It’s Fashion Revolution week – the time of year when the fashion industry remembers the Rana Plaza disaster, a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1100 people. Many of these garment workers, along with countless others in countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, China and other countries where most fashion is produced, were working in unsafe conditions and earning below the minimum wage.
Fashion Revolution was born shortly after the disaster, to call on the industry to provide more transparency. The organisation reports that approximately 75 million people work to make our clothes, and 80% of them are women between the ages of 18 and 35. Despite many of the factories being suppliers to major brands with access to huge financial capital and enormous profit margins, most of the garment workers are paid wages that don’t even come close to a sustainable salary – the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report found that 87% of all women in Pakistan’s garment industry are not paid the minimum wage, and 50% of all garment workers, men or women, in India and the Philippines were paid below the minimum wage. And even if these workers were paid the minimum wage, that would still be a questionable salary as minimum wages in the garment industry are only around half of what can be considered a living wage.
From two collections per year to 52
This exploitation crisis goes hand in hand with the fast fashion industry (including luxury designer brands) and its constant influx of new collections. We have come very far from the traditional model of autumn/winter and spring/summer – these days, fashion brands can produce new collections every week, meaning that the demands of mass production put an immense strain on workers’ health and well-being, and compromises their safety.
An event to raise the question
Our constant hunger for new collections is putting people at risk – but is there any way that fast fashion can be sustainable? That is the question that Trash Talk, the panel discussion organised by Brighton Girl Magazine is trying to answer. The event, held on Fashion Revolution day in Brighton, UK, brings together Jo Godden, designer of Ruby Moon swimwear; Jimmy Dorrell, Head of Sustainability for Clarity Environmental; and Hermione Berendt, co-founder of eco-fashion awareness group Revival Collective.
“The aim of the event is to open up the discussion into whether or not fast fashion can ever adopt the principles of sustainable fashion”, says Trash Talk organiser and Brighton Girl Magazine founder Pippa Moyle. “One of the biggest inspirations behind tonight’s conversations stems from when we ran our Trash Talk campaign last year, looking into attitudes towards packaging. We found that 85% of people felt that the retailer, designer and manufacturer were most responsible for its environmental impact. It’s no secret that one of the most prominent reasons as to why people don’t buy clothes from ethical brands is the price point, so I want to explore the conversation around how fast fashion can evolve and how far they can go without the price and style being affected.”
Can disposable fashion culture change?
The truth of the impact of fast fashion is sobering. With 36 thousand lines of product currently present online with fast-fashion retailer Boohoo alone, we’re worlds removed from the reality of clothing just a few decades ago, when your Sunday dress was something you’d treasure and care for for years. Throwaway culture is central to the concept of fast fashion, and the constant desire for new things is taking its toll on our planet and the humans making our clothes.
But is the price point stopping people from shopping ethically? Moyle seems to think so, remembering a recent conversation with some students where they were given the choice between buying a £10 pair of jeans made by slaves and a £40 pair made by fairly treated people. “They all immediately said £10,” recalls Moyle. “I thought: how amazingly honest is that?”
The power of influence
And honesty is what the fast-fashion conversation desperately needs. We can all pretend that we wouldn’t buy the £10 jeans, but the truth is, many of us would. For the younger generation, this is amplified by pressure to emulate social media influencers, who are constantly seen wearing new clothes – many from cheap, faceless mass-produced labels. “All these influencers that people follow that are always buying new clothes, they could actually be promoting charity-shopping hauls or vintage shopping”, says Berendt.
Brands offering mass-produced items at too-good-to-be-true prices is sometimes too appealing for consumers to start asking questions. “If you offer something that the public desires, why on Earth wouldn’t they take it?” asks Dorrell. “If you say, here is something that costs £10 and will make you look good and feel good, why wouldn’t they accept?”
Fast fashion being too accessible is an issue, but so is the fact that our eyes are closed to what happens in countries and situations far away from our own. Our everyday lives are busy and filled to the brim, and as we stop by Zara on our way home from the office to browse the new collections, workers struggling to survive might be the last thing on our mind. But if these things were happening in our own back yard, it’s safe to say there would be a reaction. Legislation might be the answer: “until we start raising the standards and say that it’s unacceptable for things to be made like that, and in that case it’s not allowed into the country, we will always have the consumer choice that allows people to say that it’s too tempting to resist at that price,” concludes Dorrell.
In the end, it’s clear that the current system of fast fashion is unsustainable – this is how we got into this situation in the first place. But perhaps there is a way for cheap fashion to be ethical – buying secondhand. By shopping with second-hand apps like Depop and re-discovering charity shops, we are using what we have already produced instead of supporting new production – this is the most sustainable way we currently have of shopping for clothing. And once you have bought something, make it last. “If we prolong the use of the garments we buy, that’s brilliant” says Godden. “We have to do something really radical – we’ve got 11 years.”
Radical change is necessary, and it will take not only the industry, but also consumers and legislators to come together and provide transparency, commitment, and better options. And it’s up to all of us to support and promote change, in whichever way we can.
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