Fashion is the second largest industry after oil, employing 1 in 6 people in the world. The journey from the field to the store is a complex web, with the value chain crisscrossing the globe. Chances are high most of the clothing you own was made by women.
It may appear to be a seamless process, after all the speediness of Fast Fashion is captured in its name, but what is the true story?
It doesn’t matter whether you are pregnant or not—whether you are sick or not—you have to sit and work. If you take a break, the work piles up on the machine and the supervisor will come and shout. And if [a pregnant] worker is seen as working “slowly” then her contract will not be renewed.
—Human Rights Watch interview with Po Pov (pseudonym), worker, factory 3, Phnom Penh, November 22, 2013
Up until the 1960s America was making 95 per cent of their own clothing, today they only make 3 per cent – the rest is outsourced to places with cheaper labour. Most of which is performed by women; underpaid and overworked women. In Bangladesh, some four million people are employed in garment factories, over 85% are women. The minimum wage is less than $3/day. The conditions are unsafe and have proved fatal.
In 2013, 1129 garment workers lost their lives when the factory they were working in Rana Plaza, Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed. Following the widespread media coverage of the tragedy, there were calls for the industry to become transparent about its labor practices. Despite this, the year following the disaster was the industry’s most profitable ever. The pace of fashion is not only unrelenting, it is getting faster.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) have carried out several research projects recording the stories of the people working in garment factories. In 2013 HRW spent several weeks in Cambodia interviewing garment workers. The report is a frightening and necessary read. It is almost impossible for me to imagine living in conditions experienced by these women. This is why it is important that their stories, their words, be recorded:
A worker in my team wanted to leave early. We have to do overtime work till 9 p.m. every day. She had her period and had severe cramps and so requested that she will do overtime work only till 6 p.m. They shouted at her and said they would reduce $7 from her wages and not renew her contract. So she didn’t leave and continued to work.
—Human Rights Watch interview with Kong Chantha (pseudonym), worker, factory 9, Phnom Penh, November 30, 2013
Before reading the HRW report, I hadn’t thought about the faces behind fast fashion. The women and children. Their stories have been deliberately shrouded in secrecy. We all know that fast fashion exists, I have definitely bragged about ‘bargains’ I have gotten. I did not calculate the blood, sweat and tears that went into making these clothes.
Recently I moved house. For the third time in two years. Each move I decluttered and made greater strides towards minimalism. Turfing stuff that offered little to my life.
This time before I started packing I imagined myself going about the task with slow, gentle deliberation. I would gracefully tape up boxes clearly labelled and structurally sound. I figured that by now I would be good at it, skilled even.
Then I started going through my clothes, holding them up and asking myself a series of questions. Had I worn it recently or at all? How did the clothing make me feel? How did it fit? Did it go with anything else?
I was enjoying the process; I had a G&T, music playing and time to pack. I was basking in the glow of self-congratulations. Then I looked at the pile of clothes that I was going to donate or throw away. It was hefty. It filled two large bags. Each overflowing; it should’ve been three bags really. How could this be? I had already culled my wardrobe only a short while ago.My smugness was replaced by sheepishness than I swiftly sunk into a sick feeling of guilt. I had spent more time thinking about each garment in the comfort of my soon-to-be no longer home, than I did in the store. The backwardness of this decision-making smacked of silliness and delay, of a lack of care and consideration. I had already taken these things into my life, only to get rid of them.
I thought about the environment: the earth marred with cuts from bulldozers. Reshaped landscapes crammed with polyester blends, zips and buttons.
After a few moments, I continued to pack up my books, cutlery and linen; resuming the busyness of my life.
The growth of the fashion industry is unprecedented. We currently buy 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year. Fast fashion has allowed consumer behaviour to shift from buying for 4 seasons a year to 52. A report released to coincide with the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit uses economic arguments to justify the profitability of fashion, ‘In the past decade, the global fashion industry has been an engine for global development.’ Women are the silent workhorses pulling the industry along. Behind each label is a human life. Our clothes are made by the most vulnerable and worst paid people in society, this is something that is not captured in the cost of fashion.
How have we gotten into this mess? Several prominent economists in the documentary ‘The True Cost’ point towards the structure of capitalism. Companies and countries are driven by profit. The primary measure of the health of a country’s economy is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP only accounts for all the goods and services produced, it does not account for the costs associated with making the product. It does not account for the human capital used to produce fast fashion. The physical, emotional and financial cost endured by these women is being left out of the equation.
Currently the industry is meant to comply with voluntary codes of conduct. There is little intervention by government. The Transparency Pledge calls for business to publish the names and addresses of factories in their supply chain. It is an important step in calling the industry to accountability. However, the choice to be transparent is still in the hands of clothing brands. Some brands are refusing to sign, arguing that they are uncertain of the financial implications of transparency. Many prefer to keep their value chain, hidden, entangling and silencing women in the process.
The fashion industry is enormous. We fuel it. We have been fortunate to have voices as the women before us have fought for us. We need to do the same. There are women that we can fight for, who we need to fight for. Fast fashion is a feminist issue. It is a global crisis. The social impact of fashion needs to be scrutinized and held to account. The true cost of fashion needs to be counted.
We can start on an individual level. Our decisions can either help or hinder the human rights of millions of women. We cast our vote every time we buy something. Since being confronted with my wardrobe, I have made a few realizations: I am a sucker for striped shirts, I’m hopeless at buying pants that fit well, and the colour orange really doesn’t suit me. Just admitting these things to myself has clarified the blind spots in my shopping habits.
Doing regular wardrobe inspections isn’t a new idea, but it is a good idea. I’ve started following Project 333, a minimalist fashion challenge encourages people to dress with 33 items or less for three months. There is something about having a set number to strive for that is appealing and will hopefully keep me accountable as the days turn into weeks.
That said, I will need to buy clothes at some point. There is no escaping our need to engage with the industry. Unfortunately, even the most motivated consumer will have difficulty determining whether their clothes are made using ethical processes. The industry are deliberately keeping this information opaque. We can help push for transparency in the value chain. Oxfam Australia have an online petition that you can sign: End sweatshops now.
The petition is calling for well-known Australian brands to commit to transparency in their value chain. It also calls for independent audits of factories to ensure that they are compiling with the UN human rights convention. Please share the petition with your friends and family. It is not a meaningless gesture; we can influence change. Nike and Adidas began disclosing the names and addresses of their factories in the late 1990s as a direct result of a campaign led by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).
Change is possible; we can scrutinize our own behaviours, as well as help spread the voices of the most vulnerable and at risk in society.
Image: Parker Burchfield
Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.