On 24th of April 2013, a giant clothing manufacturing factory in Daka, Bangladesh, collapsed due to extremely bad conditions of the building and the big crowd of workers. Over 1,100 people were killed, and nearly 2,400 got injured. While some cracks in the walls had been noticed some weeks before, no action had been taken.
Poor working conditions and environmental concerns
The disaster in the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza factory is just one among many that we usually do not hear about. Textile factories are very much likely to catch fire due to the use of inflammable materials and a lack of safety measures for its workers, such as proper protections against air pollution or the risk of employee deafness.
Despite the danger that is going to work for many workers in the Global South, not much has changed over the years. Whenever workers plan to strike, they face repression by their employers. Moreover, if they manage to strike, workers often risk losing their jobs due to the lack of worker rights and unions that support the cause.
Due to the high pressure on international textile companies to produce in a sustainable way, some have moved part of their production back to Western countries. However, here workers encounter new challenges. For example, Bulgarian textile workers recently denounced their low wages and the high pressure in term of digital control of their daily task for higher efficiency. In many Western countries, production quotas seem to be set for robots instead of humans, while the salaries and working conditions remain inadequate.
The fact that the fashion industry is one of the most globalised and polluting industries on Earth is well known as well. In 2015, for example, 15.2 billion tonnes of CO2 was produced by the fashion industry alone. Moreover, the processing of cotton and other fibres requires chemicals, which often end up in nature. It takes 2,720 litres of water to make a t-shirt – that is how much we normally drink over a 3-year period. It is an inconvenient truth for those who love fashion and those who make a
The Fashion Revolution
The story about the Bangladeshi factory that collapsed made worldwide news and exposed some of the huge problems tied to our constant hunger for fast fashion. It triggered a ‘fashion revolution’ by so-called “pro-fashion protesters”. Carry Somers, a British fashion designer and the driving force behind the Fashion Revolution movement, could not stand it anymore. Something had to be done. The 24th of April was renamed Fashion Revolution Day, calling for more ethical fashion industry and reviewing the movement’s achievements and goals.
The Fashion Revolution movement is not created by consumers against the industry. Instead, it is an inner revolution of the whole industry. It involves everyone, including consumers and people who work in the fashion industry, and is aimed at making all of us more conscious of the human and environmental effects of the clothing we buy.
The pro-fashion protesters use a solution-based approach, focusing on research and creativity rather than victimisation or boycotting. The two arms that coordinate the revolution from the UK are a charitable arm, the Fashion Revolution Foundation, and a non-profit social enterprise, Fashion Revolution CIC. The Fashion Revolution’s Country Offices, (mainly) staffed by volunteers, implement the actions coordinated by the Global Coordination team at national level. Each Country Coordinator takes on board a large number of initiatives and in cooperation with national stakeholders and many other volunteers that support the fashion revolution week maximise the impact of the regional and global strategy.
So far, the #whomademyclothes campaign has been successful. In 2018, 3,838 brands and retailers shared information about their suppliers and pictures of their workers with the hashtag #imadeyourclothes through social media. Moreover, the Fashion Revolution has managed to engage 275 million people all over the globe, through social media and videos, and through participation at events. Numerous influencers and celebrities have joined the movement to share their views.
As consumers become more conscious of the human and environmental impact of clothes, the demand for sustainable clothing is growing. Brands, producers, retailers, media, schools, and others are joining this cause and raise awareness through education, research and campaigns. The aim is to reach a balance between profits, fair working conditions and sustainable production methods.
During the yearly Fashion Week, consumers are encouraged to ask fashion producers for transparency in their manufacturing processes by tagging them in social media posts and asking them #whomademyclothes. Manufacturers and retailers should respond with concrete and accurate information, using the hashtag #imadeyourclothes.
Moreover, inspired by the #whomademyclothes, YouTubers started their own trend. Under the hashtag #haulternative, they present their latest ‘new’ clothes. These are either second hand, reused or bought from a sustainable retailer.
Sustainable brands and collections
As the problems of fast fashion become increasingly apparent, sustainable brands are emerging. These companies’ production cycle looks like this: a new collection is launched, all clothes are sold, and only then a new collection is developed and produced based on the demand. This production cycle also means that there is a certain measure of exclusivity; only certain customers will wear their clothes as they are produced in limited editions.
While some companies make genuine improvements to their manufacturing methods, others try to take advantage of the new interest in sustainable products. Some brands, for example, call on their consumers to bring their old clothes in exchange for a discount on their next expenses. Genius, right? Used clothes, which can even be from other brands, are taken in and used for the production of new clothing. No need to manufacture new materials, as these can be taken from your used sweater or jeans. This should mean a reduction of the use of resources and reuse of the material already in use to be sold once again to costumers.
While this sounds great, it does not solve the problem that is an overloaded market. Moreover, much of this clothing is actually never re-used. If you would check the tag in those new collections that are presumably “eco-friendly”, would you find that these are entirely made out of recycled clothes? Does it show the percentage of organic material on it? Is it mixed with other material?
In reality, the so-called reuse of used clothes is an example of “greenwashing” in the fashion industry. Companies pretend to be sustainable and concerned about the environment, just to make more money. The discount you receive at some shops when you hand in old clothing, for example, is only meant to get you to buy new clothing there.
How to switch to slow fashion
We are all accountable for the impact that fashion has on people’s lives and on the environment. So, how can we make a difference? Here are some simple and effective steps (Awareness, Consciousness and Change) to help you switch to a more sustainable way of fashion consumption, without renouncing the latest trends.
Start with your closet – Awareness:
- Empty your closet. Yes, take it all out.
- Start with the current season. Try all of your clothes on and see how they feel.
- Check the “made in…” tag of your clothes.
- Count how many clothes you own that are “made in” developing countries. How many are from Western countries?
When shopping – Consciousness:
- Check the tag that is attached to different types of clothes. Where were they made?
- Were these clothes “made in” developing countries?
- Check your favourite brands’ online shops. Do they have a sustainable collection made from recycled or biological material? And are products fairly produced?
- Bring your shopping list and own bag along.
- Buy only what you really need and what you will use for a long time.
Find an alternative – Change:
- Awareness is key: learn more about who made your clothes.
- Consume consciously: apply the five Rs (refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle) before buying new things .
- Shop second hand: use what it was already produced, thereby will be decreasing the demand for new articles and preventing products from ending up in landfills.
- Choose fair and sustainable brands.
May you wish to deepen your knowledge and become a fashionable revolutionary, check the Fashion Revolution’s guide (4).
The world is calling for fashion revolutionaries. So be curious. Find out. Do something.
Abigail is from Spain. She has a background in communication and works in the European institutions. She has a particular interest in the consumer active and sustainable role in society, among others, in the fashion industry and the zero waste movement.