibly intimate our relationship with the fabric we drape over our bodies really is. Let’s rewind to the 1960s, when in the US alone (which is one of the most vastly consumer-led nations in the world) 95% of clothes bought in the USA were also made in the USA. Fast forward to 2016 and whilst inflation continues to raise the retail price of clothing, the vast majority of production and manufacturing for high street brands has been more cheaply outsourced to countries such as Bangladesh and China where wages are not enough for local citizens to live on, working conditions are inhumane and the overall quality of clothing has decreased rapidly as a result of larger and larger orders being required within increasingly shorter deadlines. I only have to look at clothes from my mum’s wardrobe to realise the vast discrepancy between quality and price from the high street equivalent brands of her day (which are still in impeccable condition and were made locally) to my Zara turtleneck which began to unravel at the neckline within a few months of purchase. This is in no way a reflection of the countries in which these clothes are made in and of themselves – I know firsthand that workmanship in India and Indonesia can be as impeccable as leatherwork from the tanneries of Italy – the issue lies in the speed, vastly widened profit margins and interests of big businesses maligning production costs (synthetic materials are significantly cheaper than natural fibres), high volume of production and paying minimal regard to safety measures in the factories in which said clothes are being produced. The evidence and resources supporting these claims are so vast and alas this is not a thesis, but if you are interested in seeing my sources please see more at the end of this post.
What is the true cost of that T-shirt, even if it’s not cheap; where are those tremendous profit margins being reaped and what are they sowing?
One of the most shocking and sickening manifestations of the result of this toxic supply chain that many household names are unfortunately a part of was the disaster that occurred at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh back in 2013. An 8-storey building housing garment factories collapsed, crushing and killing 1,130 people in all of 90 seconds. The most depressing aspect of this senseless tragedy is that the cracks in the building were obvious to all months prior, including the factory owners (38 of whom have been formally charged with murder) and yet no executive decision had been made to close the factory as the consensus was that they couldn’t afford to be out of business for the duration of repair work or whilst sourcing a new space to work. This pressure came from the executives placing mass orders for clothing at an increasingly breakneck speed from well known international conglomerates (Inditex owner of Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti etc., Primark, Benneton, J.C Penney to name but a few) and the threat that if the chosen factory doesn’t produce the work, they are dispensable and the brand will find a cheaper manufacturer, willing to do the work for less either in another country, or a direct internal competitor. As someone who works in the fashion industry, and knows full well the amount of excess and commercial viability the industry possesses, these realities are heartbreaking and the reasoning behind them unconvincing. There is a better way of doing business and I am optimistic that the majority of my friends and family would not feel comfortable purchasing clothing which has been made with literal blood, sweat and generational tears behind it. As much as I like scoring a bargain as much as the next person, the human cost behind that £20 dress more than justifies me not buying into such a toxic business model anymore.
Image via Reformation: a mid-range and pretty chic clothing brand founded upon principles of environmental, ethical and aesthetic goodness
For some commercial perspective, the fashion industry is currently worth 3 trillion dollars globally. Marketing is a very powerful thing, especially in fashion where aesthetics are at the forefront of everything no matter the price point. It is fantasy in many ways but at no juncture should fantasy come at the cost of human dignity, life and basic rights. The entire industry thrives on fantasy and beauty from high street to haute couture yet the vast difference between the two ends of the spectrum is that one pays fair wages to employees in their ateliers and has a much more transparent supply chain (though the environmental cost is still an issue) whilst the other thrives on consumer ignorance, murky practices in countries where they treat workers as sub-human and relies upon each buyer to keep voting with their wallet to maintain these practices and uphold them as acceptable. Here are some facts to put things in perspective on a global scale and proving that this is far from an esoteric issue:
– 1 in 6 people in the world currently work within the fashion industry
– 85% of people working in the garment-making sector of the industry are women and a vast majority of them have experienced physical and verbal abuse when trying to lobby for fairer working conditions or form unions
– There are 36 million garment factory workers in the world
– The fashion industry is the most labour-dependent industry in the world, essentially, if these workers were not producing clothes en masse for us to buy in H&M, Topshop and so on, those employed in more developed countries would be out of jobs, the boardroom would be making a lot less and overall profits would slump
– Just behind the oil industry, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world (this one floored me in particular)
We all have agency when it comes to our chosen skin. The vast majority of those reading this will actively choose and decide what we clothe our bodies in. This isn’t in any way a lecture, we are all to varying extents unaware and uneducated regarding these issues. There are arguments and sources which try to push forward the idea that ultimately these jobs within sweatshops are better than no jobs at all and that big companies are providing an economic boost to developing countries. These points have elements of truth, but the whole story is that a fairer, living standard wage can and should be given to employees of any company, no matter the economic climate of the country in question and that human rights should never be compromised. Said companies that are making humongous profit margins are squeezing pennies and cents from the wages and making health and safety compromises which negatively impact those in the most vulnerable position in the supply chain.
Shima and her daughter Nadia on ‘The True Cost’
One story featured on ‘The True Cost’ which really affected me was that of a 23 year old Bangladeshi woman named Shima Aktar. The film came out in 2015, so at the time there was but a year between us in age which made her story particularly poignant for me, she was a mother who only got to see her daughter twice a year as she worked in one of Dhaka’s garment factories (an unsafe place to be with a child due to the crazy heat and chemicals inside and she also had no one to look after her child when she was working in the city). She made the difficult choice to leave her daughter with her family back in her home village for the majority of the year, only getting to see her when she can afford to. She spoke about how she hoped for a better life for her daughter, one where her blood was not used for the profit of others and where she would be able to be educated in order to break out of the life cycle of poverty which she was born into; she had been so dignified and eloquent throughout the entirety of the documentary but at this point her voice broke and she was crying for her daughter’s destiny. Unfortunately without being paid a decent living wage, saving enough to give her daughter what she needs for a better life is almost an impossibility. Her story was not an anomaly but a norm for the women who make up the majority of the garment-making workforce. As a human, as a woman, as a feminist—these realities deeply depress me.
We cannot justify pure economic gain at the expense of human life and being complicit in modern day slavery.
Another devastating account was that of a local doctor in Kanpur in north India where the demand for cheap leather production has polluted the river Ganges to a fatal extent. The chemicals used to make leather were not being disposed of properly (cleaning water can be expensive and the equipment needed to do so had not been invested in by the companies commissioning the production of the leather) so they were running into the river that the surrounding community uses for agricultural purposes, to bathe and even to drink from. The doctor noted that the amount of skin diseases and illnesses related to the polluted water had risen dramatically and that many people were using their savings on medicine to treat diseases that were a direct result of the pollution. The question to ask is at what cost do we buy things cheaply? Ultimately, human economy is linked to that of the earth, especially in an industry that relies on physical resources. The A21 campaign, an anti-human trafficking charity founded by the amazing Christine Caine fights against modern day slavery (which is more prevalent now than any other time in human history, a shocking fact in itself); the fast-fashion sector of the industry is also a purveyor of modern day slavery and it is up to us whether we participate in its growth or revolution.
Disconcertingly, sometimes governments of the countries where cheap apparel production is prevalent are involved with maintaining low wages for the factory workers as they are desperate for the business of MNCs. One incident in Cambodia involving a peaceful protest for a monthly living wage equivalent to $160 USD (a standard set by the Cambodian government themselves) resulted in authorities inflicting violent treatment on the protestors and the loss of five lives. The reason governments sometimes actively work against the interests of their own citizens is that the threat of MNCs moving their business elsewhere is breathing down their necks and therefore in the toss up between overall economic growth and the livelihoods of female labourers, capital wins out over humanity. This is not a criticism of aforementioned governments but more a reflection on taking note of what we are governed by; let’s all reflect a little bit more, know the alternatives and question our own motives before buying into a system and companies that do not uphold or work for the good of what we value.
Think twice, be more curious, be more conscious.
On a personal level, I have made a decision not to invest my money or lend support to companies that make profit off the back of cheap female labour. I will not pretend that it will be without challenge, but I equally cannot be a proud part of a global sisterhood and call myself a feminist without following through with my actions. I may now live in London, but Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and China are not geographically far from Malaysia and Singapore where I just spent the last few years of my life. We are all neighbours and it’s a realisation that these issues are not far removed or an impossibility to combat that fuels the battle for change. The problem is great and the field is vast, however I do believe that we can all be the change we hope for. I love what Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age and The Green Carpet Challenge (and yes, wife of Colin Firth) has to say about the matter: that we must be the architecture of the change we dream about. Change in reality begins with a psychological shift, being motivated by guilt is nowhere near as powerful or productive as being motivated by awareness and the realisation that we are empowered to vote with our wallets. Fashion is an art form and involves creative work, it should not incite life-threatening labour or desensitise us to human life being lost in the course of a working day (a recent fatal fire in an Indian garment factory reiterates the reality that these tragedies are not unusual). We can all be involved in asking questions of the brands we have bought into and ultimately as consumers we are the fuel the industry needs to continue to flourish, the power is very much in our hands. Myself and some good girlfriends have been thinking about what it means to be found in our field of life, our sphere of influence recently, and it has made me mediate more deeply on what we as individuals are sowing into literally with the money we spend, and in turn who/which companies and at what cost are those inordinate profit margins being reaped? On that note, the next chapter shall be about the positive steps and alternative companies, business models and psychology of consumption that we can be invested in.
For now, I’ll leave you with resources and companies that inspire and educate me on a daily basis! Let’s think twice, be more conscious and stay curious about where we invest ourselves, our time and so on.
All love, always
I love the Instagram account @fash_rev for illuminating the human face behind the brands that make our clothes. They get followers to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes? To make companies be more accountable and spotlight the hands behind your wardrobe.
The Fashion Revolution’s white paper is key (though lengthy) for those interested in the mechanics and factual evidence behind this post: http://fashionrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/FashRev_Whitepaper_Dec2015_screen.pdf
The True Cost documentary site (available to watch on Netflix): http://truecostmovie.com/
“The True Cost” on Netflix
Reporting on the Rana Plaza disaster: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/23/rana-plaza-factory-collapse-history-cities-50-buildings
Forbes piece highlighting the companies involved in the Rana Plaza case: https://goo.gl/ZOs1JS and follow-up on companies that donated compensation to the affected families: https://cleanclothes.org/safety/ranaplaza/who-needs-to-pay-up
South China Morning Post report on the state of garment factory wages: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1970431/true-cost-your-cheap-clothes-slave-wages-bangladesh-factory
Reporting on the Cambodian factory workers strike: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/11/cambodian-garment-workers-rise-up-and-face-a-crackdown.html
Global fashion industry stats: https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics