Fashion: n. A manner of doing something.
Fashion. An art form. A method of self-expression. A symphony of colour; a cacophony of character; a freedom of choice.
Every morning, we are faced with a small but meaningful decision. What will I wear today? That choice is often affected by limitations of our daily activities. Workplaces have standards, fitness centres have expectations, our social activities come with unwritten clothing requirements. We can all admit to days where clothing is a cumbersome necessity and the choice is for the nearest clean (or semi-clean) garment. The question we rarely ask ourselves in a haze of morning fatigue is, "where do my clothes come from?"
Fashion. If you put on a sepia filter, it was once an industry focused on a love affair with materials being crafted into masterpieces. Tailors would source fine fabrics from the best of suppliers. Those with the means would spend hours sifting through the sensations of materials, the colours and the weight to choose what would best suit the designs they had been dreaming up for weeks or years. A tailor would craft that fabric based on how it spoke to them. And with hard work and determination, a piece of clothing would become a living creature in the right hands. Carefully placed stitches would suspend the fabric at the finest of angles. It would shimmer and flow, breathing in the wind and billowing in the most seductive of ways. It would highlight the wearer's best features while hiding away their insecurities. Fashion was an expression of who we could be. Fashion is aspirational.
Fashion. In the early 20th century, individuals revolutionised the fashion industry. Where once haute couture had been the domain of only the richest families, the prêt-à-porter movement gave the growing middle class access to wearable art that was functional, comfortable and stylish. It opened the doors to a new era of garment craft. And, with these early steps began the era of sweatshops, factory-made goods and mass production. Where once buyers would select the perfect fabric and craft a garment, fashion became about visiting a store filled with desirable goods to flick through, eagerly experiencing a tactile intoxication.
The industry changed. Where tailors were once almost exclusively men, the garment workers were mostly female with male supervisors. In the tenements of New York City, new immigrants with little understanding of laws around safe working conditions or adequate wages took any job they could get. And, as is true today, their lack of knowledge and language barrier left them to be exploited by groups who knew there would be little retribution.
As time progressed, attic-style factories in the poorer areas of the city turned into large factories in distant suburbs. And, as the industry became larger and the wheels turned faster, local production moved off-shore to decrease the raw cost to companies while increasing the speed of seasonal fashion and the profits in the growing pockets of the executives. There were more options to sift through in the stores and the shopping experience became increasingly addictive. Because it is impossible to keep up with the variety of fabrics, colours and styles available, there is always more to want, to need, to desire.
Where once fashion could express the whole story of the garment, our daily choice of clothing now reflects only the most superficial aspect of our attire. We ask ourselves the status of our brands - are they cool enough? We ask ourselves if the colour suits our eyes or the current seasonal trends. And it's almost impossible to know who made my clothes.
I grew up in a household that both valued the bottom dollar and the source of production. I have strong memories of driving past factories with the Australian Made logo and being told about an industry that gave back to our economy. I remember long treks to find locally-made products when we went shopping. But I also remember the increasing difficulty of finding anything produced in the country. Where once we could buy Australian-made underwear, that company shipped their production offshore to save costs with no change to our purchasing price. Where there used to be stores that proudly wore their home-grown badges in the front window, they went belly-up and our purchasing dollars had to find alternatives. All of the sudden there was a dearth of information on the origins of our daily accoutrements and a sense of unease at what suffering a wore daily.
My first proper job was in a jeans and fashion store. At first, it was exciting to see the new stock and the progress of colour and fabric with the seasons. As time went on, I became revolted by the amount of waste. There would be new stock every three weeks, three-quarters of which appealed to absolutely no-one and would find itself on the markdown rack in no time at all. Without fail, a great deal of these ugly numbers would find themselves off to the outlets and, eventually, most likely to landfill. We would unpack new stock each day, arriving in massive boxes of individually plastic-wrapped garments. The plastic was not recyclable. And with a growing sense of dread, I would take our rubbish out every day. All I could see was waste. Customers coming in and spending hundreds of dollars each quarter to replenish a wardrobe with objects that served only the addiction to shopping without solving their inner self-doubt. And then, one day, we did stocktake. The stocktake list opened my eyes to the net cost of each product. Where consumers might pay $100 for a pair of jeans, the cost to the company was pennies to the dollar. Which could only mean those who worked before me in the supply chain were paid pennies to the dollar of each penny in the dollar. They, I knew, were only getting paid a pittance. And who they were was not even clear. Who were these people who came before me, the bubbly yet scientifically-inclined sales assistant?
Working in retail only increased my resolve to buy locally made. I found a few women's brands that proudly supported our local economy. Expensive though they may have been, I had a sense of trust that the workers who made them would have been less exploited than the unknown, invisible folk who supported claims of "made in China" or "made in Bangladesh." And yet, that's only half the story.
The waters of garment production and supply become very quickly murky. Large swaths of clothes arrive in shipping yards with only a vague history of their origin. Many companies subcontract out their Australian-designed manufacturing processes, obfuscating the responsibility of their origins. Because before a garment is packed in a plastic bag and into a box for shipping to your local store, it's folded neatly, sewn precisely, cut to size, shipped in rolls of fabric, woven from raw materials and, initially, grown from the earth or harvested from petroleum by-products.
I used to think buying locally-made would ensure the people behind my products would have a fair wage and reasonable working conditions. A tea break, paid overtime and safety in the workplace. I used to think if I bought products made in the developed world I could ensure that same level of smugness about my purchasing power. I could shake off that feeling of guilt for wearing something beautiful with a dark past. But it turns out you can't. While the Australian textiles industry (a rapidly shrinking beast) may have closer scrutiny on working conditions than many other countries (read this about the US production line), the fabrics are rarely sourced locally. To be fair, many fabrics aren't produced on our shores. The sad fact is that while buying locally can reduce the burden of suffering to the manufacturing staff, the raw materials are often sourced beyond our shores.
The answer can't be to buy solely locally-produced garments. Firstly, because that's nigh on impossible. Secondly, because even though the fashion industry may be ethically broken, it still supports an incredibly vast population. Bangladesh's export economy is almost wholly fashion with 79% of their total exports coming from the industry. If you stopped buying garments made in Bangladesh, you're making a choice between a nation having an economy and not having one. You're making a choice between workers having poor working conditions with a job that barely makes ends meet, and not having a job at all. That's a pretty big ethical decision to make when all you want is a t-shirt.
Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to making ethically sound purchasing decisions. If you were looking for free-range eggs that provide good quality of life for chickens, you could feel pretty safe in a decision to buy the most expensive free-range eggs on the shelf. The relationship tends to be linear, even if free-range guidelines are malleable and disappointingly easy to abide by at the expense of good lives for chickens. On the other hand, big-name fashion houses have exceptionally opaque production lines with poor histories of worker safety. A $5 handbag may have no less ethical production than a branded $5000 one that brings you plenty of envious glances at the mall. Sales assistants at bricks and mortar stores can't give you information on the origins of their products because they aren't privy to that information; online stores don't give you a way to find out and even head office phone calls mightn't help because companies remain ignorant to their own ethical responsibilities. In many ways, it's an industry that buries its head in the sand to avoid questions that bring about only guilty consciences.
Factory workers are still largely women, for the most part poorly- or not-at-all educated with little understanding or knowledge of the rights they are entitled to at work. A great number of countries responsible for production of our everyday attire pay workers only a portion of the wages required to make ends meet even in slums. And huge numbers of children miss out on an education every day to help their families in putting food on the proverbial table. Which, of course, only reinforces the cycle of poorly educated textile workers. When the staff are largely female or children, the exploitation is not only financial. And with no other skillset and in countries where sexism or assault can be easily masked or even condoned, the avenues for support are often closed.
Our drive for the best bottom dollar and the huge competition in the fashion industry pushes companies to squeeze costs wherever possible. Wages in our own country are governed by awards, material costs are increasing and the only way to keep the burden on your credit card at a minimum is to put pressure on manufacturing contracts to maintain or decrease their costs. Which means the workers get year-on-year less by way of inflation or less by actual in-pocket currency.
The damage, unfortunately, does not stop there. To reduce costs of dye recycling, plenty of toxic chemicals flood into waterways each day. Masses of pre- and post-production materials make it to landfill. And the more unnecessary clothing you purchase, the more you contribute to that waste. Even more distressingly, your kindly donated second-hand garments are on-sold for reduced cost to developing nations where retail stores are reselling your hardly-worn pieces. This undersells locally produced and culturally significant pieces as locals recognise they too can save a pretty penny by buying Western fashion. As local milliners and seamstresses lose business, they too are forced to find alternative employment. A century- or millennium-long tradition of culturally-significant garments is lost to a sea of fast fashion influence that clogs up waterways and kills local fauna and flora.
It's a bleak picture drawn from a vibrant retail experience.
It can feel impossible to make a difference in an industry that is so opaque. But it's not. You are the consumer. And your questions must be answered by retailers. Pressure on the industry will make change. The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse brought the industry's dark reality to the fore. And a revolution, small at first, was born. A number of mainstream brands have made huge efforts to reduce slavery in their production lines. They've gone to great lengths to ensure safe working conditions and adequate wages for those people who make the things you wear. Increasingly, these brands are being pushed to consider the environmental impact of their lines. And, excitingly, Adidas is even trying to produce a shoe made entirely of sea-trawled waste. Three-dimensional printing brings a world of possibility for reducing waste as garments could literally be made to order. These revolutions could still support developing economies with production off-shore. With technological advances, dyes can be re-structured for biodegradability or captured for processing to less toxic materials. Renewable energies can supply factories with power instead of relying on the grid.
But change will only happen if you ask for it. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Will you be the sort of person who asks #whomademyclothes or will you turn a blind eye?
Be the change you want to see in the world.
Facts sources from:
Fashion Revolution - How to Be a Fashion Revolutionary
Fashion Revolution - White Paper 2015
International Labor Organisation - Wages and Working Hours in the Textiles, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industries
Émile Zola - Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise)