Hashtag "Who made my clothes?"

Who made my clothes? That’s the question asked by many during Fashion Revolution Week, with people across the globe tagging their favourite brands to encourage them to be more open about how their clothes are made. The fashion industry is massive, with a global labour force of an incredible 3381.1 million workers. 40 million of these are garment workers, approximately 85% of garment workers are women, and they are amongst the lowest paid workers in the world.

 
Rana Plana factory collapse in 2013

Rana Plana factory collapse in 2013

 

Up until the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1138 garment workers, many of them had raised concerns on the safety of the building they were working in; the working conditions of factory workers weren’t really in the public consciousness. Fashion Revolution emerged as a response to this and has continued to gain momentum as a fashion-positive movement, bringing together educators, retailers, makers and citizens who are actively pursuing a fairer industry. It’s something that Uncaptive and myself are passionate about and we fully committed this year, hosting the first festival for Fashion Revolution Week in the North-East of England, teaming up with the fashion department at Northumbria University and bringing together a number of local brands, organisations and venues, including Ampersand Inventions.

The festival is a whole blogpost in itself (or multiple even, as there were so many events happening across five days), so for this post I want to focus on the people who make our clothes, the realities of their working lives, what we can do to support more ethical factory practices, and where there is hope for the future.

Garment workers around the world

 
Thousands of garment workers and their unions rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse by Solidarity Center

Thousands of garment workers and their unions rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse by Solidarity Center

 

As with anything on a large scale, there is a real mix of good and bad practice. In the garment industry, there is a diverse mixture of designer-makers, local seamstresses and pattern cutters, brands that actively support their workforce through socially responsible initiatives, factories that adhere to Fairtrade and Fair Wear Foundation certifications, and others who will pay as little as they can get away with, more often than not treating workers poorly.

Unfortunately, the latter isn’t in the minority, with many garment workers subject to low wages, long working hours, poor health and safety maintenance as well as frequent verbal and physical abuse. In Bangladesh, one of the cheapest countries in the world for garment manufacturing, garment workers earn a mere quarter of the living wage, resulting in most living in poverty and having to take on debt to pay for the most basic needs like rent and food. A lot of this is exposed in the documentary The True Cost (which is showing on Netflix if you want to find out more about the origins of our clothes).

Without a transparent supply chain, we cannot guarantee the clothes we buy have been ethically made, which is why there are so many projects and organisations campaigning for transparency within the fashion and garment industries. These include Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label and Garment Worker Diaries to name a few.


Boycotting

“What if we just stop buying from brands that use ‘sweat shops’?” says everyone at some point.

This is a complex topic, as on the one hand companies that use sweatshops are primarily concerned with their bottom line, so anything that threatens to impact that is something they are likely to take notice of. On the other hand, there are a huge number of jobs at stake if we were to boycott certain brands, and these jobs offer so many women independence and an income, many of whom wouldn’t have the opportunity to otherwise in countries where they are expected to be home-makers and dependent on their spouse.

There is a real possibility that suffering sales could lead to further cuts to production costs (including labour and pressuring the factories even more to lower their prices) rather than addressing the real issues. With a more transparent industry, we will be able to see more clearly which brands are taking responsibility for the welfare of their workers, and which are exploiting them, so we can call on them to do better. This relates back to Fashion Revolution’s ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ hashtag, as it lets brands know that we are interested in who made our clothes and the conditions they are working in.

 
Jessica Chapman from Espacio Vayven

Jessica Chapman from Espacio Vayven

 

How about buying locally?

Buying a garment that has been locally made often means a more traceable production chain, i.e. easier to keep track of working conditions with less space for off-the-radar outsourcing to external factories. Many brands that sell locally-made apparel tend to be small and independent, either being designer-makers themselves, having them made in-house or outsourcing the work to local seamstresses or small businesses that make up garments. This is great for conscious designers ensuring the people who make their clothes are paid a fair wage and are working in fair and safe conditions, and it’s also a great way of supporting the local economy and giving financial stability to freelancers and small business owners. Did you know that at this moment, Uncaptive’s co-founder Declan Hill is working on designing and making a range himself? More details on this to be revealed soon!

It’s important to bear in mind, that although the majority of locally made clothing in countries with good welfare standards are made with good intent, there is a small proportion of businesses that want to capitalise on ‘supporting the local economy’ without committing to the actual support of workers. A recent example includes journalist Sarah O’Conner’s investigation (pt.34) into small garment factories in Leicester, England, which revealed workers being paid ‘£3.50, £4 an hour’ with £5 per hour being the top rate for skilled and experienced workers (the minimum wage is currently £8.21).

An article written by D.T. Max for The New Yorker last year highlighted the extent of poorly paid Chinese workers creating garments and accessories for well-known luxury fashion houses in the Italian city of Prato, carrying the renowned ‘Made in Italy’ label evoking images of Italian artisans. Interestingly, some of the Chinese workers are beginning to return to Wenzou, as “you can make more money back home”, the per-capita income more than a hundred times greater than when Chinese migration to Prato began in the 1990’s. It goes to show that the country of origin isn’t a reliable indicator for ethical garment production. It is possible to have garments produced in vulnerable communities around the world in a fair way, and this helps to lift them out of poverty too.

Was it made ethically?

 
Uncaptive’s supplier Thought and their workers in China

Uncaptive’s supplier Thought and their workers in China

 

There are a few few things we can be looking for to know whether our clothes have been ethically made.

Firstly, don’t be afraid to ask brands! If they have nothing to hide, they should be able to reassure you about where your clothes are made and the conditions in which they’re made. If you’re curious about bigger brands, it’s also now easier than ever before to do a quick online search to see how open they are about their ethical and environmental practices. You can even download an app called ‘Good On You’ on your phone which rates those brands based on their labour, environment and animal welfare standards.

Secondly, certifications are a great way of knowing that a brand is committed to having their garments ethically made. As mentioned earlier, Fairtrade and Fair Wear Foundation take practical steps towards ensuring safe, fair and properly paid employment, and World Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) is another certification to look out for when checking a company’s ethical manufacturing.

*In supporting businesses that are in turn supporting their workers, and asking for more from those who are not, we can all do our bit to help turn the tide on unfair and unsafe labour practices in our fashion and garment industries.

Find out about Uncaptive’s suppliers’ certifications here.

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This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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