Who Made Your Clothes?
What you wear communicates something about you to the world—and for years my clothes were shouting, “Amanda doesn’t care if another woman is suffering, as long as she gets a bargain!”
Of course, that’s not what I thought they were saying when I bought them. But as I learned more about fast fashion and the garment workers the industry is built on, it rapidly became all I could think about when I opened my closet.
I first became aware of how problematic fast fashion is a couple of years ago as I watched the documentary The True Cost, which highlights how the industry is impacting our planet and its residents. (It’s on Netflix—definitely watch it if you can!)
As I watched I was completely horrified to see the conditions garment workers are subjected to. And I noticed that these people working long hours for miniscule wages in dangerous environments were predominantly women.
Wanting to learn more, I did some Googling and read some books.
Developing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and India are where most of the Western world’s clothing is made. In Bangladesh, around 85% of garment workers are young women. In China, most factory workers are teenage girls and young women aged 16–25.
As many of us now know many of these garment workers spend their days trying to reach unreasonably high output targets in high-risk factories. The compensation they receive for their long hours of work is barely enough to survive on, and they are severely punished, often physically, if they try to join a union or ask for more.
Essentially, impoverished women in developing countries are slaving away so that comparatively wealthy Westerners can pay $5.99 for a t-shirt. The wealthy, usually white men who own these fast fashion companies are getting richer and richer on the backs of poor women of colour.
A common justification made for this state of affairs is that the garment workers are choosing to work in these factories. They need jobs, and garment factories are their best option. But why is this an excuse to underpay and abuse them? It’s an incredibly exploitative mentality.
Almost every piece of writing about ethical fashion since 2013 talks about the devastating Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh—and this one is no different.
I was working the world shift in a newsroom when first reports of the collapse came in and I remember struggling to hold back tears as update after update came in, the death toll rising while anguished family members surrounded the rubble, waiting and hoping.
This tragedy sparked a conversation, and some positive changes have been made in the five years since. But while some things have improved in Bangladesh the problem has not gone away, and Bangladesh is just one of the countries producing the world’s clothing—many millions of people around the world work manufacturing apparel.
Fellow Makers, Fellow Women
How many of my fellow makers have ever felt like someone didn’t understand or appreciate the amount of time, effort and skill went into a handmade project? Mhmm. I see every hand in the air.
On a very grand scale, I think that’s partly what this is. People don’t appreciate the hands that make the clothes, the shoes, the accessories that they wear. This work, perhaps because making clothing has been women’s work since the beginning of history, is chronically undervalued.
Many people don’t even consider that people made these things. As Lucy Sielge writes in her book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, “Retailers, manufacturing brands and consumers have all become fantastically adept at divorcing fashion from the fact that it has been made by an army of living, breathing human beings.”
When someone doesn’t appreciate the effort you put into a craft, your feelings might be hurt. But lack of regard for the work of the garment workers who make our clothing has dire consequences.
“People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing,” Bangladeshi garment worker Shima Akhter says in The True Cost. “They only buy it and wear it. I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. I don’t want anyone wearing anything produced by our blood.”
The other thing that stands out to me is that most fast fashion brands are predominantly marketing and selling to women.
As women, we need to be supporting, empowering and advocating for our sisters in other parts of the world—not turning a blind eye to their suffering and supporting the companies that exploit them.
As Safia Minney, founder of ethical fashion brand People Tree, has said:
“For me, it’s always been the case that, as a woman that wants to consume fashion that suits me, it should be empowering of another woman, who made it—whether it’s picking the cotton or it’s weaving the fabric or embroidering it or tailoring it—that it really generates a huge level of added value for that community.”
But What Can We Actually Do?
I think this is the kind of problem that’s often brushed aside—not because we’re not horrified by it, but because we feel helpless. I mean, what can one person do change the way a $3 trillion industry operates?
Maybe more than you think. “We reshape the fashion industry, the lives of its workers, its suppliers, its resources, every time we buy or dispose of an item of clothing,” says Carry Somers, founder Fashion Revolution Week, which is just wrapping up for 2018.
Embracing minimalism and being an ethical shopper go hand in hand.
According to Greta Eagan, author of Wear No Evil, in the 1920s the average middle-class woman had nine outfits, which when you think about it should be plenty—there are only seven days in the week, after all.
Nowadays our wardrobes have little to do with necessity and much more to do with keeping up with trends. But with new apparel arriving in fast fashion stores at least once a week, nobody can possibly keep up, and our collective wardrobe is full to bursting… and so are our landfills. We have so little regard for the resources used to create an item of clothing and the hands that manufactured it that we’re tossing clothing we no longer wear in the garbage at startling rates.
You might be thinking, But I donate the clothes I don’t want anymore, so it’s ok. This is certainly how I used to feel. It turns out that on average only about 10% of the clothing we donate is actually sold locally. The rest is shipped off to developing countries, destroying their local apparel markets (and making people sick). And this clothing may still end up in landfill eventually, anyway.
So, abandon the idea that you can’t the same outfit twice, and embrace the idea of a simple, capsule wardrobe. Instead of making impulse purchases, only go shopping when there’s a specific thing you really need.
As Patagonia’s VP of environmental affairs Rick Ridgeway has said, “Without a reduction in consumption we don’t feel that we’ll really collectively find a solution to the problems we face.”
Many of us head to the mall when we need a new outfit for the Christmas party, but borrowing from or swapping with a friend is a wonderful alternative. Especially when you know you’re unlikely to wear the items again, loaning an outfit is a much more sustainable—and cost-effective—solution that means you’re not contributing to demand.
Make Your Own
There was a time when everyone knew who made their clothes because everyone made their own clothes. While this isn’t an option for everyone, if you’re crafty and know your way around a sewing machine, try making your own clothing!
I don’t sew particularly well (yet), but I bought a sewing machine a while ago so I could alter clothes I get at the thrift store (see below) to fit me better. It has been sitting in a box at my parents’ place for the past six months while I’ve been travelling, but I will be getting it back next month and I’m excited to attempt a skirt pattern I bought a while ago.
Of course, when making your own clothes it’s important to consider where the fabric and other materials you’re using came from. Who makes my craft supplies is something I’ve only recently started to think about, but you can bet you’ll be hearing more from me about it in future.
Shop Second Hand
It’s in everybody’s budget to look at a second-hand store or on a second-hand website before heading to the store to buy new. Many people discard clothing and other items that are practically new, meaning you can find many items in near-mint condition for a fraction of the price and without contributing to demand.
For children’s clothing especially, shopping second-hand is the way to go. Kids grow out of their clothing so fast, and so many thrift stores have rows upon rows of clothes for little ones in fantastic condition.
I admit that if you’re looking for a particular item it can sometimes be tricky to find exactly what you want second-hand, and finding clothing to fit your size and shape can be a challenge for some people. But you never know what you’ll come across, and it’s a great feeling when you do find a gem.
Additionally, if you’re a person who likes to go shopping for the experience and the idea of changing this habit is daunting, try going shopping at a thrift store instead. Maybe the thrill of finding a pre-loved treasure can replace the thrill of full-on retail therapy. Both are short-lived, but one is much cheaper and doesn’t negatively impact people and the planet.
Choose Quality Over Quantity
I know fast fashion is much more affordable in the short term, but if you can afford to spend the money up front (and I acknowledge that many people can’t) it typically works out cheaper to buy well-made quality items. One pair of quality shoes that lasts years will be less expensive than three or four pairs of poorly-made shoes that last a fraction of that time.
In addition to looking for quality, look for ethical fashion companies that prioritize workers’ rights and the environment. It is, of course, a privilege to be able to afford things like organic cotton underwear and Tencel t-shirts with a fair trade stamp of approval. If you can, great—and I’d argue you have a responsibility to do so.
But if not, you’re not helpless in this situation. Buying less, buying second-hand, and borrowing from/swapping with your friends are all ways of saving money as well as being a more conscious consumer.
And there’s something else you can do that’s free…
Ask Brands Who Made Their Clothes
Ask the brands you buy from about their supply chain, about the human beings who make their clothes and where they source their materials. Public pressure is the only thing that will make these companies change their ways. Reach out on social media or via email and ask #whomademyclothes?
I believe we have a responsibility to the people who make our clothes to demand better—to say we won’t tolerate the exploitation of garment workers, and then voting with our wallets to back that up. Our individual actions add up to a movement that will make a difference.
There are a number of other problematic aspects of the fashion industry in addition to the plight of garment workers. Learn more from the following resources:
- Fashion Revolution
- The Guardian—Rana Plaza five years on: Safety of workers hangs in balance in Bangladesh
- The Fashion Law—Five Years After Rana Plaza, Not All Brands Have Changed
- Wear No Evil by Greta Eagan
- To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle
- Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline
- Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics by Safia Minney
- Slave to Fashion by Safia Minney