I recently made a YouTube video inspired by cleaning out my wardrobe. I love the video, I feel fun, upbeat and accessible. The dresses are pretty and they make me feel pretty. I feel like you can see me in the video. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I thought I would continue to make some fun clothing inspired videos, which are celebratory. In the second one I have played with editing more and infused more of my personality so I hope you have fun watching it:
Now, I don’t want to put a dampener on things, but, I feel like there are some important dimensions that are missed in these videos. I had some nice comments about them, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty, like I had to justify how one person can end up with so many clothes and describe how it isn’t wasteful. Fashion is an impactful industry and it is important that the consumer (us) asks (I’m sure these aren’t the only questions):
- Is it ethical?
- Is it greedy?
- Is it environmentally sustainable?
So I am going to take the opportunity to justify, but also figure out how I can do better, this issue is one that I feel really passionate about, and as I write it I realise that there is a lot to say, I will therefore split this into three posts and focus on environmental impact and material greed in the second and third posts respectively.
Just over a year ago the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1100 men women and children. The tragedy has been put down to poor safety conditions and it brought widescale attention to the labour issues faced by workers in the garment industry. I was shocked and saddened to think that purchases made by me and my peers collectively could have led almost directly to the death of so many people. Primark was one of the brands which came under fire for using the Rana Plaza factory. I, as someone who refuses to shop in Primark, felt slightly smug, before bringing myself back to earth, because so many high street brands use garment workers in the same conditions. I am wearing a T-shirt that cost me £2 from Gap, “Made in Cambodia”, is that likely to have come from factories with a high level of labour ethics? A quick google search says that it it unlikely, although Gap have been named as one of the worlds most ethical fashion brands in a report by the research institute Ethiosphere.
It is a poignant reflection that many of those working in the factory were adolescent migrant girls subject to bad pay and bad conditions, so similar, yet so far away from the same girls who are buying the cheap clothes from our high street. The reason we buy those clothes…. they are cheaper, they allow us to continue to feed our habit of keeping up with fashion which I discuss more in the final post in this series. However, even if we were willing to spend more to buy garments that are not made through the exploitation of others, where does it leave those currently employed in the garment industry in the developing world? The Guardian reports that approximately 4million people, most of whom are female, work in the garment industry in Bangladesh (it reportedly employs 12% of women between 15 and 30 in the country). If we don’t buy from them, the jobs disappear (however poor the conditions and pay), leaving many families without the ability to pay for food shelter and education, ripping away what might be the only opportunity for women to build better lives.
The Rana Plaza accident highlighted poor conditions for workers in garment factories, but we must also remember that there are human issues in other parts of the supply chain, such as exploitation of cotton pickers.
The ethics of the fashion industry is confusing, the reports are conflicting as to which brands are ethical, which “made in …..” labels we should look for. Whether we are supporting or hindering progress for women by supporting the garment industry in their country. The disaster has actually accelerated improvements in Bangladesh (although I think that we all agree that over 1000 people shouldn’t have to die so that our clothes are made in good conditions), and the industry has responded, with a number of big brands signing the Accord on Fire and Safety, for better conditions in garment factories.
As a consumer we have a responsibility to be aware of the conditions in which our clothes are made and make a conscious decision about our purchases. Buying clothes from Bangladesh, Cambodia, or other nations that have large garment industries can enable the workers, largely women, to become more empowered than they may be otherwise, because they are earning a wage for a skill that they have and supporting their families. But as consumers we have the power to influence and to ensure that safety and conditions are good. There are a few practical things that we can do:
- The Ethical Fashion Forum is the first port-of-call if you are interested in knowing more about where your purchases come from and how to shop more ethically. Nose around the website, they have a lot of data, information about brands. This is quite an industry focused website, and to be honest it can be quite overwhelming.
- Look for garments that have come from fair-trade cotton/raw materials.
- Support ethical retailers, the Ethical Fashion Forum gives links to a number of retailers who work ethically to produce their products, so next time you want something new, or you are buying a gift it might be nice to consider a more bespoke piece, perhaps from a brand that you might not have heard of before. For example, the sister of a friend of mine runs Nanukk, which makes beautiful printed scarves, the company is an ethically conscious brand. The Guardian’s fashion directory also has a list of ethical retailers.
- A very accessible book on ethical fashion is Green is the New Black by Tamsin Blanchard. A few years old now, this book is very practical and at the end suggests a letter that you can write to retailers if you are concerned/confused about their ethical practice. The chapters focus on different things you can do, from where you can sell your clothes, to tips for up-cycling your clothes and how to be less impactful in your everyday life.
- I thoroughly recommend the book “Half the Sky”. This book is not about fashion per-se but focuses on stories about the treatment of women in the developing world. At the end of the book and on the Half the Sky website there is a practical spin, regarding ways in which we can support women, particularly through micro-investments that enable women to start their own businesses. This has proved to be an effective way to develop communities. Half the Sky is actually so much more than just a book, it is a movement with loads of practical ways to get involved.
- Sign online petitions for better conditions for workers, there is currently one on Avaaz encouraging big brands to sign the Accord on Fire and Safety: http://www.avaaz.org/en/crushed_to_make_our_clothes_loc/
I hope that leaves you feeling empowered to do something. And don’t forget to read the next blog in this series.