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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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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Could you Sacrifice your Little Black Dress for the Black T-shirt Campaign?

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The festive party season is upon us. I have my own office party this week and like many people I have been planning my outfit for weeks. I had a look around the shops for a new dress but couldn’t find anything I really loved within my price bracket; my conscience also wouldn’t allow me to buy anything new when I knew I had dresses at home. So lo and behold, not only am I wearing a dress that I already own, I wore it for my birthday this year (I’m putting a sparkly cardie over it – they’ll never notice).

The question is could I give up my LBD for a campaign tee? That is exactly what the Black T-shirt Campaign is asking us to do. Founded by US-based Angela Gale, the Black T-shirt Campaign asks you to wear their campaign tee at any social event you attend for a block of time, and donate the money you would have spent on a new outfit to the work of an anti-human trafficking charity. Wearing the campaign t-shirt will help to raise awareness of the unethical practices embedded within the fashion industry and get people talking.

It’s a great idea and Angela needs our help to get it off the ground. They are looking to raise $5,500 through Kickstarter in order to produce the t-shirts which will be manufactured by American Apparel and hand screen-printed by Angela. For $25 you can pre-order your own campaign tee. Check out the campaign page here.

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Is Commercial Sensitivity Jeopardising Supply Chain Transparency? #BAD13

I wrote this post as part of the Human Friendly Fashion Consortium’s conversation for Blog Action Day 2013. Blog Action Day is a global event which since 2007 has brought together thousands of bloggers to talk about a particular issue. This year is human rights, a contentious issue in the fashion industry as I’m sure you will agree.

As part of Blog Action Day Fashion Mob founder, Esther Freeman, explains why it’s dangerous to point the finger of blame at consumers for human rights abuses by the fashion industry.

“Since the collapse of the Rama Plaza building in Bangladesh, the media has been full of discussions and head scratching about fashion. One comment that keeps coming up is the responsibility of consumers around fast fashion.

Quite frankly this is nonsense. Furthermore it is dangerous to suggest so.

All too often high street chains whine about how hard it is for them to improve human rights, and how they’d change but consumers don’t want it. It’s become their get out clause. And by saying consumers have some kind of responsibility, we reinforce that myth.”

I think consumers do have some responsibility, but it is difficult for consumers to do anything when they are given such little information to work with. Last month I tried to contact a high street retailer to ask where they sourced their leather from. I actually wanted to know as a consumer, not as an ethical fashion blogger. I really liked their leather skirts and I wanted to find out whether I could justify buying one. I guess I was making a point as well, that consumers should be offered more information. I don’t have a problem with wearing leather, as a by-product and only if it’s processed with the least possible human and environmental impact (leather processing can be very dirty and dangerous to human health).

I started by tweeting their helpline twitter account. They replied very quickly and said ‘that’s a good question. I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you.’ A few days later nothing so I tried again but was ignored. I then emailed their customer service (which states they will reply within 24 hours), still nothing. I tweeted again but more publically (I was a little aggrieved by this point), and then they replied. Again they said they would find out but I’ve heard nothing since. Perhaps even they couldn’t find out, such is the long and complex supply chains these retailers have.

This shouldn’t be so hard. A customer should be able to ask a question about a product and get an answer.

When I told a friend who happens to work in the head office of another major high street retailer she said that they might have thought I was a competitor or trying to find out commercially sensitive information. She said even giving me a country of origin could allow me to draw up a shortlist of suppliers and I might go and steal away their lovely leather. This hadn’t even occurred to me. I also noticed recently reading Lucy Siegle’s interviews with retailers in the Observer that they were all asked if they provide a public list of supplier factories and many said no because the information is ‘commercially sensitive’. I understand the retailer’s point of view but I also see this as a massive problem. How can consumers make an informed decision with such a woeful amount of information?

And this puts even more responsibility on the retailers. If they won’t allow us to make an informed decision, they morally have to ensure we aren’t inadvertently purchasing something we aren’t happy with. How can we show that we care about human rights if they don’t give us the facts?

Show that you care by badgering your favourite shops as much as possible. Ask their sales assistants where they source their garments from, ask how the material is processed, email them, tweet them, do whatever it takes to show that you are not a passive consumer.

You can also sign the 1% campaign. The campaign calls on the fashion industry to invest 1% of their profits in solving issues in their supply chain, especially around human rights. We need more time and investment in activities like better auditing, health and safety training and improved working with NGOs and trade unions at local level.

>> Sign the 1% Campaign petition and demand that multinationals take responsibility for what happens in their name.

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‘The True Cost’: a film exploring the impact of the global clothing industry on people and the planet

“Each one of us has the power to do something. This is a game-changing moment”

Andrew interviews Livia Firth of Eco Age & the Green Carpet Challenge

Andrew interviews Livia Firth of Eco Age & the Green Carpet Challenge

That is the optimistic end to the trailer made by LA-based film director Andrew Morgan. Andrew wants to produce a feature length documentary focusing on the global fashion industry. While the price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, the human and environmental cost has escalated. It is the goal of this film to explore how we got here, what exactly are these human and environmental costs, and the hope filled prospect of choosing a different future.

Andrew has rounded up an amazing team of experts, including Scott Nova from the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney founder of People Tree, John Hilary War on Want and Pietra Rivoli author of ‘Travels of a T-shirt’. The 4:35 minute teaser film features clips of interviews that Andrew has done to date, and he now needs to raise cash to go ahead with the full-length documentary. The Kickstarter project fund launched today with a target of $75, 000 by 11th November 2013 for costs associated with principal photography and the post-production process. I defy you to watch the teaser and not feel moved. Andrew captures the emotion and urgency of the cause, making me, the viewer, feel frustrated and angry but also hopeful, and certainly empowered.

Andrew interviews John Hilary of War on Want

Andrew interviews John Hilary of War on Want

How DID we get here? How did we become so disconnected from the production process that we don’t know where our clothes are made and how did shopping become a weekly leisure pursuit rather than an act of provisioning? As Livia Firth is quoted in the film “unless you change the model, you can’t change anything”. The fashion industry as it stands cannot be sustainable, it’s far too big. Change is needed and everyone needs to be a part of it – shoppers, retailers and suppliers. It is terribly sad that it took a tragedy like the Rana Plaza factory collapse to catapult this issue to worldwide news but consumers really have no excuse to feign ignorance anymore. We just need to keep the conversation going, keep putting pressure on retailers and ensure that shoppers can make informed choices.

I really, really hope this film goes ahead. It will surely be pivotal in this ‘game-changing’ moment we now find ourselves in. Fast fashion won’t disappear as quickly as it arrived but I do think there is hope for change; we just have a struggle on our hands to get there.

Check out the teaser film here

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