1133 people died in the Rana Plaza catastrophe in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 24 April 2013, and a further 2500 were injured. They worked in horrendous conditions, making clothes for popular Western brands. On 24 April this year, the hashtags #WhoMadeMyClothes and #FashRev abounded all over the net, encouraging us to think about the origins of the clothes we buy. But what can we really do to spark a fashion revolution?
The organisation Fashion Revolution “is a global coalition of designers, academics, writers, business leaders and parliamentarians calling for systemic reform of the fashion supply chain”. The vast majority of consumers don’t want exploit people, but the problem, like so often in modern society, is one of visibility. Ironically, in our age of knowledge – where almost any information is available online should we choose to google it – we know less about where our everyday goods come from than people would have 200 years ago. Thanks to supermarkets, high-street stores and internet shopping, we can buy what we want speedily and cheaply without seeing any of the supply chain.
If we could see where our goods came from, would it change our shopping habits? The answer is a resounding yes. Just as the stars of documentary Vegucated swore off meat and dairy when confronted with the reality of modern-day farming, so Berlin shoppers rejected cheap t-shirts when shown the plight of the workers who had made them.
Fashion Revolution set up a vending machine in the centre of Berlin, offering t-shirts for €2 (roughly £1.40). When someone tried to buy a t-shirt they were shown a video about a girl called Manisha, one of the millions of people who work 16-hour days in sweatshops, earning as little as 9p an hour, to provide us with cheap clothes. At the end of the video, buyers were asked if they wanted the t-shirt, or if they’d rather donate €2 to charity. They all chose the latter. As Fashion Revolution’s video of the event states, “People care when they know.”
But humans are designed to act on an out-of-sight-out-of-mind basis. Otherwise we couldn’t go on with our lives after watching footage of the disasters, genocides and cruelty that happen every day. We have the ability to focus on other things, to compartmentalise the horrors we’ve seen. That’s our survival instinct, and we need it to keep functioning, so we don’t all stay at home in small heaps crying about the evils of the word. It’s easy to push the images of Manisha and her co-workers to the back of our mind and pop into a cheap shop for a new blouse, or refuse to think of the hideous fate of caged animals as we nip to the chicken shop for some easy dinner (and to cast those who seek to remind us as killjoys, pious do-gooders and self-righteous bores). It’s easy to do these things because they are so convenient. Whereas seeking out ethical clothing, with transparent supply chains – or searching for vegan fast food – requires effort.
But the good news is that every time we make the effort to shop ethically we are getting one step closer to making ethical the norm; that is, easy and convenient. Forcing companies to examine how their suppliers treat their workforce can lead to real improvements in the life of a significant percentage of the global population. It’s estimated that one in six people work in the fashion industry worldwide. That’s 1 billion people. And every time you make an informed purchase, by asking #WhoMadeMyClothes, or shopping from openly ethical brands such as People Tree, Threads 4 Thought or Chureca Chic, you can feel good about the fact that you are helping create a fairer world. Sure, the t-shirts may cost more than £1.40, but they’ll last longer and look better. And think of all the wardrobe space you’ll save by not having 20 cheap, misshapen, bobbly sweaters gathering moths in the corners.
Bring on the revolution.