An exploration of how to do fashion which is good for all…
I love ethical fashion. Often find me frequenting charity shops trying to source a good bargain. In fact, the other day a friend asked me if I was from a charity shop as it is so often my response if anyone likes my clothes to respond ‘Thanks! It’s from a charity shop!’ I seriously think I need to start expanding out my responses!
As a kid I went on a Primark boycott because I had heard about appalling conditions in sweat shops, but it was only recently that I really started looking into the human perspective of why ethical fashion is such a crucial movement.
To begin to understand the scope of the human impact of fashion I have a few facts:
It is so hard to put exact numbers on these situations as much of it is covered up. Slavery is illegal. Therefore, incidences are hidden, go unnoticed and are not recorded. Instead numbers must be more general figures but can still be helpful to gauge the patterns and significance of trafficking in fashion.
- The EU has large numbers of clothes imported from countries with high prevelances of modern slavery. Cambodia, for example, was fourth largest supplier of clothing to the European Union between 2015 and 2017 yet is 9th on the list of countries with highest estimated prevalence of modern slavery. The EU therefore activity imports clothing from countries where modern slavery is not being effectively challenged. Whilst rates of modern day slavery may be lower in EU countries, we can certainly not count ourselves as on the moral high ground as we purchase goods facilitated by the trafficking trade.
- Approximately 40 million people around the world are living in modern slavery and a report by the walk free foundation identified the fashion industry as the second biggest contributor to this situation
So, what do we do about it?
My gut reaction of an 8-year-old girl hearing about the atrocities and deciding to boycott one shop is probably not what I’d suggest has the best impact now. Consumers do indeed have a lot of power, but so often supply chains are mixed up and it is very rarely that there is only one primary, culpable retailer.
Particularly in the fashion industry where cotton growing often involved slaves (many of whom are children), slavery can be traced right through the production line and these lines often cross even between those brands that we would consider my ethical with those we may typically see as unjust. The price you pay in certain shops does not necessarily correlate directly to improved worker conditions and less trafficking impact.
Examples of slavery in the cotton industry for example, are clear in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan continues the practice of government-organized forced labour in the cotton fields, forcing its citizens including children as young as 10 to leave school and work long hours harvesting cotton. Uzbek parents who refuse face a fine equivalent to two weeks’ pay. In 2012 the state forced over 1 million of its citizens, including children, to harvest cotton in abusive conditions.
Many supply chains are therefore tainted, even if there is provision to prevent trafficking in the production of the clothing later, it can often be that a garment begins dependent upon the forced labour of millions.
Forced labour is still common in the factories too however, the alarming fact of which first alerted me and the horror of such as situation has continued to shock me ever since.
A particularly potent example of the horror of such situations is emphasised in the incident of a factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. In the event 134 people died when a factory collapsed. What is even more shocking is that inspection teams had discovered cracks in the structure of Rana Plaza on Tuesday. Shops and a bank branch on the lower floors immediately closed. But the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors ordered employees to work on Wednesday, despite the safety risks. The factory appears to have been producing garments for brands such as Mango and Primark.
The horrific disregard for the workers of the factory by the companies is disgusting. But this tragedy also highlights another key point about the governments response to worker conditions. Five months before, a fatal fire in Bangladesh lead to pledges from government officials and many global companies to tighten safety standards yet just 5 months later it appears that such promises were totally disregarded. If we are to see change in the fashion industry, we must not only campaign for policy change and increased regulation but must also hold officials and leaders accountable.
It almost seems impossible therefore to somehow find ethics admits the horrors in the fashion industry. However, there are things that we can do:
- Use our power as consumers: I mentioned earlier that maybe boycotting single brands isn’t the way forward. But being aware of where we shop certainly is. If we can use our consumer power to change the fashion industry, then this will involve us assessing our shopping habits. Buying second hand clothing is a great start. But is also important to not only take money away from irresponsible brands but to actively encourage those which are more ethical. Trying to seek out and buy clothes from such brands has a major impact. This may involve buying fewer but better clothes (yes, my mum would contest that I am suggesting that as I am not great at it myself!) But maybe it is something we should strive towards. More information of high street ethical fashion can be found on the ‘Good shopping guide.’
In order to remind us of the power of our pockets, treated right have printed several stickers for bank cards. They have ‘True cost’ on them to remind us to think of what the true cost of the products we purchase is. Please take them, think about your power as a consumer and give some to friends as well.
- Use our power as citizens: let’s demand that our government pays more attention to the issue of trafficking in the fashion industry. This can be through signing petitions or through speaking directly to advocates such as MPs. We must voice that this is an issue worth talking about.
- Use our power in communities: trafficking is an issue worth talking about! Let’s make it something we tell our friends about too and get them involved. The more people who are involved the more we can make a change. Invite people to events, send them links, get them involved. There are so many resources to learn more about and to share with others. The ethical unicorn blog posts are brilliant and Treated Right is running a series of blog posts this term on how our decisions as consumers have far reaching effects.
We don’t have to live in a world in which the clothes we wear are a reflection on the injustices around us. Let’s take a stand and make a change.
Written by Rebekah (Boo) Hinton