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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Bangladesh Factory Collapse – News and Comment Round-up

Nearly two weeks after the collapse of the Bangladeshi factory complex the story continues to dominate the news. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, when it collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday 24th April 2013. The factories produced clothing for major Western fashion brands including Primark, Matalan, Bon Marche and Mango. The death toll has now reached 550, including children who were in the crèche facilities. Some lay under the rubble half alive for days, others are still missing.

When I first heard about this, my primary emotion (perhaps surprisingly) wasn’t sadness, but anger. As the death toll rose and I watched footage on the TV, the anger dissipated to deep sadness and despair. It isn’t the first disaster in a Bangladeshi clothing factory, in the last eight years alone 1000 people have died in similar incidents and fires, but it is the worst to date. My only hope is that the disaster acts as a wake-up call for the industry, and for western consumers. It’s all too easy to detach yourself from where your clothes are made, but the truth is any one of us could have clothing in our wardrobes made and touched by the hand of someone who died that day. I certainly don’t want to have blood on my hands.

I’m glad the press have taken to this story, I mean of course they would, it’s world news, it would have been pretty hard for the British public to have missed it. The Financial Times challenged the world’s retailers to start using their ‘economic muscle’ to fight for change for properly enforced safety standards in factories, although, as pointed out by The New York Times, this isn’t easy when 10% of the parliamentary seats in Bangladesh are held by factory owners and their families. The retailers involved in sourcing from the Rana Plaza complex have been named and shamed by the press, after coming forward themselves with statements. Benetton had had an order completed by one of the factories housed there some weeks before, stating in a press release that it had be subcontracted out to the factory by one of its other suppliers.

Subcontracting is a massive problem. Often the factories visited by UK buyers and merchandisers are nice enough, like the one below visited by my colleague Ellie Tighe (read Ellie’s comment to ITV news here). It’s when orders are outsourced that the greatest problems occur, and whilst this isn’t the retailers fault per say, they do have a responsibility to fully audit and trace their supply chains. Retailers can’t continue to shift the blame to subcontractors; they should know what each supplier’s capacity is and what their workload is.

Dhaka Clothing Factory Copyright: Ellie Tighe

Dhaka Clothing Factory Copyright: Ellie Tighe

What can consumers do?

So what can we do? I hope a number of people are contemplating this very question in light of the tragic events. Should we boycott clothes made in Bangladesh? Personally, I have certainly tried to avoid anything made in Bangladesh for the last couple of years, and I do boycott Primark for promotion of fast fashion, but avoiding the high street all together is tough. David Blair, commenting in The Telegraph advocates a boycott of Primark and its owners, Associated British Foods, placing the responsibility firmly with the consumer.

But Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world, if we stop buying it, what will happen to those workers? The working conditions and wages may seem anything from less than favourable to utterly appalling from our standards, but things are slowly improving in many instances. Clearly, less developed countries have a different measuring stick to us; what I have a problem with is Western retailers and consumers exploiting this for their own gain. We do not need this cheap, fast fashion. We are well clothed. People should not be dying so that we can buy a little t-shirt for the same price as a large frothy coffee.

Labour Behind the Label have a quick and easy guide to shopping more ethically here.

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