We Should All Be Activists
by Yasmin Jones-Henry
The most beautiful thing about humanity – the most powerful thing about the human race is our ability to create. The power to fashion, refashion, regenerate, reform and revolutionise is something that only rises to the fore in times of crisis.
I’ll be honest, when I started this journey in 2016, I was a voracious reader of fashion magazines. In 2020, I haven’t bought a single one. Part of that is due to the fact I’ve been busy reconfiguring my own life, but mostly because, after the year that was 2019, I felt utterly exhausted. Knocking on doors, pitching to disinterested editors: the truth is, the ‘sustainability thing’ is just too much effort for some. They’d dial in now and then when a supermodel or celebrity figure was making a public statement about the climate crisis. They’d ride whatever hashtag was trending that day, and then drop it the next. Fickle business. Even more so, now that the COVID-19 crisis has set in motion a global pandemic, rolling in tandem with an economic and humanitarian crisis, the likes of which we have never seen before.
But as Milan fashion week AW20 drew to a close, and I kept scrolling through pictures and live feeds posted by face-mask wearing editors and influencers on the front row, I felt sick. More than that. I felt a storm brewing. How much longer will they keep getting on this out-dated carousel of mindless consumption? FYI: The global textiles industry and the fashion industry are one in the same. But for some unknown reason, most editors and mainstream publications think global textiles manufacturing is a less attractive topic to cover… so they don’t. The absence of global scrutiny and a lack of consumer awareness has resulted in the following…
The Elephant In The Room
This fundamental lack of character in challenging designers and big name brands is costing lives. The industry – has a serious problem that the fashionistas and editors keep circling, but won’t call out. Year after year, season after season, fashion week after fashion week, photoshoot after photoshoot, the churn and burn of textiles, depletion of natural resources and human suffering is blended into the fibres and the material mixes of the garments they fuss over. When the models are strutting down the runway, how many of those lined up to sit on the front row are asking questions about where the garments were made – and under what conditions? Would they dare to ask to visit the factories for their features? Or would they risk missing out on future invitations to industry parties if they asked too many questions? Did they enquire backstage after the shows, whether the seamstresses, the pattern cutters and the cotton farmers were paid at the very least a living wage?
It was disingenuous to lay all of the blame for fashion’s environmental impact and subsequent human cost at ‘fast fashion’s door’. The luxury sector is part of the same system. After the New Yorker reported in 2018, that in addition to the Chinese sweatshops and undocumented workers operating in Milan, Italian factories supplying many of the prestigious fashion houses were paying their Italian born female workers barely a Euro per coat – coats that retail at £3,000+ in the UK – with little or no representation from workers unions. The profit margins of these luxury conglomerates who look the other way, would more than enable a living wage – illustrating a much darker underbelly to the fashion industry that’s often bathed in expensive perfume and gold.
“Millions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh have been released from work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving them without income and without choice but to return to cramped homes in slums or villages, without resources to fight the pandemic or even with the basic ability to sustain their lives.” (Forbes, March 30th, 2020)
The textiles industry accounts for 80% of all the country’s exports. The immediate off-switch that’s been flicked by the West, as retailers shut down, and send their staff home – has had knock on effects – that consumers may not be aware of. But it’s not just the workers of Bangladesh. Does anyone know whether the designers operating out of Ethiopia, Turkey and Mauritius have any policies in place to safeguard the wellbeing of their garment workers in their supply chains? Has anyone bothered to ask?
Globalisation & Its Limitations
According to Fashion Revolution, this particular problem – highlights a devastating design flaw in the infrastructure of the global textiles manufacturing industry. As public spaces are closed (including clothing stores, factories and warehouses) – consumers around the world stay home (as they should) in a bid to flatten the curve and spread of the virus. However the knock on effect is the disruption of global trade as borders are closed. What follows is a cycle of cancellations as the global economic uncertainty, provokes firms to make mass redundancies, in some cases closing down altogether – resulting in the loss of jobs and income.
As the demand in the West for clothing falls off a cliff, Fashion Revolution asked the question: What happens to the people who made my clothes?
We already know that fashion is the second biggest driver of modern slavery. We already know most of these economic slaves are vulnerable women. We know that the fast fashion system has deliberately kept wages low, leaving these women and their families locked into a cycle of poverty, exploitation and abuse. So what happens to them?
Both Forbes and Fashion Revolution’s latest posts reveal that fashion brands are stopping payments for orders already in production. These brands are cancelling orders from their manufacturers and suppliers. As a result, manufacturers and suppliers are closing their doors and laying off workers. We know from January 2019’s protest on the streets of Dhaka and the subsequent blacklisting of workers that followed: that the governments don’t do enough to protect workers’ rights. But what’s more, they’re not doing enough to protect these now jobless workers from the virus and impacts.
The loss of their jobs and livelihoods – brings the fashion industry’s supply chain back under scrutiny, barely a year after the Environmental Audit Committee’s ‘Fixing Fashion’ Report was published. In this report, the UK’s Parliamentary Audit Committee noted extensively the extent to which British retailers and other European high street brands had built a sophisticated business model on the backs of countries like Bangladesh, China and India, where transparency over working conditions meant that the safety and wellbeing of workers in the supply chain was often overlooked.
We Should All Be Activists
We know the system is broken. Now it’s time to fix it.
This cultural reset that we’re all being forced to endure isn’t just Nature’s way of bringing us low and humbling our hubris in forgetting the vulnerability of our race. This is a genuine opportunity to repent of wrongdoing and reform and revolutionize the way we live, shop and do business. We are all responsible for the lifestyles we curate. If you haven’t already asked the question “Who Made My Clothes?” NOW is the time to pay attention.
While we’re adjusting to the quarantine lifestyle, take a moment to go through your wardrobe. Look at the labels, explore where the garments you cherish were made: then do some research. Find out what policies these brands have in place to safeguard the wellbeing of the garment workers in their supply chains. When you find out, come and tell me. I’d like to know.
Until Next Time Friends… stay well and keep safe
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