We feel guilty and helpless in the face of sweatshop scandals – but as buyers, we have the power to change this
When people ask me why I work in fashion, I often find myself telling them that it’s because I’m interested in the way we, as humans, construct our identities. Fashion may be seen by some as frivolous, but at its most basic, it’s a means of communication – the clothes we wear project our personalities, our cultures, our likes and dislikes, our economic realities, music tastes and political views. Fashion speaks for us, and often we’re more than happy to let our clothes do the talking, whether we’re aware of it or not. A classic leather biker jacket, a headscarf, a shirt and tie, all are symbols that explain cultural ideas we understand – rebellion, religion, formality.
Fashion is intrinsic to self-expression, but it’s impossible to ignore the way that self-expression and our current age of rampant, dizzying consumerism are entangled. We’re told again and again that what we wear (and, therefore, what we buy) is the key to defining and thus empowering ourselves. Aspirational advertising and happy-go-lucky hashtags tempt us to align our sense of self with this brand or that one, equating our personalities with our purchasing power. How we clothe our bodies is a deeply personal, often individual exercise – and so when we pull items from the racks in brightly-lit stores full of constantly refreshed merchandise, or when things arrive on our doorsteps neatly packaged and wrapped in plastic and tissue, we rarely spare a thought to where they actually came from. How many hands touched that t-shirt before it made its way into yours?
Although we’re familiar with the idea that clothes tell stories – we tie memories up in our wardrobes, using garments as beloved markers in our lives – there are other stories our outifts tell, ones that we don’t want to hear. That t-shirt you last pulled from the rack and took to the till – did a seven-year-old girl, one of the millions of children employed under the radar in the fashion industry, pick the cotton that made it? Was it stitched by a woman who faces unsafe conditions and sexual harassment in the factory she works in 16 hours a day, for £25 a month? Or perhaps it was touched by the hands of a Cambodian garment worker, later shot dead by police for protesting over demands to raise the country’s minimum wage.
Of course, sweatshop scandals seem to hit the news week in week out, but once the initial feigned outrage subsides (as if we didn’t already know the drill), the truth is that the grim reality behind the origins of our clothes feels grotesque and remote. That remoteness is key. We can tolerate the idea of suffering when it’s abstract, removed from our own world – the closest we get to experiencing it is reading articles or watching a documentary like Andrew Morgan’s fantastic film The True Cost. Even when the impact of our shopping habits was brought sharply into focus with the death of over 1,100 people in the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, the tragedy still felt distant. When such horror isn’t happening in our cities, or to our families, it’s easy to detach ourselves from.
Yes, we know the facts – that the vast majority of garment workers are women, that the fashion industry is the second most polluting behind oil, that Brits alone have over £4.6bn of clothes sitting unworn in their wardrobes, and still, the cost that our self-expression comes at is somehow so easy to ignore. It’s understandable – we shut our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the things that make us uncomfortable, because to accept these realities is accepting that we are complicit in them. As consumers, we all buy high street clothes, hunting for the cheapest items – after all, for young people with tens of thousands of pounds in student loans, soaring rent costs and the idea of ever owning a home a distant, vague possibility, spending what money we have on higher cost options (which, let’s be honest, also aren’t necessarily off the hook) doesn’t feel like an alternative most of the time. It’s simply easier not to care, because we feel helpless, both in the face of our guilt and of a global industry as enormous and wide-reaching as fashion – like any action we take won’t make a real difference. Trust me, I get it – I'm one of those people too.
“Sweatshop scandals seem to hit the news week in week out, but the truth is that the grim reality behind the origins of our clothes feels grotesque and remote. We can tolerate the idea of suffering when it’s abstract, removed from our own world”
But we aren’t helpless, and the time has come to start caring. Last week, world-leading experts on fashion and sustainability, as well as heads of conglomerates and megabrands such as LVMH, Nike and H&M, came together in Copenhagen to discuss the state of the industry. The Business of Fashion’s Imran Amed stressed the urgency of these conversations, while Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic of The New York Times, discussed that how, for an industry obsessed with appearances, responsible fashion has an image problem. Fashion that doesn't exploit, endanger or oppress is just not sexy (except, perhaps, in the case of American Apparel, whose US garment workers are the highest paid in the world). Sustainability is waiting for its naked supermodel PETA moment, that smash hit pop culture campaign that makes it cool.
“Nothing will ever change (if) the business model of fast fashion stays as it is – producing huge volumes of clothes in incredibly fast cycles and very very cheaply,” implored Eco Age’s Livia Firth, who stressed the importance of systemic change and called for us to resist brand’s attempts to “addict us to an even crazier cycle of consumption.” Fashion companies need to radically rethink and restructure, but although some are keen to change, many won’t do it unless they feel their profits are on the line. That’s where we come in – we’ve been tricked into thinking there is no alternative, that the industry is set in its ways, that we have no choice but to buy cheap. But that’s not true. “You buy less, people will start making less,” asserted Friedman. “That doesn’t come from the brands, that comes from the buyers.”
And there are other options – as well as opting for ethical brands, we can buy vintage, or second hand (as well as eBay or Depop, there are sites like The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective). We can swap with friends. We can recycle our old clothes. We can have conversations, we can spread the word, we can ask brands to do better. And we can recognise that although the idea of an entirely eco-friendly wardrobe is probably unrealistic, maybe we just don’t need another t-shirt. Brands play a game with us, promising that if we buy their clothes, we’ll buy a better version of ourselves. But really, it’s us who have the power, and we have to demand better from them. “Every time you swipe your credit card, you are voting," said Fashion 4 Development’s Evie Evangelou at the summit, and it’s true. You can vote for the subjugation of women and children, you can vote for the pollution of the oceans, you can vote for a system that exploits people in far away places to sell us empowerment.
Or, you can vote for the future. So, who will it be?