Fashion: keeping up with the latest trends, filling our wardrobes with bargain clothes we wear a few times with pride before a new style catches our eye. This is not just fashion – this is fast fashion, an industry which has grown internationally and exponentially over the past few decades. But all these cheap and cheerful clothes come at a cost. On the 24th of April 2013 as many as 1,134 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh when a factory collapsed, and another 2,500 were injured. That’s to say nothing of the thousands of family members who suffered the grief of these deaths and whose lives will never be the same again. This is not an isolated incident; it is estimated that over 800 people have died in factory fires within the last 12 months. Most of these tragedies go unreported and unnoticed by the western world, by the people who are driving the very industry that creates the demand for these factories.
In an attempt to raise awareness about these tragedies and the causes behind them, Fashion Revolution Week was born and runs from the 18th to the 24th of April. Encouraging consumers to ask ‘who made my clothes?’ and for brands to be ‘transparent’, the UK-based company believes they can create a fashion industry ‘where creativity, quality, environment and people are valued equally’. While events will be held across the world, most UK events are based in London and the south. However, there are also a few in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh on the 21st April (a pedal-powered screening of True Cost documentary and a pop-up future fashion market).
Fashion Revolution Day attempts to use the power of the consumers, as the people at the top of the chain, to encourage brands to be more honest and fair to their workers. Most of the time, however, brands like Topshop, H&M, Zara and Primark don’t even know who is making their clothes. The ‘Behind the Barcode’ report found that ‘out of the 219 biggest fashion brands, only half actually knew what factories their products were made in’. So where does the power and responsibility really lie in this vast and fast industry?
It’s the simple truth that high street fast fashion is responsible for a completely new attitude towards clothes. The fashion industry was always structured around four seasons a year, where designers would debut new styles which had been in the pipeline for months. Now we effectively have 52 seasons a year, with new designs coming out each week, and pressure is ramped up on the physical production of clothes.
Bethan Nadin, Fashion student at Gray’s School of Art, is currently on placement at a high end fashion firm in Mumbai. She says that working conditions are tough for the highly skilled embroiders she is working with. ‘They work 6 days a week here. And sometimes 7, and nights, just to meet designers’ demands – and the designers have no clue why it takes so long’. The workers get no credit or mention for their skill because, as Bethan says, ‘celebrities don’t want people knowing their clothes are made in India. Only the brand we make them for (the designer) will be known’.
In the 1960s, America made 95% of its own clothes. Today, that figure is 3%. America outsources production to third world countries, where the cost of living and therefore the cost of production – the wages of workers – are cheaper. Creating jobs is one positive point about the industry. Workers like those in Bangladesh or Mumbai are in need of jobs, and the garment industry can offer better conditions than some alternatives. A garment factory will provide base skills, economy and growth to a desperately impoverished area.
However, the pressure of fast fashion creates competition between factories. Every brand wants the lowest cost of production in order to get the lowest price on the high street. If one factory can’t make the clothes cheaply enough the brand will turn to another, meaning that factories are constantly competing for business, squeezing as much as they can out of their workers, and cutting wages and corners. This leads to disaster, as it did in April 2013.
Of course, there is also the environmental side to the fashion industry. Cotton production has become a huge, chemical-fuelled industry that, whilst generating economy, has also put strains on the land and the people who farm it. Most of the cotton we wear today is chemically engineered to be able to retain more chemicals and pesticides and resist failure. And once again, most of the production is outsourced to poorer countries. The Punjab region is the biggest producer of chemically engineered cotton in India and has suffered immensely for this title. Birth defects, cancers and mental illness are rife in the surrounding farming villages. One report stated that 70 to 80 children in every village suffer from mental retardation or physical handicaps. The villagers can’t afford treatment so have had to accept that their children will die.
You might be thinking by now that the supposed power of the consumer has very little real influence in such an extensive, and persuasive, industry. Natasha Cornall, online and social manager at Godiva Boutique, an independent retailer in Edinburgh, encourages people to rethink their attitude to fashion; ‘we want people to think about quality… walking down Princes Street, all you see are huge billboards advertising the latest and the newest alongside massive reductions. It just misleads us into thinking that clothing is something temporary’. She believes that ‘the industry as a whole is starting to understand that many consumers do care about transparency’ and that once people start to think about where their clothes came from, then the attitude of fast fashion will melt away and the problems of fashion production can be confronted.
When you are living on a student loan, when image means a lot, and when H&M and Topshop have just brought in the summer collection, it’s understandable not to think about the people in the production factories. Especially when it seems that every brand is outsourcing and nobody is sure who is being squeezed to give you that £4 crop top or those £7 jeans. That is why Fashion Revolution Week asks for transparency as the first step. But the hard truth might be that we simply need to stop taking fashion so lightly and cheaply, and perhaps invest in something that really reflects the hard work and cost which goes into it.
Image: Solidarity Center, Flickr