Who made your clothes?
I recall the first time that I asked myself this question, as I stared at the tag on a shirt I had recently bought on sale; ‘Made in China’, it declared. For the first time in my twenty-three years of wearing clothing, I realised that this tag actually didn’t tell me all that much about who made my clothes. Who grew and picked the cotton to weave into fabric? Who sewed that fabric into a shirt I bought on sale – and paying far less than makes sense when you stop and think about each of the stages of making a single piece of clothing – which begged an even more pressing question: were the people who made my clothes paid a fair wage for doing so?
The savings we make from buying a cheap piece of clothing have to come from somewhere along the supply chain; paying workers a pittance for long hours and taking shortcuts on workplace health and safety. Cheap clothes are only cheap because they are made using cheap labour in undignified and sometimes dangerous conditions.
Cheap labour comes at an enormous human cost. Six months after I first questioned who made my clothes, a sub-standard garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on 24 April 2013 killed 1,134 garment workers who were producing cheap clothes for global fashion retailers, including Mango and Primark. Numerous brands plead ignorance and denied operating out of Rana Plaza – until their labels were unearthed in the rubble. Another 2,500 people were injured in the collapse. For many of the affected workers and their families, this meant losing their livelihoods and sliding deeper into the cycle of poverty.
We need change. We need a Fashion Revolution.
Fashion Revolution is a global campaign that calls on consumers to ask brands #whomademyclothes. Designed to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, Fashion Revolution aims to raise awareness of the true cost of fashion. Though Fashion Revolution is an opportunity to recognise the dark side of the fashion industry, it is also an opportunity to shine a light on the progress that we have already made. You only have to look at the growing list of ethical brands involved in creating a more sustainable and ethical future to know that change in the fashion industry is possible.
One such brand is the hat company, Pachacuti – the first World Fair Trade Organization. Creator of Pachacuti, Carry Somers, is also the brain behind the concept of Fashion Revolution.
But it’s not just ethical fashion pioneers like Carry who have a role to play in improving the ethics of the fashion industry. We consumers are incredibly powerful.
There exists an intricate relationship between companies and consumers. For companies, the natural tendency is to want to make a profit, which involves either selling clothing for more or making clothing for less. When we as consumers buy cheap clothing, we tacitly approve companies engaging cheap labour in order to make clothing for less – and thus profit more.
Conversely, companies depend on our purchases to turn a profit. And so a collective change in the habits of buyers will change the fashion industry for the better.
What about beyond Fashion Revolution Day?
As Anna Lappé so elegantly put it, ‘every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’ So why not use your purchases to support ethical brands that are creating positive, not negative, impacts on the planet and the people we share this planet with?
In the three years since the collapse of Rana Plaza, I have seen enormous change. The list of ethical brands is growing. The number of voices calling for change is growing. Ethical fashion is becoming the ‘buzzword’; even mainstream platforms are promoting it!
But it can be still daunting to change the way that you shop. Where do you start? The simple answer is to start where you are; whatever you need to replace next – be it a pair of jeans, a handbag, a scarf – look for an ethical alternative to the choices you would ordinarily make. There are some comprehensive, but no means exhaustive, ethical directories all over the Internet try using Good On You, Shop Ethical! or Good Guide to assess the products you would usually buy against environmental and social impact (all three websites also have apps that you can use when on the go).
Whether you choose to catalyse change in the fashion industry by using your money, using your voice, or both – commit to change. Even seemingly small steps, such as one social media post asking #whomademyclothes or one ethical purchase, all help to build a social movement for change. If enough of us slow down to ask #whomademyclothes and make more ethical shopping purchases (not just on Fashion Revolution Day or in Fashion Revolution Week, but all year) the fashion industry has no choice but to listen and respond. The result is a fairer world for us all – and isn’t that worth more than a $7 shirt that loses its shape after two washes?
This article first appeared on The Ethical Consumer, which is no longer operating, so I am republishing it here.