Disposable fashion: Will we ever move on?

clothes, Ethics, fashion, UK, USA

I first wrote an article about disposable fashion when I was studying for my Journalism Diploma about eight years ago, and now, with this year’s Fashion Revolution, it’s time to take a look at what changes have really been made in the fashion world.

Eight years ago there had been a number of scandals surrounding the UK fashion chain Primark, and the terrible conditions of their factories, mostly based in India and Bangladesh. However, what the reports also revealed was that most high street stores have their clothes made in factories in third world countries, where factory workers are underpaid and are living below the bread line.

What is so unfair about this, is that in the first world we buy the clothes so cheaply and throw them away. We have no concept of the value of clothes. This was heightened when fashion became accessible to most, with the growth and expansion of the great British high street. Giant brands began to find other ways to make their business more profitable, by sourcing cheap labour abroad. It happened with almost everything, and clothes became another one of those products that is no longer made where they are sold.

When I visited India in 2012 I bought a lot of their clothes – they are so cheap and so beautifully made, and it allowed me to connect with the country and the people. But what you never think about when you walk into a store, or order clothes online, is where are my clothes made? It’s obvious in India, but in the western world it’s actually pretty complicated.

The problem also exclusively affects the people in the first world with the least power, the clothes on the high streets are the ones that are sold to the working classes/middle classes who have little to no power in the fashion world. While in 2006, it was revealed that high-end high street brand Coach has its bags made in China… I don’t think haute couture needs the mass-production base of a factory in India.

I guess it has to start with the materials themselves. Let’s take cotton as the first example. Did you know that it takes about 2,720 litres of water to make one T-shirt and 10,850 litres for one pair of jeans? In many cotton plantations in India there are still no efficient irrigation systems in place to collect excess water, not only this but water is also contaminated by the pesticides and insecticides used on cotton farming, so water is often scarce these farming communities.

The industry uses $2 bn in chemical pesticides every year, which destroys about 15% of the world production, as well as deteriorates soil quality, contaminates water sources, and has numerous health risks to farmers and workers.

As a result, the farmers are having to plant more GM cotton to fulfil the increasing demand and restore their crop, after the result of the damaging pesticides. However, the vicious cycle continues, and the seeds and pesticides are most often part of an unfair deal with a multinational company. What’s more, people are still unsure about the long term effects of GM cotton on the environment, biodiversity and on human health. On top of all of this, unfair Government quotas have forced some farmers to employ children to pick the cotton, and there have even been reports of forced labour. And that’s just the beginning of how your clothes are made…

The factories, where the clothes are put together from the material, have been put under the largest spotlight over the last few years. After the horrific fire at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013, when 1,133 factory workers died and a further 2,500 were injured, the story became big news. Pictures of desperate women crying outside the shell of a building, which could never have been much to look at before the fire, were heartbreaking. Thousands of women died just to make a piece of clothing that we are soon enough we are going to be tired with and just throw away, without a thought. The cost of life for the cost of a garment. While incidents like this aren’t rare, this particularly travesty finally caught the attention of the fashion world and the pubic alike to attack the crux of the issue.

As a social media global world, more and more working class people can have a voice. Like me. We can say things publicly we were never able to say before, and people might actually listen. And on the 24th April 2014, that’s exactly what a group of writers, academics, and designers did. They held the first ever Fashion Revolution Day, an annual day to send a message to the fashion world, asking them #whomademyclothes. It was a Twitter sensation, and was backed by the Fairtrade Foundation, an organisation who try to ensure farmers and workers around the world receive fair wages and rates in exchange for their produce.

The Fashion Revolution idea was to reconnect the workers with the buyers, and try to establish a better relationship and understanding of where your clothes come from. It was also an attempt to push brands to consider the affect the making of our clothes, and how it could now effect the buying of clothes.

The campaign is a great start in the road to moving away from disposable fashion, but there are bigger problems still at stake. One of them, that I have experienced first hand, is the value of commodities in first world countries. In the US, I visited a number of thrift stores, well, they are more like warehouses, and was astonished to find so many great quality clothes hanging in warehouses for just a $1 a piece. The thrift stores are like graveyards for the clothes that only managed to last one season. And like Primark in the UK, Walmart flog cheap new clothes for next to nothing.

The understanding about how much water, work and time went into creating just one item is still lost on most people. The greedy consumerism that rules the first world is so prevalent and those people are often inaccessible to campaigns like this.

A few high street stores have made their fight with fairtrade clear, M&S launched their fairtrade cotton campaign in 2006 as part of a bigger campaign to make all of their products more ethical. The supply is low, as there is only so much fairtrade cotton available, hence the issues I mentioned earlier with cotton production.

American Apparel have been making clothes in sweatshop-free factories in the US since they opened their doors in 1989. Their website details the benefits they offer their workers, and claims to only make clothes in the USA. However, from my experience in the UK and the US, most of these brands are for the middle classes, they do not help sway the mindset of the majority – the working class.

But the high-end supermarket and American fashion brand is often too expensive for the average Brit to invest in. As this Telegraph report suggests, ethical consumerism is for rich people. Most of us can’t afford to be ethical, and the campaigns are often high-end and out of reach for the average consumer, the consumer that really matters and if changed will really make a difference. With the obvious disparity in classes comes the obvious disparity in ethics.

While large high street privately owned mega company Arcadia, that owns a number of high street clothing stores including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, and Miss Selfridge, is still struggling to make a commitment to ethics, despite a noticeable increase in the price of its clothing. Their SCAP campaign to produce more UK manufacturing began in 2014, after Topshsop were exposed on Channel Four documentary Dirty Little Secret in 2012 as having unethical sweatshops in the UK, and in Bangladesh and India. Arcadia continue to blame third parties for their ethics, and refuse to take the on responsibility themselves.

Online affordable fashion giant Asos.com has set up a Green Room part of its business that is dedicated to ethical fashion, and launched the ASOS Africa line in 2010, which sells handmade products from small producers in Africa on its site. But is it really enough and can we trust these companies?

There’s a lot more to say, obviously, and there are still so many companies that continue to avoid the issue. The mega brands that dominate disposable affordable fashion are the ones that should be looking to change, but their customers are often part of a working class that have to struggle with the increasing cost of living and continual pay freezes that have plagued the UK and the US.

I think we still have a long way to go to finding an answer for sustainable fashion on the high street. Impoverished people at home and abroad continue to suffer for fashion. But for now, campaigns like Fashion Revolution are a great start, and something every fashion brand should take the lead from. But sadly that’s all we have right now. And without the money to invest in expensive ethical brands, what choice do we really have as working class consumers?

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