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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How your cashmere jumper may be causing desertification

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It’s nearly Christmas so if you haven’t got your Christmas jumper out yet you’re sure to have spotted others wearing theirs. Whether you’re wearing, giving or receiving knitwear this winter though, it’s worth giving a thought to where that jumper came from. It’s all too easy to think that stuff just ‘appears’ in our favourite shops, but the supply chains behind these commodities can be long and complex. Cashmere is particularly pushed by retailers at Christmas as a luxury, yet increasingly affordable, product. But how many people know where cashmere comes from? I’d like to tell you the story of cashmere, and the journey might not be as plush as you imagine.

Cashmere fibre comes from a specific breed of goat. Traditionally it has been very difficult to get hold of cashmere, as three to six goats are needed to make just one medium sized sweater. Only twelve regions in the world have the right temperature and terrain to accommodate cashmere goats, the best spots being in Mongolia, China, India and Iran. To survive freezing temperatures, the goats develop a thick protective layer of hair, over a downy coat of super fine hair (the cashmere). Unsurprisingly, cashmere has long been an exclusive, luxury item. Until now that is, when you can pick up a cashmere sweater at the supermarket for £30-£40, but how?

Much of our cashmere used to be spun in Scotland, but by 2004 restrictions on cashmere imports had been lifted and spotting demand, China rushed in and flooded the market with cheap cashmere sweaters. There are now more than 2000 cashmere companies in China who source their cashmere from one of two means. PETA warn that many Asian cashmere goats live in atrocious conditions on factory farms. Others, whilst left to wonder free, are having disastrous effects on the environment due to their large numbers. There are simply too many living in the same place but farmers have found themselves in a vicious cycle. Stripping the land of pasture leaves nothing for the goats to eat and undernourished goats produce less fleece, forcing farmers to put more and more animals on dwindling land . It’s a problem found in other areas of livestock rearing and agriculture, but few solutions have been raised.

The Alashan Plateau, which extends from the Tibetan Plateau northward into Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, was home to 2.4 million Gobi goats in the 90s and now accommodates 26 million. As well as their grazing potential (eating 10% of their body weight a day), the goat’s hard hooves pummel away at the rest of the land. What should be grassland areas are turning to dust and desert at the rate of 400 square miles a year, disrupting the ecosystem and causing severe dust pollution. According to a study, 80% of this desertification can be attributed to overgrazing livestock. Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages because the land cannot sustain their livelihoods.

So what can consumers and retailers do? “Our industry’s challenge is to change this unsustainable system and put new, sustainable practices in place,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering. “Companies need to recognise that their business depends on natural capital and also impacts many livelihoods at the base of their supply chain.”

In the world of fashion, cheap often is far from cheerful. For ethical alternatives try the Oxfam Online Shop for second-hand cashmere (even cheaper than the supermarkets!) or check out Brora and Izzy Lane, both of which source sustainable cashmere.

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My Ethical Fashion Journey from School to PostDoc

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This is a re-post from the wonderful site Just Stories where I was asked to contribute a post about my ethical fashion journey. JustStories.live is a new blog set up to share individual’s stories as they attempt to live a more sustainable and/or socially just life. I think Just Stories marks a return to a more honest blogging style. Many blogs have become just as monetised as other forms of media and blogs have become a projection of an ideal image rather than a realistic depiction of ordinary people muddling through. Just Stories isn’t trying to sell anything; Sarah, the brains behind it, just wanted a platform for people to share their experiences, and if it also inspires others then that’s great.

Here’s my story. It also provides an update on what I’ve been doing this summer (which, you may have noticed, hasn’t been much blogging).

I have a love/hate relationship with fashion. On the one hand I love the vibrant colour of a kaleidoscopic digital print, the luxurious feel of thick velvet and the innate power of a little black dress. On the other hand, I hate the fact that new stock hits high street stores on a weekly basis, that there’s an estimated 3.6bn items of unworn clothes hanging in British wardrobes and that, on 24th April 2013, 1134 people in Bangladesh failed to return from their garment factory jobs because they had been crushed to death making cheap clothes for us consumers in the West.

The general gist of this won’t be new to you. We all know about sweatshops, and how, twenty years after Nike and GAP first hit the mainstream news accused of child- and sweatshop labour in the early 90s, the Rana Plaza collapse brought it all screaming back. I was at school in the late 90s and like many young girls I loved clothes, with my heart set on a career in fashion by the time I was 13. When I was 16 I did work experience at Sugar magazine and chose my A-level subjects based on my desire to study fashion at University. To me a career in fashion was glamorous, bold and fun – basically the opposite of how I felt as an awkward teenager.

It all went to plan for a few years (although I wasn’t cool enough to get into the London College of Fashion) until I started to become interested in ethical fashion in my second year of Uni. I really can’t remember a trigger; I don’t think I watched any particular programme or anything, I just became aware of the fact that there was an ugly side of fashion, hidden from public view. I researched this for an entire year, writing my final year dissertation on sweatshop labour. By the end of Uni, when I needed to start looking for jobs, I remember telling my housemate how disillusioned I’d become with the industry and how I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in it. The problem was I’d spent the best part of a decade planning my career in fashion, it shaped my academic choices and work experience, what else could I do?

I had a few options. I applied for jobs but the only ones I got interviewed for were fashion-related (shocker!) and once I started getting interviews it did renew my enthusiasm for the industry. I applied for an MA in international business and intercultural communications thinking it could broaden my options; I was still interested in fashion and retail, I just knew there must be a better way. In the meantime I was also contacted by my undergrad dissertation supervisor. She had been awarded funding for an ethical fashion project and wanted me to be her research assistant, so that’s what I did. I also did an MPhil in ethical fashion, switching from researching labour, as I had done for my undergrad dissertation, to researching the environmental impacts of cotton production and ethical marketing.

I started my blog emmawaight.co.uk in 2010 where I compiled a directory of ethical fashion companies and continue to provide commentary and reviews. I wrote for other websites too, and volunteered for the Ethical Fashion Forum just as they were getting started. As a regular consumer so much is hidden from us but it’s very difficult not to care once you know, when you’re researching something full-time. That said, I wasn’t and am still not perfect. I still shopped on the high street, with token purchases from ethical brands.

There was a fascinating experiment run in Berlin last year for Fashion Revolution Day (now held annually on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse) where a €2 t-shirt vending machine was placed in the city centre. When passers-by inserted their money for a tee they were shown images of the shirt’s production at sweatshops around the world, before being offered the chance to donate their €2 to help incite change. Despite not even being told where their money would go, 90% chose to donate rather than take the t-shirt. Knowledge empowers consumers, without it we lethargically consume more and more without a second thought.

Source: Fashion Revolution

Source: Fashion Revolution

After my MPhil I went on to a different university to do a PhD in Human Geography. It was a steep learning curve (turns out GCSE Geography, even an A*, doesn’t get you very far) but Geography soon became my home. My PhD was about mothering and second-hand consumption of children’s things, so still shopping, but not ethical fashion. I kept my toe in the water though, continuing with my blog, starting a new ethical fashion website that has since ceased, organising a one-day ethical fashion conference, being one of the first Oxfam Fashion volunteers and co-founding a clothing ‘swap shop’ at the University. As my research interests have become more varied however, and I’ve become more time-pressured by work, I feel like I’ve lost my way a little. One of the reasons I closed down my second website, apart from lack of time, was that I started to doubt myself. I haven’t been involved in academic research on ethical fashion for years, I don’t work for an NGO or ethical enterprise, I haven’t seen a garment factory with my own eyes, and yet, others introduced me as an ethical fashion expert. I preferred the word advocate; I didn’t feel like an expert, or even an activist – I wasn’t doing enough.

As is the curse, the more I had learnt the less I felt I knew. I met people who went to garment factories in Bangladesh and India and said they weren’t that bad. I listened to the ‘at least they have a job’ arguments and ‘factory work empowers women’ narrative. It’s true, Western consumption supports millions of jobs in the Global South. I don’t always know which retailers are good or bad. I don’t know what I even mean by good or bad. I was getting more and more emails from people who wanted to start ethical fashion enterprises of some sort but I knew even the biggest ethical fashion companies weren’t making any money. I wanted to help publicise them but I didn’t have time to write a blog about every one, and I didn’t want my blog to be a series of adverts, so my blog writing slowed down considerably.

I was asked to write this blog at pivotal time. I recently sold my flat and moved back to my parents because I couldn’t rely on fixed-term research jobs to pay the mortgage. I’m focused on the academic job hunt, all my spare time spent working on job applications, research proposals and paper writing. The ethical fashion stuff has felt like a distraction from that, something I could easily leave at the wayside as I start the next chapter of my life. Although I’ve let my campaigning slip my personal consumption habits are more focused than ever. Shopping is democratic; we vote every time we buy something. Personally, I don’t want to give my money to fat cat company executives who exploit everyone else down the supply chain, I want to give my money to enterprises like Assisi Garments who supply People Tree. Set up by Franciscan nuns, they provide training and employment for deaf, mute and economically disadvantaged women in India. Transforming lives through trade – that’s where fashion’s real beauty lies.

The same week that I was asked to share my story here, I attended a session on ‘Scholarly Activism’ at a major Geography conference in London. With academics, fashion designers and campaigners all in one room sharing ideas, I realised I didn’t need to choose one or the other. The ethical fashion movement has gained huge traction; sustainability and corporate social responsibility are beginning to be integrated into education and messages are becoming clearer but there’s still a long way to go. Capitalism as we know it has failed us in many ways. This month, the major Fashion Weeks will be trying to sell the same garments we’ve had for centuries, just mashed together in a different way. We can choose to be part of that, or we can choose not to.

If you choose not to there are LOADS of alternatives. Brands like Nomads, People Tree and Monkee Genes offer excellent quality, style and are not necessarily more expensive than your regular stores. EthicalConsumer.org have a super website were you’ll find brands ranked on their ethical credentials. I have a long list of ethical brands on my own website too, and I’ll try to blog more, I promise.

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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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Ethical Spring Fashions by Deborah Campbell Atelier

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I met Deborah, of Deborah Campbell Atelier, in Winchester Discovery Centre a couple of months ago; a fitting place to hear about the designer’s innovative use of sustainable fibres and abstract art inspired prints. A wealth of experience in clothes manufacturing and trend forecasting led to the formation of Deborah Campbell Atelier as a women’s ethical fashion brand, with Deborah now working towards her third collection. The pieces, which are vibrant yet classic enough to wear season after season, are all made in Britain using sustainable materials such as recycled fabric from plastic bottles and British wool. Deborah’s SS16 collection is the largest yet, offering a complete capsule wardrobe for work and play.

Deborah started her fashion career working for a manufacturing company at a time when much of the production industry remained based in the UK. She went on to establish her own manufacturing company and with business partners supplied the likes of high street favourites Miss Selfridge and Oasis. From here, she shifted focus to branding and consultancy, establishing another business called Style Industries London. Through Style Industries London Deborah offers forecasting, design and sourcing consultancy to other fashion brands that want to adopt a sustainable approach, “gently nodding toward key trends that have longevity”.

Deborah founded her own ethical fashion brand because she “didn’t enjoy the endless spiral of consumption”. She knew that some high street brands and retailers were becoming more responsible, but that it wasn’t enough without working under a totally different system. For Deborah, sustainability isn’t a trend, but something that must become part of how we live. With her background it’s no surprise that Deborah’s managed to create a fashion product that’s both desirable and sustainable.

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The dress shown here is made from recycled plastic bottles. Processed through a mechanical rather than chemical process in Italy by textile manufacturer Saluzzo Yarns (formerly Filature Miroglio), the fibre known as ‘Newlife’ was also used by Georgio Armani to create an eco-friendly gown for Livia Firth at the 2012 Golden Globe Awards. The fabric is then digitally printed, far better for the environment than the dirtier screen-printing process. The result is a beautiful, top quality fabric that holds its shape for Deborah’s shift dresses and smart box blouses. In addition, Deborah sources British wool from Ireland and Scotland to produce classic chunky jumpers made in Leicester.

Lifestyle & Family Photography

The SS16 collection has just launched on the website ready for pre-order. Although you’ll have to wait until next year for dresses, you can cosy up in one of the classic fisherman’s sweaters right now. The Guernsey Jumper (£99) is a heritage piece inspired by the original Guernsey, first designed for the channel Island fisherman to help brave the elements back in the 1500. Shoppers also have the chance to support the Phoenix Foundation by buying the ‘Bee the Change’ organic cotton tee. 20% of the profit from the sale of this t-shirt goes to The Phoenix Foundation who provide much needed burns equipment to children caught up in war zones.

Deborah Campbell Atelier is a label to watch and you can get a slice of the action with an exclusive discount code – 20% off all products using code EMW15DCA until the 31st December. Browse and buy online www.deborahcampbellatelier.com

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