If there is one thing that the covid-19 crisis has shown, it's the massive inequalities that currently exist in our world and nowhere are these realities more stark than the fashion industry. With the world shutting down for a while, many big brands have ceased production and closed their factories, leaving millions of garment workers with no jobs. Other brands have faced accusations of unsafe and unethical working practices by expecting workers to continue working without any protection from catching the virus.
What is now crystal clear and is growing in the consciousness of consumers is that the fast fashion industry is broken. The major brands that adorn our high streets and entice us in to the shiny stores with cut price clothing have long held the dark secrets of how they can produce our clothing so cheaply and the simple fact is that the cost is borne by those hands that actually make them.
The majority of garment workers are women and in addition, children are commonly used for fine work such as beading and sequins. The use of indentured labour along with exposure to toxic chemicals and unsafe working conditions are common place throughout the fast fashion supply chain.
Speaking of supply chain, the fashion industry is a labyrinth with many big brands unable to clearly identify where their garments are made and by whom. Big brands use smaller companies to actually make the clothing and source the materials, who in turn use other companies and so on until the trail becomes opaque.
So. Now that the exploits of the big brands have been exposed to a wider audience, what can you, as a consumer do about it? The good news is that there are multiple options and it’s up to you to choose which work for you. These are in no particular order of which is better or worse, you need to choose what’s right for you. If everybody does what they are able, things can change dramatically.
- Evaluate Your Wardrobe. Do you really need more clothes? Could the clothes you have be altered to fit better or repaired rather than thrown away or donated? The average garment is worn just 7 times before it ends up in landfill which has shocking implications for the environment as well as ethical production. Fashion trends are really only there to make you buy more stuff.
- Call Out. Ask you favourite brands to clarify where their clothes are made and by whom. Make it public, tweet them, tag them on Instagram. There are hashtags such as #payup #whomademyclothes and #whatsinmyclothes are often used to draw attention to these call outs.
- Boycott. Many people will feel uncomfortable buying clothes from a brand who they know exploit their workers, so if you choose not buy from these brands, that is absolutely your right. Though you might want to check out all the high street brands as there are many who are complicit in these practices. It’s also worth bearing in mind that if everyone suddenly boycotts, these workers will be out of work and most of them have no safety net.
- Buy Better. There are lots of small, independent and ethical brands out there (including us!) many of whom are also highly environmentally conscious. The clothing they produce does tend to cost more but is of a much higher quality so should last you longer so it’s actually often a more cost effective purchase. However, not everyone is able to afford to do this. For many people budget brands are a necessity. There is a further pitfall too, greenwashing. Green washing is a practice where brands use marketing tools to appear to be ethical and sustainable when they aren’t and it can be tricky to recognise who is truly good to buy from. There are community social media pages dedicated to outing green washers, such as @greenwashwatch on Instagram and websites such as Ethical Consumer who offer in depth analysis of brand's credentials.
- Buy Secondhand. It goes without saying that clothing which already exists is at the very least not adding to the problem and lots of people choose this route. Many vintage and preloved companies will curate quality clothing so these can be a really good source of unique fashion. Charity shops can be a great source of inexpensive clothing. There are a couple of problems with this that you might like to be aware of. Firstly that charity shops rely on fast fashion for stock, so buying from charity shops is inadvertently feeding the monster. It is however, still much better than buying new from budget brands. The second problem is that the clothing which doesn’t make the grade for U.K. consumption, is shipped to Africa where it is sold to consumers there who want to dress like Westerners. This influx of cheap clothing has decimated the local tailoring and dressmaking trades, putting many people out of work. The desire to dress like Westerners also impacts cultural dress and textile production, fueling concerns that traditional dress may be lost entirely.
In short, there isn’t a perfect way to get your clothes but if everyone makes informed choices, we can begin to tackle these issues.