Who Made My Clothes?
Who made my clothes? ... To be honest, a lot of the time I really didn't think about it. I felt that I was doing a good job by keeping my clothes buying to a minimum and checking out charity shops first before heading to a mainstream store or going online.
The closest I got to figuring out who made my clothes was reading the "made in…" label... but then I joined a Future Learn course that showed me that the label only tells part of the story.
Sharon Weekley is part of the Estates Green Impact Team and is exploring ethical fashion this month.
Future Learn, for anyone who hasn't come across it yet, is a platform for online learning. It hosts free courses from universities all over the world (including UEA) that are open to anyone who wants to sign up and try them out. From science, medicine and technology to management, Shakespeare and sustainability, they cover a wide spectrum of interests and, as I said, they're all free unless you want to buy a certificate at the end.
At the end of June, I signed up to the three-week programme offered by the University of Exeter. The adverts said it was being taught by educators from Exeter in conjunction with members of Fashion Revolution, a global movement who said they wanted to make people think differently about what they wear. I'd heard the name before on social media and I knew that they held fashion events every year but that was about it. I'd completed courses from Exeter before, though, and enjoyed them so I looked forward to it. The three weeks of the course were organised around three core concepts: 'Be Curious', 'Find Out', and 'Do Something'. I was going into it as a totally blank slate and the course assumed you had no background in fashion or pre-conceived notions so it was perfect for me!
'Be Curious' ended up being the hardest week for me. Not because I had to fit it in around work, or because of the course load, but because in explaining who Fashion Revolution are, and why they exist, I finally had to confront something I'd been happy knowing little about, namely the Rana Plaza factory collapse. At the time, I'd been vaguely aware that there had been a disaster, that it involved people who made clothes for fast fashion and that some people had died, but I don’t read the news and it happened four years ago so I’d had no reason to recall it. Suddenly there were pictures of collapsed concrete, and crushed human bodies, and videos of crying families, and it brought it home to me that at some point I may have worn something made in that factory by one of the 1,138 people who died and I hadn’t even cared enough to think about them.
That was my first, visceral, reaction, but as the educators and Fashion Revolution explained, guilt won’t change anything, won’t bring those people back, and won’t encourage positive change in fashion. You have to get past that initial gut reaction and use it as motivation to keep going, go deeper into learning who makes your clothes and how your decisions affect their lives. As part of the 'Be Curious' week 1, everyone was asked to pick a piece of clothing to investigate further, and week two’s 'Find Out', took you into researching not just who made the final product, but where the materials came from, what processes were used (many of them toxic), and how workers are treated all the way through the supply chain. It is mind-boggling to consider exactly how many pairs of hands have touched the clothes you’re wearing now, from farmers and pickers, to dyers, metalworkers, and machinists, through to the finishers who hand sew details and add on the buttons. And that’s before you begin to consider transport workers, buyers, merchandisers and shopworkers.
There is an entire industry based around what shirt you want to wear today, whether it’s about what identity you want to project to the world or just to stay warm and dry. Unless you buy nothing at all you can’t help but engage with fashion at some point along the supply chain. And that’s where week three of the programme came in, 'Do Something'. We were asked to think about what we had learned, including the stories we’d heard about working conditions from the people who make our clothes, and consider what we, as individuals, can do to influence change.
The most surprising thing to me, at first, was that Fashion Revolution told us not to boycott shops who were abusing human rights by paying 50p a day for 10 hour shifts, which was one of the first suggestions we all made in our peer-to-peer discussions. It’s another one of those gut reactions to people you see as selfishly concerned with profit over human beings, the kind of ‘corporate people’ you blame for atrocities like Rana Plaza, which is great, at least you can tell yourself you’re empathising with the workers. Until, of course, you realise that by boycotting their products you are effectively putting the people you want to protect out of work, in countries where the fashion industry may be their only option for employment. As the picture got more complicated there were less and less comments and suggestions from students. After all, if you can't punish the shop by not buying their products, what the hell can you do?
Well, it turns out that you can do more than you think. Take a picture of the 'made in…' label in that favourite shirt of yours and send it to the brand, ask them "who made my clothes?", and keep pushing until they tell you. If enough people ask then they’ll have to go beyond the surface information from your label and tell you the full story of the supply chain, which will force them to think about the story they're actually telling. Publicise and praise the brands who are getting it right so that the others feel they have to follow or lose their market share. Write to the people in power who make policy and ask them what they're doing to develop a safer, cleaner and fairer fashion industry because if they’re not being called out on it then they'll sweep concerns about human rights under the carpet. Cut down on any wasteful consumption, pass on those clothes that you know you’ll never wear, mend or upcycle ones you still love that need a little care, and encourage your friends to do the same. Complete the Future Learn course yourself, write a blog or hold an event to pass on everything you’ve learned, or even become a student ambassador for Fashion Revolution in your University.
The most important thing that this course taught me, and by far the easiest to remember is...
"Fast fashion isn’t free, someone, somewhere, is paying." – Fashion Revolution