With the end of Fashion Revolution Week, you may have seen your social feeds questioning #WhoMadeYourClothes?, nodding to supply chain transparency— a question created after the collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh 4 years ago.
The collapse, which killed 1,133, injured 2,500, and left 800 children orphaned was the catalyst to take the subject of ethical fashion out of the pages of the liberal press and onto front page headlines. What was found?
Major American and European high street brands were made in the factory. Structural cracks were found the day before, and all were expected to evacuate. But pressure to complete orders led management to force workers back to work, at the expense of their salary. The 8 story building collapsed later the next day.
SO, WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?
When speaking about ethical fashion, the first question I get is what to do about it. Isn’t the ethical fashion industry expensive? Do we boycott fast fashion high street brands? Is ethical fashion the true answer? All these questions, and more, answered below.
IS ETHICAL FASHION THE ANSWER?
The response such tragedies like Rana Plaza is the ethical fashion industry (ethical and sustainable fashion are used interchangeably on this space), which a system which seeks to address the human and environmental impact of the fashion industry. Although conscious consumership is great, it’s not only the answer.
Here’s how to bring about a more holistic change:
As much as this space is devoted to highlighting brands that are rooted in social and environmental responsibility, consumption still contributes to a larger environmental footprint. Think about the shipping of your items overseas, to the water is takes to make that t-shirt.
But this doesn’t mean that conscious consumership is meaningless. The social enterprises that promote sustainable and ethical practices are the necessary response to the exploitative fast-fashion world, but mass consumption at larger is what each consumer, on an individual level, needs to consider.
Obviously, the world of Youtube hauls and questionably made $1.99 Forever 21 camis make this tough, but we need to rethink our relationship with consumption. This is where the idea of “slow consumption” comes in. The slow fashion ethos is a unified representation of all the “sustainable”, “eco”, “green”, and “ethical” fashion movements. It encourages education about the garment industry’s connection and impact on the environment and depleting resources, slowing of the supply chain to reduce the number of trends and seasons, to encourage quality production, and return greater value to garments removing the image of disposability of fashion. A key phrase repeatedly heard in reference to slow fashion is “quality over quantity”. This phrase is used to summarise the basic principles of slowing down the rate of clothing consumption by choosing garments that last longer.
Capitalism seeks to kill the goose that lays the golden egg; resources are limited, and our consumption patterns should address that.
SUPPORT ALTERNATIVE MARKETS.
Sustainable fashion labels have higher price points, yes. But sustainable fashion isn’t limited to that.
Cue the world of secondhand clothing.
Secondhand fashion is a great way to get affordable and quadruple-ethical and sustainable fashion: Your money is going to a charity or local business instead of a fast fashion company. No resources are being extracted to make your clothing. Nobody was exploited to get that fashion to you.
It’s probably local fashion, brought in by someone in the same neighborhood or city, so transportation emissions are low. You’re keeping something out of the landfill (an estimated 13 million tons of clothes are currently filling up our landfills).
An overwhelming majority of fast fashion is produced in sweatshops all around the world, and that’s no secret. Workers in Swaziland were exposed to toxic chemicals; preventable factory fires and collapses killed thousands in Bangladesh.
When confronted with this kind of information, the knee-jerk reaction is to boycott. I’ve experienced this first-hand countless times; when I introduce these horror-story realities to concerned students and consumers, the first solution they typically propose is to stop buying from these brands.
As much as support of ethical labels is important, I don’t think the H&Ms to Zaras of the world are going anywhere just yet.
The solution is internationally coordinated efforts to hold brands accountable and listen to what their workers need. Workers don’t need pity or charity; they need solidarity and allies who are willing to strategize with them about how to hold brands accountable. Survivors and families of survivors of the Rana Plaza tragedy are still waiting for apparel companies to be held accountable.
In 2008, Russell Athletics, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, shut down a factory called Jerzees de Honduras; after workers attempted to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement to combat sweatshop abuses. United Students Against Sweatshops, a student labor organization, ran a nationally coordinated campaign on college campuses demanding that universities sever ties with Russell unless the company agreed to negotiate with its workers. The campaign culminated in nearly 100 universities dropping Russell. In total, Russell lost tens of millions of dollars through strategic corporate campaigning, which resulted in a historic agreement between the company and its workers.
How can you get involved? If you’re a student, join (or start!) local chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops. If you’re not a student, or don’t have the time to devote a significant chunk of time to the movement (let alone sew your own clothes), there are many organizations out there that can match up with your personal ethics (the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, Avaaz, People and Planet, and Labour Behind the Label, to name a few).
Campaign organizations have calls to action all the time, whether that means signing a petition, making a phone call, donating a few dollars, or delivering a letter to a retail store.
At face value, conscious consumerism is an important step in responding to the current exploitation in our world today. But there’s a lot more we can do—that doesn’t involve a credit card.