Where did fast fashion come from?

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Last Monday 24th April was Fashion Revolution Day, the day that marks the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Bangladesh, 2013. Over 1,100 workers died that day, made all the more tragic by the fact that many had protested outside the building just that morning on the basis of the factory being unsafe. They’d noticed cracks in the walls, they knew something wasn’t right, but they were forced to go to work anyway.

The factory was producing fast fashion for consumers in the West. Brands linked to the factory included Primark, Walmart, Bonmarche and Matalan, as well as some US, German and French companies. Globalisation has enabled complex supply chains so it’s conceivable that these companies didn’t know they had direct links with suppliers so blatantly flaunting safety precautions. All they needed was cheap clothes to sell to the West on mass.

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So, where did fast fashion come from?

For most of history fashion has been slow, very slow. When you had to make your own clothes, or a new dress cost a few months’ wages, there wasn’t going to be anything fast about it. Then the machines started to make light work of spinning, weaving and even sewing, and by the 1920’s the U.S. faced a problem – overproduction.

In the sixty years since the civil war ended in 1865, the U.S. population had increased threefold, whilst output had increased twelve times. By 1927 the textile mills could produce enough cloth for the population’s needs (and by need, I mean actual need, not consumer desire mistaken for need) by operating for just six months of the year. Rather than think, “How wonderful! We can holiday (sorry, vacation) for half the year!” They saw it as a problem of surplus. Their solution, led by the likes of Herbert Hoover, was not to produce less and enjoy the shorter working hours afforded by the Industrial Revolution, but to make the public consume more. By creating a consumer desire for more stuff, they were able to shift more of the new consumables they were producing in the factories and boost the economy: which was needed, because in 1929 the US entered the Great Depression. John Maynard Keynes’ ‘age of leisure’ never came to fruition, as a consumer culture was posited as the route to increased productivity, competition and profits. It was a move that proved popular for consumers, who were promised improved happiness, health and social approval if they only bought more stuff, made all the more accessible with increased access to credit.

Clothing retailers quickly caught on and by the late 1980s were able to offer fast fashion to the masses. As wage costs soared in high wage economies Western retailers relocated assembly offshore, first to places like China and India, and then Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal. By capitalising on the low-cost skills in emerging manufacturing economies, Western retailers were able to plough their labour power into marketing and essentially driving a new consumer culture. This led some economists to believe that it was the suppliers who were set to gain because the increased demands on productivity would make them more efficient and competent and therefore, hold more power than the retailer.

Sadly, the opposite happened because overseas manufacturing facilities developed at a similar rate and the growth in concentration of Western retailers allowed for greater buying and bargaining power on their part. As factories became ever more dispensable to retailers, power dynamics tipped heavily to the brands who were able to place large orders as a way to push piece costs down. Producers had become subordinate to those who design, market and retail fast fashion in the West. The media and retail industries became increasingly entwined, bombarding us with messages to buy, buy, buy, so we’re all working as hard as ever to keep up. We now use shopping as a way to reward ourselves for all those hours at work.

There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with shopping per se. Manufacturing and retail is a huge part of the global economy and provides jobs. Yet fashion is an industry of binaries: producer/consumer, global south/north, rich/poor, shiny/broken. Ethical fashion advocates want to break down these binaries and ensure that the fashion economy works for the benefit of all and promotes craftsmanship and ethical business practices.

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Fashion Revolution encourages consumers to challenge brands on their corporate ethics. This year the campaign has shifted from a one-day event to a seven day ‘Fashion Revolution Week’. This means there’s plenty of time to get involved and ask brands ‘Who made my clothes?’ The more consumers use their voice, the more retailers have to listen. The easiest way to get involved is to take to social media and show your label.

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Thesis online: The social, cultural and economic role of NCT nearly new sales

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My entire PhD thesis is available online so if you are interested you can take a look here: THE SOCIAL, CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC ROLE OF NCT NEARLY NEW SALES: Second-hand consumption and middle-class mothering

Many thanks to the participants and NCT branch volunteers who supported and contributed to the research. The project was funded by the ESRC’s Retail Industry Business Engagement Network and sponsored by NCT.

Happy reading!

Second-hand childrenswear at an NCT sale

Second-hand childrenswear at an NCT sale

Abstract: NCT nearly new sales are held across the UK as a service for local parents to buy and sell second-hand or used baby clothes, toys and equipment. This thesis investigates the social structures influencing participation, individual consumption practice at the sales (and of mothers at home) and the social role of the sales. With an emphasis on mothers as co-consumers, the study utilised a mixed-method approach of participant observation, interviewing and a quantitative survey across 13 sales/branches in the UK.

Findings suggest that the typical middle-class demographic participating in the sales are not financially or socially excluded from conventional first-cycle retail but rather attend the sales in order to get the best value for money and to buy extra, non-essential baby goods, as well as for social and moral reasons of reciprocity. The thesis explores the tensions and responsibilities of motherhood as enacted through consumption practice and structured by the themes of social class, thrift and co-consumption. As a diverse retail space, attendees with higher levels of social and cultural capital benefit most from the sales and are able to mobilise the sales for both material and social/cultural resources as a space of bonding and learning. Whilst not common, the sales can encourage further involvement with NCT as a parenting charity and in local parenting networks.

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#JustFriday #BlackFriday or #Friyay – your choice.

You’ll be fully aware of Black Friday I’m sure. Another ‘tradition’ to come across the Atlantic, Black Friday takes place the day after Thanksgiving, which is the fourth Thursday in November. This year, Black Friday falls on November 27 and kick starts the holiday shopping season with promotions and discounts. On Black Friday last year, British consumers spent £810m on online purchases alone. That works out to a rate of £9,375 every second. That said, some retailers are taking a softer approach this year and spreading their promotions across the week, or even, the entire period between now and Christmas. One such retailer is Asda who will be offering £26 million worth of promotions over November and December in a bid to avoid the media frenzy of 2014 when this video of shoppers scrambling over one another to get their hands on discounted TVs went viral.

Because I’d rather be asleep at midnight tomorrow rather than logged on to Amazon, I’m on board with Traidcraft who want to remind everyone that it’s #JustFriday. Traidcraft have been ‘Fighting poverty through trade’ since 1979 and this month they have put together a fantastic infographic below on the trials and tribulations of Black Friday and how we can all work to make it a little brighter. Black Friday also coincides with Second-hand First Week, an initiative by TRAID to promote second-hand shopping. I for one know my #Friyay shopping will involve little more than a mulled wine with friends at the local Christmas market. What about you?

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Who IS to blame? Critiquing the fast fashion model after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh

A new journal article has been published critiquing the events that led to the tragic 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where 1,127 people were killed. Published in Critical Perspectives on International Business, 10(1/2) Ian Taplin asks ‘Who is to blame? A re-examination of fast fashion after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh’. The paper is freely available to the general public until Christmas so you can read it for yourself here. In the article, Taplin provides an overview of global clothing supply chains and how increased consumer demand and trade law liberalisation created the context for the precarious supply chains and ‘race to the bottom’ that ultimately led to the Rana Plaza fatalities along with hundreds of other factory deaths in Bangladesh alone.

So who is to blame? I’m going to start with Taplin’s abstract. Granted, abstracts are tricky to write but assuming that an author tries to cover the paper’s key points, Taplin’s take home message is the following:

Finally, blame is apportioned to Western consumers whose insatiable appetite for ‘fashionable’ goods merely feeds a retail system that was set up to resolve earlier supply chain problems and ended up taking advantage of changing international trade regimes.

Normally, I’d be quick to place responsibility on consumers but place all the blame? I don’t think so. It’s like the chicken or the egg – what came first, consumer demand for cheap stuff? Or cheap stuff? If you switch the question around to ask who is the victim, rather than who’s to blame, I think everyone comes off the victim except the retailer. Consumers fall victim to being manipulated by mass media, postmodern culture and retail advertising to part with their cash on the belief that owning another dress will make them happier in some way. Suppliers are victim to retailer demands, who, at the click of their fingers can switch to a supplier/country offering a better deal (the race to the bottom), and of course workers are victims, exploited for their labour because they have few other options to earn a living (especially as states for example, favour exports over small scale local industries).

It’s an incredibly complex issue as myself and so many others continue to repeat. Taplin captures much of this complexity in his paper and if you read the whole thing, he doesn’t only lay blame on consumers. That said, I’m not sure what the ‘earlier supply chain problems’ that needed to be resolved actually are. He goes on to say (p.74) that:

Manufacturing in the clothing industry is labour-intensive, hence competitive success for manufacturers has been achieved through cost-minimisation strategies that generally revolve around the search for low wage labour.

Perhaps this is the problem he speaks of, the fact that clothes manufacturing is labour intensive and hence expensive. This isn’t the consumer’s fault though, and we’d be better, more sustainable consumers if more manufacturing had stayed in the Global North, protecting jobs even if goods where a bit more expensive. Towards the end of the paper Taplin claims that ‘the average Western consumer remains largely indifferent to the plight of those workers overseas’. I don’t disagree with this in entirety but his only evidence is reference to an Evening Standard article on Primark shoppers, so do Primark shoppers constitute the ‘average’ shopper?

Interestingly last weekend I overheard two young teenage girls discussing Primark and child labour whilst in the fitting rooms of TKMaxx. One wanted to go there and one didn’t for the very reason that their clothes were ‘made in sweatshops’. They also talked about Apple, the other girl claiming it was good she didn’t have an i-Phone as they use child labour too. I expect they still went to Primark and spent their allowance there, but maybe in 5 years time or so they will be able to turn that knowledge into action. So I don’t think we can make any claims about the ‘average’ shopper when attitudes and awareness is changing faster than ever.

I’m not anti-capitalist but I do think Taplin’s article would benefit from a radical critique of the particular capitalist model that has fed the fashion retail industry as it stands today. He hasn’t gone far enough to consider the factors leading to the Rana Plaza disaster and ultimately situates such tragedies as inevitable without apportioning significant blame on the retailers and broader societal norms.

Ian M. Taplin , (2014) “Who is to blame?: A re-examination of fast fashion after the 2013 factory disaster in Bangladesh”, Critical Perspectives on International Business, Vol. 10 Iss: 1/2, pp.72 – 83

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UN Climate Summit and the Place of Ethical Consumption Research

Last week (23rd September 2014) saw the UN Climate Summit, where global leaders from Government, business, finance and civil society came together to announce their commitments to action in areas that are critical for keeping global temperature increases to less than two degrees C. The 8 proposed Action Areas were Agriculture, Cities, Energy, Financing, Forests, Industry, Resilience and Transportation. I’m not going to provide a summary of the summit because there is plenty of information online but it has prompted me to share some thoughts from two conferences I went to this summer.

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Have a look at this climate map from the Guardian (click here). Watch how, as my friend said, the world ‘breathes in and out’ as you flick between highest population data and highest consumption – or consumption and all levels of highest vulnerability to climate change. It comes as no surprise that the countries with the highest levels of consumption are not the countries with the highest population, nor those at greatest risk of problems associated with sea level rise and poverty.

The inequality is both startling and disgusting, and world leaders at the summit did appear to be concerned about the tangible effects of climate change in the form of severe weather events. In a press conference following Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s speech, Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters that “weather extremes have greatly affected the Chinese people.” According to a report by the European Commission, China’s carbon emissions increased by around 10% PER YEAR in the decade prior to 2013 at which point it slowed to a 3% increase, whilst the EU had a 4% decrease.

In order to slow CO2 emissions we need a greater commitment to more sustainable consumption, at all scales, from personal to global. Whilst we do drastically need to cut carbon emissions, I think this could be framed more positively through a holistic sustainable consumption approach rather than focusing on carbon emissions per se. Lots of research is being done to try and learn more about consumer behavior and the motivation behind individual action. With climate change now regarded to be a critical policy issue, what’s the place of social science research in this agenda?

I attended two brilliant workshops/conferences over the summer that got me thinking about just that:

Ethical consumption and the globalising middle-classes: Philosophies, policies and practices, Durham University

Sustainable consumption and lifecourse transitions, University of Surrey.

They were only a week apart, so it was great to immerse myself in these overlapping topics and tease out the key themes across the two. The content of course did differ, as did many of the approaches with Durham being mainly geographers and Surrey mainly attended by sociologists, however I certainly got a sense of where future research is headed, and which directions we should steer it in.

The key theme for Durham was ‘globalising’, the argument being that most of the research conducted on ethical consumption is exclusively from the point of view of the West. Such research utilises a Western take on what it means to be ethical to consider the role of the consumer in the Global North and the producer in the Global South. Events like the UN Summit on climate change rely on a global agreement to produce any effect; therefore we cannot continue to be bound to this north/south dichotomy but should instead look at different variables and viewpoints. A couple of particularly interesting points to take from this workshop for me were –

How are ‘ethical’ products marketed within the Global South and what does this say about different attitudes and values?

What do we mean by ethics? Can we start laying judgement on ethical endeavours elsewhere without an understanding of the different cultural definitions of ethics?

As an example, a well-known chain/department store in Bangladesh called Aarong states on it’s website that it “is dedicated to bring about positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged artisans and underprivileged rural women” yet according to Prof. Nicky Gregson, there is no mention of this message in store. The growing middle-class (30m people) in Bangladesh are shopping to keep up with the latest fashions. Status as exemplified by taste is of utmost importance, and shopping at Aarong enables a form of distinction for this group. The ethics are silent though, rather than capitalising on ethics for commodity value, Aarong is an example of consumption with ethical effects not ethical consumption as a route for political action.

This is quite a different way of thinking through ethical consumption, which at least in the Global North, is considered a purposeful act to play out identities, politics and status. As discussed (but certainly not proven) during the workshop, perhaps such explicit reference to ethical production/consumption is too close to home in Bangladesh. With cheap clothes accounting for around 78% of total exports, the garment industry is both a source of ethical contention and a major factor in the increasing wealth of the growing elite. Similarly, in South Africa and Kenya locally sourced fair trade brands sell to their own middle-class not by focusing on a message to help the poor but on ‘love Africa’. Place, and therefore geography, is critical in forwarding this work and expanding the definition of what it means to be an ‘ethical consumer’.

The need for consistent terminology also came up at the Surrey conference and is particularly important if we want ethical/sustainable consumption research to successfully span different countries, cultures and disciplines. We discussed whether more interventionist research is indeed ethical as I proposed it as a helpful way to move forward in understanding how to change consumer behaviour. It’s one thing trying to find out why we act the way we do, but what about ‘nudging’ individuals to do things differently? As the title of the workshop suggests, we discussed lifecourse transitions, moving into the metaphysical realm of postulating how views of life after death may alter what we do in life. Maybe its philosophy we are missing? There are many ways to approach research on sustainable/ethical consumption/lifestyles and I think we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. The important thing, is to keep sharing ideas not just with each other but with policy makers and society at large too – globally.

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