Last year I had the chance to read Stiched Up: The Anti-Capitalism Book of Fashion by journalist Tansy Hoskins. It’s one of the best books that I’ve read on re-thinking the fashion industry, and I can tell you something: I’ve read a lot.
Hoskins dissects the fashion system, from cheap labour to multimillionaire conglomerate owners, from beauty standards to the detrimental environmental effects of fashion production and waste, from the excitement of shopping to the apathy of the public towards cruelty to animals, from elitist fashion media to the new age of ethical fashion blogs and writers. Nothing goes under the radar to Tansy’s sharp eye and even sharper wit.
The fearless author is not afraid to criticise “the Emperor” (aka the fashion industry) nor capitalism and her point is crystal clear: we need to be progressive, rethink the whole economical system and go as much to the left as we can. She is candid about the false idea that it is possible to “shop our way” to a better world and expect the best for the corporations. Conclusion: we need to fight (not shop) our way to a new world.
We had the chance to chat to Tansy about her book, the fashion industry and whether “ethical fashion” is an oxymoron.
You are a journalist and in your book, Stitched Up, you say you’ve never worked in the fashion industry. Why (and when) did you decide to talk about fashion?
I decided to write Stitched Up because I couldn’t find the answers I needed about the fashion industry. Whilst Stitched Up is a very global book, it is also a personal project based on questions I had about things like the eating disorders I have seen friends struggle with, about why I would read VOGUE each month but so incredibly rarely see models who weren’t white. And about why I could go out and shop and shop all day long, come home with bags of stuff but the next day wake up wanting to go and do it all over again – where does this black hole inside us come from? In short, I needed a book that talked about fashion in the context of capitalism and I thought – if I have these questions I’m sure other people must as well.
I grew up in a world that felt like it had been plastered in adverts, usually featuring Kate Moss. The expected obligation to endure fashion, to have it tell me how I should feel about my body and the world around me, gives me and everyone else, the right to write, criticise and obstruct it as much as we want.
Do you think that it is easier to talk about the industry as an “outsider”?
Absolutely! If I had been reliant on the fashion industry to make a living, I would never have been able to write Stitched Up. The biggest rule in fashion is that you don’t criticise: the Emperor is naked but no one dares say anything. It’s incredibly unhealthy for any art form to be without criticism, but in the case of fashion we know where it ends: environmental devastation, body dysmorphia, and thousands of women trapped under the rubble of Rana Plaza.
On a different note, we should all talk about overhauling the fashion industry because it would be incredibly exciting in terms of innovation and design. Right now, 99.9% of fashion is mind-numbingly dull because design dominated by the market is by definition boring.
Imagine a fashion industry not on lock-down by a bunch of white male European shareholders, imagine an industry not stifled by tedious discriminatory rules about gender, sexuality and race. I would love to see the democratisation of fashion and the explosion of creativity that would follow.
There is a significant increase in public interest in an ethical fashion. Why is that? And what does this mean to you?
The ethical fashion market is not the main focus of my work mostly because I want to concentrate on the big brands who are literally getting away with murder. Ethical fashion brands currently compete with the fast fashion model which produces garments with very low price tags, in this climate and with the global financial crisis having shrunk people’s disposable income, ethical fashion faces a real uphill struggle, which is partly why it only accounts for about 1% of global production and sales.
You believe that in the current system, ethical/sustainable fashion does not exist. Why?
Capitalism means a tiny minority of people owns the means of production, like factories, whilst everyone else works for them. Fashion covers environmental and labour intensive industries like agriculture, chemical industries, haulage, factory work, and retail. None of these industries exist without exploitation, none of these industries are collectively owned by the people working in them, and the workers are all exploited because at no part of supply chains are people paid the same as the amount of value they produce.
Of course it is worth buying the least harmful item that you can afford but a key part of Stitched Up is challenging the idea that we can buy justice. Changing our shopping habits is not enough. Capitalism teaches us that empowerment comes from acting independently (not collectively), that freedom means variety in what we consume, and that we should trust in the system and shop (not fight) our way to a new world. A narrative that teaches that corporations can be tamed by consumer spending and be made ‘ethical’. It’s a rhetoric of democracy acting as a screen for exploitation.
In your book you do not talk much about the education system. What is the role of fashion schools?
One of my favourite things is going to speak in fashion colleges, often I get invited by students because they are angry at the gaps in their syllabuses which don’t afford them any chance to learn about labour rights, environmentalism or body image. Education for the next generation of designers is clearly crucial and fashion schools need to speed up and adopt the progressive changes that their students want.
H&M recently launched its conscious collection and recycling week. Part of the public believes that is just greenwashing. Another part believes that the company is taking steps towards solving the problem. How do you see these actions?
That was some disgraceful green-washing on H&M’s part. There are 52 weeks in a year yet they happened to choose the week that falls on the anniversary of Rana Plaza to do their ‘recycling week’. I see these actions as utterly cynical attempts to maintain the status quo and business-as-usual for H&M.
Why do you think that luxury brands always come out unscathed?
Because they have the customer base that cares the least. The super-rich are not exactly known for their ethics so there is no reason to expect them to care about the conditions their clothes were made in.
You talk about the limitations of the boycott and explains why “vote with your dollars” is insufficient. In your opinion, what measures can be taken by citizens to engage more actively and effectively in changing fashion paradigms beyond the cashier?
The main reason I don’t randomly call for boycotts is because workers or trade unions in Bangladesh, for example, don’t want them to happen. They do not want to lose their jobs.
Capitalism has created a world where people mean nothing. The only way to start meaning something is to work collectively and form a power bloc that can challenge the forces that are attacking and exploiting you. You work together in a trade union, you can force a minimum wage increase – which is what we saw in Bangladesh. If Trade Unions work together on a global scale you can get legally binding agreements like the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety.
It’s also the creation of space for self-determination and leadership that is so special – the thousands of young women in Bangladesh who overcome barriers around gender, education, poverty, class and patriarchy to lead demonstrations through Dhaka, who stand up to thuggish factory owners and managers, and the violent weight of a state with its anti-union legislation, its police, water cannons, batons and bullets that is desperate to keep these women subjugated and slaving away.
These women – the ones who are making gains – need our support and solidarity. And in countries like the US and the UK, we should be lead and inspired by them. There are hundreds of groups, Trade Unions and campaigns to get involved in – people should choose the issues they care most about and get stuck in.