Behind the glamour of beautiful glossy images in magazines and fashion weeks all over the world, is the reality of the global fashion industry – a dire portrait of women living in abject poverty, struggling to survive to meet the demands of the high street.
Fair Fashion. Eco-fashion. Ethical Fashion. Sustainable Fashion. Green Fashion. Responsible Fashion. We are surrounded by these terms, and yet they are rarely defined. As conscientious consumers, choosing to buy ethically conveys what sustainability means to you, this article is a guide to help you navigate some of the complexities of the fashion industry at a social and human level. Note: Your decisions, whether positive or negative, have a direct effect on those working across fashion’s supply chains.
1. Healthy and Safe Working Conditions
For consumers wanting to buy ethically, we need to know that the human rights of the producers of the garments are being upheld. Despite international standards, government legislation working to tackle human rights at work, garment producers often face working in extremely unsafe structures.
The Rana Plaza disaster is the most extreme and tragic example. After this event, over 200 brands signed the Accord programme, where essential safety renovations were stated as mandatory, amongst other safety features. However despite this mass signing, necessary points have not been actioned and many buildings have not met binding requirements – many of the buildings still do not have basic fire escapes. (Clean Clothing Campaign, 2015)
While large companies continue to not follow through on safety checks and requirements, large amounts of workers are vulnerable to fatal accidents and brands need to take a stronger stance on their responsibility for the safety of their buildings and workers.
2. Fair Pay
A living wage is a human right. Due to the issue that the complexities surrounding this definition and lack of universalised policy, systemic human rights abuses exists in the employment of millions of garment workers all over the world. Despite the fashion industry being a trillion dollar industry, many workers receive wages that force them further into poverty – for example in Bangladesh the minimum wage only covers 60% of the cost of living in a slum.
Considering the gender factor here also sheds light on the lives many women face: working long hours for little money, and supporting children alongside domestic and child care duties and therefore facing the extremely negative and social problems that come with being very poor. The grim cycle of poverty in this situation forces many workers into working excessive overtime – which is risky and increases negative health consequences.
Furthermore, the growing research which evidences that only a few percent of the final cost of clothes makes up the workers wages, which is sometimes as little as 0.5-3% (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2015). Buying an item of clothing should condone or exacerbate poverty. Demand answers from brands and transparency around their model.
3. No Forced and Child Labour
The fact that many of the 36 million people living in modern slavery today (Global Slavery Index, 2014) is terrifying, and more so is that many of whom are working in the supply chains of fashion and retail brands.
Many countries (India, Indonesia and Vietnam to name a few) are at extreme risk of forced labour as regulations are poorly implemented in this respect. Despite child labour being forbidden in most countries and global and nation initiatives to abolish child labour, almost 11% of the global child population are child labourers.
In the garment industry, children are being exploited at all stages of the supply chain, which not only interferes with their education but with their social and moral wellbeing. It exists and is profitable (and in many cases invisible) because of the huge demand for cheap, unskilled labour.
Fair pay also has a part to play as over adult workers in their families cannot support minors with such low incomes, which then forces children to work at a younger age. It is very easy to see how this perpetuates the cycle of poverty: as child labour leads to lower rates of education and higher unemployment and keeps wages low in adult employment also (SOMO, 2014).
The fashion industry should not exploit society’s most vulnerable and voiceless members. Check out Fair Wear Foundation’s list of brands that can prove, by signing a code of practice, that child labour is not evident in their supply chain (and those who have been suspended from it).
4. Cultural Preservation
Historically speaking, the garment industry has been an important vehicle for change and development at a community and international level. Consequentially, a healthy garment industry could not only lift workers out of poverty but could also preserve ancient skills.
In the developing world, the artisan sector is second largest employer after agriculture and techniques such as weaving, embroidery and screen-printing are passed down between generations. Many people in the developing world rely solely on this trade to survive. Without strengthening and championing artisan trade – their future, along with their language, culture and rituals, could be very uncertain. Fair Fashion upholds ancient skills and empowers indigenous communities who are often marginalised and without access to the global fashion market.
As a designer, my approach to how I tackle fair fashion evolves and changes. However, my core values never do change: Fair Fashion means I want to have a positive impact at each stage of the design process and how I approach artisan support.
What does Fair Fashion mean to you, and how can we work together to improve the lives of millions of women across the world?
Photos: Claudio Montesano Casillas © 2015, Text: Ellen Saville