“[W]hen you are chasing after the best flavour, you are chasing after the best ingredients, and when you’re chasing after the best ingredients, you are in search of great farming.” –Dan Barber, Chef’s Table Season 1
When we trace how our clothes came into our hands, what would we find at the end of the rope? Following garments through their entire process of production unveils the rights and wrongs of the fashion system, fashion studies scholar Ulrich Lehmann argued. Noting how there is reportedly about 101 stages in the supply chain, the layer of opacity is extremely thick to plough through. But this, he says, is how we can understand our clothes as “the object of labour,” rather than mere objects.
Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes movement attempts to re-humanise the hands at mass-producing machines that make our clothes. It puts a name and face to the clothes we wear, reminding us not to take for granted that there is a person on the other end of the hidden line of production – with ample reason.
Garment production is notorious for its unethical practices including putting the lives of its workers at risk. From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 to the “mass industrial homicide” in the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 when 1,134 people died after having been forced to work that morning despite cracks in the building’s structure, it is questionable how much progress has been made in garment supply chains over the last century. These are just two examples, but if you Google “clothing production unethical,” you will find at least 20 pages of relevant links on this topic.
From wages falling below the bare minimum needed for a decent living, to unhealthy working conditions, exposure to hazardous chemicals especially in the denim industry, and child labour, the garment workers at the end of fashion’s supply chain bear the brunt of our cheap clothing.
‘Sweatshop’ was initially used to describe a system that outsourced or subcontracted labour, according to sustainable fashion activist Lucy Siegle. While this is still true, it is now an umbrella term under which the conditions of long hours, unsafe working conditions, low pay, and illegal unionisation fall. She summarises,
“In this massive juggernaut of an industry, always on the lookout for the best deal and the quickest turnaround, brands and retailers will source not from a handful of trusted suppliers, but from forty or fifty garment factories. If there are preferential trade tariffs they may look at sourcing from African nations, and occasionally South American. The choice is vast, and if one producer isn’t supplying you quickly or cheaply enough, you merely look for a more compliant one.”
Evidently, cheap clothes come at a price.
The media has dragged through the mud several brands for their poor labour conditions, namely fast fashion retailers like Primark, H&M, GAP, Zara, Forever 21, Wal-Mart, and athletic brands Nike, Adidas, and Puma.
In Anna Tsing’s study of Wal-Mart’s corporate practices, she notes how there is a clear line between what Wal-Mart wants to control (prices, marketing, and logistics) and what it doesn’t want to control (labour arrangements and environmental practices), as the latter falls outside the scope of their ‘corporate culture’. It is not uncommon for retail goliaths to renounce responsibility in crises like the Rana Plaza collapse by saying they were “let down” by their suppliers. Similarly, in 1994, Nike’s vice president for Asia Pacific revealed, “We don’t know the first thing about manufacturing. We are marketers and designers.” Tsing recognises in this bewildering disclosure how Nike distanced itself from the hands (mainly in parts of Southeast Asia) that make its shoes.
Post- Rana Plaza, H&M, the largest garment producer in Bangladesh, committed itself to improving the hazardous conditions of its contracted factories there. Yet, in 2015, it was reportedly dragging its feet about making the necessary renovations to ensure workers’ safety in the factories. It showed us a glimmer of hope last year when they boycotted the Dhaka Apparel Summit together with Zara in response to labour issues like the repression of Bangladeshi labour groups. Though, of course, its stance is more believable once it has been fully accountable for its agreed improvements. Until then, H&M, you’re not that conscious.
Other efforts have been made for these brands to polish their reputations.
Nike’s webpage extensively details their supply chain practices (their commitment to fair wage, etc.) and attempts to be transparent through an interactive map that states the locations of all their factories, and details including the percentage of female workers per factory. Yet, Goodonyou.eco rates Nike as “Not Good Enough” when it comes to labour conditions, one of its points being the increasing amount of money being pumped into celebrity endorsements compared to the decreasing labour wages.
As these big brands go back-and-forth along the path towards transparent ethical practices, such schizophrenic actions are not limited to fashion producers. It’s high time consumers looked beyond aesthetics and price tags when considering what our money is worth. If you’re like me and enjoy dressing up without breaking the bank, it’s difficult to expand our considerations when shopping. I struggle with this, but to be ignorant of its consequences is dangerous.
In this capitalistic world, it is true when Tsing said, “Someone’s solution may be another person’s problem.” The question is then, how do I be stylish without harming someone else?
“Consumers have been cultivated to rely upon and be vulnerable to retail therapy. We developed a habit or purchasing in order to lift our moods; buying into lifestyles that fit our ideas of identity, amassing products that parade our status in society and other psychological reasons that really, have nothing to do with the actual product we buy,” wrote The Ideology.
Most apparently with sports brands one can consume attractive qualities like athletic prowess and success, not by actually being physically active but by wearing the brands’ products.
Clothes with their ‘Made in Italy’ label have that allure, setting them apart from their despised and ridiculed, though up-and-rising cousin, ‘Made in China’. However, Italian clothing companies have been found to be importing cheap Chinese labour into Italy to make their products, just to meet the requirements of ‘Made in Italy’.
It is the immaterial value attributed to inanimate objects that blinds us from the devastating realities of fashion production, and to break the habit of blind consumption, we must first pull back the hefty curtains of glamourous advertising and marketing.
Recently, I had the ‘privilege’ of wearing a local brand’s clothes on social media in exchange for having them for free. Amidst the excitement, it was brought to my attention that the same pieces and the same marketing images could be found on Taobao.com, the Chinese e-commerce behemoth selling dirt cheap clothes. While I cannot assume that the seller had simply purchased these off the Chinese website and simply rebranded them in an aesthetically elevated way, it is very difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt.
What irked me was how easy it is to be seduced by a brand’s enticing front, leading consumers to buy their products without asking the tougher questions. With Taobao, the cheapness of the clothes lures us away from questioning how these clothes are so cheap. To capitalise on this through rebranding reveals just how treacherously misleading branding can be.
I sent a text to the brand owner to ask about her production process – receiving no reply. Thankfully I did not have to advertise for the brand subsequently as there was no money or contract involved. But consider influencers who are paid anything from hundreds to a few thousand dollars for a couple of social media posts – in that position, would you pry into the backstage processes of the brands you advertise, or be blissfully ignorant and a few thousand dollars richer? Tough.
There is a growing awareness of similar issues surrounding the fashion system and people are getting tired of its shit. Already in 1997, instead of producing clothes for their AW1996-97 collection and sending out invitations for the show, Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf sent posters to fashion editors, the gatekeepers of fashion media, that read “Viktor & Rolf on strike”. Using their authority, they brazenly addressed their awareness of fashion as “the ultimate product that emphasises consumption at the expense of production.”
In such a nihilistic realm, it’s no wonder that The Ideology concluded its article stating, “You cannot buy peace of mind.” Instead, it advocated for sleeping as the ultimate rebellion to the capitalist system; when you’re asleep, you can be neither producer nor consumer. This willful unproductivity is a slap in the system’s face.
Yet, we cannot sleep forever or we might as well be dead. We have to get up, do things, and consume things, in order to function. And so, what we can do is to consume as consciously as possible, from responsible and accountable producers. It’s a process that requires quite some perseverance, and if we are unwilling to spend more time to seek out and pay what it’s worth for these products, then maybe it’s a sign to stop accumulating stuff.
Luxury is defined as, “a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.” In this way, peace of mind, with its rarity in our hyper-accessible but lazy marketplace, is the true luxury.