Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use the time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.
Now in its fourth year, Fashion Revolution Week has activations in more than 90 countries, from repair workshops to panel discussions and student talks and designers holding open days. You might have seen the slogans and hashtags pop up on social media; Stella McCartney, Livia Firth, Lily Cole and Amber Valetta have all been noisy supporters. Firth's own Green Carpet Challenge has seen the likes of Emma Watson, Lupita Nyong'o and Margot Robbie dress eco-chic for events; she was also one of the producers of Andrew Morgan’s confronting documentary about the impacts of fast fashion, "The True Cost." Morgan has said of the movement, "A window of opportunity has opened and time will tell if we choose to unleash the unprecedented potential for change we now face." Sustainable fashion is finding its voice.
Revolution is a provocative word, but it feels like the right one. Increasing numbers of ordinary folk are speaking out against injustice. Questioning the system is trending in fashion, too; the Fall 2017 collections were the most politically charged in years. And Dior's "We Should All Be Feminists" T-shirt, debuted by the first woman in charge of the iconic French house, Maria Grazia Chiuri and inspired by the galvanizing words of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is everywhere this season.
We know that fashion matters. It's big business, for a start — reportedly worth $2.4 trillion a year — so of course it has big impacts on people and planet. Globally, fashion is the second-most polluting industry after oil.
Eighty percent of garment workers are women, most of them aged between 18 and 25. Most have children and most aren't paid nearly enough for their toils. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is about $67 per month. However good the Zara sale, you can't buy a decent wardrobe for that. You can't buy nourishing food for your family or keep a dignified roof over their heads for that either, as Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), told me recently. "It is not enough for one person [to live for] a full month in Bangladesh, let alone [an] entire family," she said. "Thirty-five percent goes to house rent, in a semi-slum. She cannot afford meat more than one time a month, sometimes not at all; fish maybe twice a month. Mostly she lives on rice, vegetables and dal, no fruit. She doesn't have any savings [for things like] medical expenses."
According to Akter, a typical day for a typical garment worker in Bangladesh begins with rising at 4:30 a.m., queuing to use a stove and access water. "It's a hard battle she fights in the queue for cooking, [and] for using [the] toilet, because it's maximum two to four toilets they have for almost 100 people." She starts work at 8 a.m. on the dot and being late for just three days means being docked a full day's pay. She faces "constant pressure of excessive production targets" so hectic that "she [often] forgets she needs to drink water." If she misses her targets, she must make them up during unpaid overtime. She typically gets home at 8 or 9 p.m., to cook and clean and do the washing. "Her husband is hanging around with friends in the tea stall, he is not helping her," Akter says.
This is where the argument lies that ethical fashion is a feminist issue, because not only is it mostly women who wear fashion but it's mostly women who sew it as well. It can be a tool for female emancipation, said Akter, who stresses that she does not want us to boycott 'Made in Bangladesh.' "That means no jobs," she says. But the business of fashion manufacturing is still too often a context for repression.
Akter told me tales of child labor; she herself started work in a garment factory at the age of 12 (she's now 39). "I had to go because my dad got sick and could no longer work. Somebody had to put food on the table," she said. Her mother was at home looking after Akter's sister, then a two-month-old baby. Nearly 30 years on, Akter spoke of women still living below the poverty line in the far-flung places where much of our clothing is made, out of sight and out of mind. She spoke of women being harassed in the workplace, of labor laws that fail to protect them, of workers of both sexes being scared to organize themselves into unions because of the possible consequences. She spoke of being arrested and imprisoned herself for speaking out and of her male union colleague Aminul Islam being abducted, tortured and killed in 2012. (The crime remains officially unsolved, but Hillary Clinton brought it up when she visited Dhaka that year, saying: "The labor problems in the garment industries have to be solved, because you do not want to earn a reputation as a place where labour leaders and activists are murdered.")
I asked Akter why she keeps making noise about all this, given the evident dangers. Her answer was a metaphor, responding, "One person speaks, it's like ringing a bell. A small bell can make a huge noise when there are many gathered together." She urged consumers to use their power, and to vote with their wallets. "You can change this situation," she said.
I believe we want to know more about who made our fashion, where they made it and how. Alas, the answer is too rarely straightforward. Global supply chains are often highly complex. And while brands like Everlane and Reformation are leading the way with hyper-transparent business models that break down this information for us garment by garment, many others are taking only the first tentative steps towards this brave new world.
Some aren’t even doing that.
Last week, Human Rights Watch published a 40-page report entitled "Follow the Thread: The Need for Supply Chain Transparency in the Garment and Footwear Industry," calling out brands including Mango, Primark and Hugo Boss for failing to make a commitment to publish supplier factory information. The report lists a bunch more, including Armani, Ralph Lauren and Urban Outfitters that "did not respond to the coalition and do not publish any supply chain information." Both Mango and Primark were linked to factories based in the Rana Plaza complex. Maybe these brands are doing the right thing by workers today, but without greater transparency, how can we be sure?
A little late to the party, in February Mango launched a 45-piece sustainable line called Mango Committed, following in the footsteps of H&M's Conscious Exclusive and Zara's Join Life collections. It uses organic cotton and recycled poly — good stuff. But while you're busy thinking how cute Raquel Zimmermann looks modeling these earth-toned pieces, questions hang over how the majority of Mango's inventory is made.
I'm afraid the answer is not as simple as saying one brand is good, another bad. The issue is as a complex as the supply chains at the heart of it. But we have to try to unravel these stories. If you want to deep-dive into the subject, Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2017 has just been published. Or if you're planning to buy a feminist slogan shirt this summer, perhaps pause a moment to ask the sales assistant who made it. "The store manager probably will not know," concedes Kalpona Akter, "but they will say [to their bosses], 'This is what I'm hearing from the people who are buying our clothes. What should I tell them?' That will ring a bell."
And perhaps feminists should feel an especially strong sense of responsibility to ask these questions. Yes, we should all be feminists — not just those of us in the global North, where we have the privilege of worrying about glass ceilings and whether we can convincingly smash them dressed in a cute pink jacket. Not just here, where women still earn less than men for doing the same jobs, still labor more at unpaid work in the home, and shoulder greater responsibilities caring for children and aged relatives; where we are being raped and beaten and cyberbullied in far greater numbers than men and mostly by men; and where we're still expected to come home from a tough day at the office and make the bloody dinner and put the washing on, while 'the man of the house' sits on the sofa drinking beer.
No, not just here but everywhere, where roughly half the humans hold nowhere near a proportionate amount of the power. Not just here, but in all those places where there are no washing machines. Where chance would be a fine thing — and where our sisters are slogging away for pathetic pay to make us those cute pink suits.
Clare Press is the author of Wardrobe Crisis, How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion. She sits on the Australian advisory board of Fashion Revolution. Follow her on Instagram.
Homepage photo: Jacopo Raule/Getty Images