Have you ever thought about who made your clothes? Not the brand or the company. But the person. The son, the daughter, the husband, the wife, the mother, the father. Have you thought about how much they’re paid for a day’s work or what their lives are like?
Before your clothes make their homes in your closet, they will be handled by farmers, spinners, weavers, dyers, cutters, pattern makers, sewers, designers and more. More than 75 million people work to make our clothes, and 80 percent of them are young women aged 18-35.
Sounds pretty great, right? All those young women getting to work in the glamorous fashion industry? Honestly, that is what I thought before I started working in the business myself. I loved fashion, loved putting outfits together and was a big believer of spending big money on staple pieces, while supplementing my daily looks with cheap, fast fashion from large retailers. However when I was shopping at Forever 21 and H&M, I never once asked myself why my shirt was only $3.90.
The sad reality is that the vast majority of the people who contribute to our clothes' production live in poverty. Many are exploited at the workplace, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Their pay is beyond low and most of these hard workers are unable to afford life’s basic necessities, even when working exhaustingly long, inhumane hours.
April 23-29 is Fashion Revolution Week: seven days dedicated to educating the greater population of not only where their clothes were produced, but by whom.
The week and movement is the baby of Fashion Revolution, a charity founded in England. Their message is simple: we love fashion, but we don’t want our clothes to come at the cost of people or our planet.
Same, Fashion Revolution, same.
Fashion Revolution was born following the April 24, 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. 1,138 people died and another 2,500 were injured. Five garment factories who were manufacturing clothing for global brands were housed in the Rana Plaza, and the majority of the victims were young women.
As designers and producers of clothes, we will not allow that to happen. If you want to know who made your clothes, just ask us. We are beyond happy to tell you that Manjulah sewed your kimono and Rosamund cut the fabric for your kimono along with the lining of your maxi skirt. Lamisi stitched your dress and Lydia crafted your clutch. These are not just names, they are women who were paid, fair livable wages so that they can provide for their families and live full, rich lives.
While I was in Panama City, I had the pleasure of meeting with a dynamic group of women committed to educating Panamanians about the Fashion Revolution. These women were beauty pageant contestants, shop owners, designers, sustainable fashion professors, social media influencers and general fashion lovers. One of the women with whom we met said, “I love playing dress-up. But what we forget is that we can enjoy without destroying.” And I thought, yes. It’s that simple. We do not have to change who we are and what we love, but we can be more conscientious and ethical. If you’re like us you love fashion, but love our planet and our people more. So what do we do?
Massive changes need to happen. There needs to be an overhaul of the fashion industry’s business model. We are a consumer driven society where more sales means a higher profit. In the last 3 decades, fast fashion has dominated the industry. Production and scale are higher and faster than ever before. For the past ten years, apparel companies have seen an increase in labor, raw material and energy costs, however, the price of clothing for the consumer is cheaper than ever before. This model doesn’t work now and it is absolutely not sustainable.
I am ashamed to say that in high school, I refused to repeat the same outfit twice. I would mix and match an article of clothing as much as I could, then retire it. This disposable fashion culture contributes to a multitude of human rights abuses and environmental degradation.
The standard production of our clothes has a devastating environmental impact. The chemicals used to grow, dye, wash and treat our clothes ends up polluting our rivers and oceans. A huge amount of water is used to produce garments through growing cotton and through wet processing, such as dyeing and laundering. The clothing industry accounts for upwards of 3 percent of the global production of CO2 emissions, according to The Carbon Trust. Not to mention, once we get the clothes, we tend to throw them out. 150 billion items of clothing are delivered out of factories annually yet Americans alone throw away approximately 14 million tons of garments each year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84% of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
Not only are we killing our planet, we are killing our people. Basic health and safety measures do not exist for most of the people working in fashion’s supply chains. The minimum wage in most garment-producing countries is rarely enough for workers to live on.
Meanwhile mass manufacturing is bankrupting artisanal and heritage craft industries, with traditional skills being lost to our history books. We risk losing ancient techniques that have been passed down through generations in communities around the world. By Grace is specifically combating this in Panama through the preservation of the ancient Cutarras, in India through the use of silk saris, on Rosebud and in Ghana through the instruction of younger generations in beading and sewing.
Education is key. The biggest way we can make a difference in this epidemic of fast fashion is through inspiring a paradigm shift. We must educate people about the problems in the fashion industry and start to demand change from fashion producers. As we sat around talking revolution in Panama, we started to discuss some of the major issues. As a society, we buy more clothes than we used to and spend less on them. 100 years ago we spent more than half our money on food and clothes, today we spend less than one-fifth. We purchase 400% more clothing today than we did just 20 years ago. Every time we buy something that costs less than we think it should, we are perpetuating the problem.
We are addicted to more and more and fast and faster. We have to rise above that addiction. I love a good sale. There was seriously nothing I loved more than 70 percent off and I grew up being praised for sniffing out the best bargains. But we need to acknowledge that our “cheap bargains” have a much higher cost, for those who made them and for our planet. We need to buy less in quantity and make smarter decisions when it comes to where we buy our clothes. The State of Fashion 2017 report from McKinsey and Business of Fashion stated, “If 2016 was a year of opposing forces clashing, the push for sustainability was one common thread across the industry. Sustainability is becoming an important new driver of consumers’ purchasing decisions. In emerging markets, for example, more than 65 percent of consumers actively seek out sustainable fashion.” It isn’t about cutting off your love of fashion, it’s about knowing more about where your clothes come from. Who made your clothes? Don’t be afraid to ask. You are entitled to an honest answer.
I love what Fashion Revolution says on their website:
We are campaigning for a more accountable industry, where dignity of toil and a safe environment are a standard and not an exception.
As citizens and consumers — our questions, our voices, our shopping habits can have the power to help change things for the better. We are the driver of trends. Every time we buy something, we’re voting with our wallet. When we speak, brands and governments listen.
By Grace is on board with that and we hope you are too.
Until next time,