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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Ethical Fashion Futures Workshop: Changing Habits in Retail

Back in the summer of 2012, fellow PhD retail researcher Ellie Tighe and I decided that there was something of a gap in the ethical fashion conversation. There was quite a lot going on in London; a number of ethical fashion events, but not academically or student centred. We came up with an idea to put on a small ethical fashion workshop, bringing together a number of academic fields (bearing in mind we are based in human geography) to try and debate the key issues and work towards some possible, practical(ish) solutions.

Ellie then went off to Dhaka, Bangladesh for a few weeks to continue her research and on her return we picked up the idea once again. Before we knew it, we’d been granted a small sum of funding from the faculty and there was no going back! As it was, it was one of the best things both of us have ever done. The workshop/conference day went ahead on Saturday 9th March, in the School of Geography, University of Southampton. It was great for networking and we had a really enjoyable day full of presentations and discussion. We had around 25 attendees including fashion, management and geography students, academics, and a couple of people with their own businesses. Charlie Ross, founder and director of the Offset Warehouse kicked things off by going to the start of the supply chain with a thoroughly engaging presentation on ethical and sustainable fabrics (with samples to touch and feel!).

First to admit that labelling a fabric as entirely ethical is a tricky business, Charlie talked us through some of the main problems in sourcing fabrics and what alternatives are available. Cotton for example, is heavily reliant on chemical pesticides and vast amounts of water. Organic and Fairtrade cotton is the obvious option, but other more unusual fibres are available to us including bamboo, banana and even milk fibre! One of Offset Warehouse’s ethical fabrics was recently taken on by Comme des Garçons for their high fashion collection. We later heard from Jeff Bray that sales of organic cotton have actually decreased, not a trend experienced by Charlie, whose business is growing year on year.

I spoke next, fusing my PhD research interests on second-hand stuff with fashion, I posed the question ‘Is vintage fashion elitist second-hand clothing?’ What is the distinction, and has the trend for vintage improved the street cred of second-hand clothing from charity shops and the like? The point in part was to shift our thoughts to the end of the product life cycle; to debate the view that if we are discussing ethics and sustainability, the best thing we can do is actually make the most of what we have. To consume less, and get the most use out of every single product. Simple really, but we like shopping. So if we can’t help ourselves from buying, and the retailers can’t help themselves from selling, who can step in?

For our third speaker, Tania Phipps-Rufus, that other influence comes from the Government. Tania, a law lecturer at Hertfordshire University raised concerns over the terminology used in the fashion industry as commonly used terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ have no clear definition in a legal framework and are therefore open to misuse. Tania offered a fairly unique opportunity to get a legal perspective on the issues as she presented us part of an on-going project on eco-fashion, culture and law.

After lunch, we turned to social development issues with presentations by Dr Kanchana Ruwanpura of the University of Southampton, Dionne Harrison, Business and Capability Director at Impactt, and Ellie Tighe, PhD candidate at Southampton who is researching the Bangladeshi garment industry. All three speakers have seen the garment factories for themselves and spoken to garment workers and factory managers. These are the people with ground-level insights into the industry and labour practices. Dr Ruwanpura presented results of an ethnographic study in Sri Lanka and Pakistan where she had interviewed factory managers and workers on code of conduct awareness and compliance issues. In Sri Lanka, workers don’t earn a living wage and, as found in this study, workers thought that codes were violated nearly 40% of the time. You can follow up Dr Ruwanpura’s publications here.

It was fantastic to have Dionne from Impactt speak next. Impactt is a leading consultancy specialising in ethical trade, human rights, labour standards, gender and international development. Working with major brands, retailers, governments, academics and NGOs they strive to maximise the positive impacts of global trade. It is interesting to note that they are a business, not a non-profit enterprise and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience having worked with a diverse range of clients with offices in the UK, China, Bangladesh, India, Spain and Australia and a wide network of Impactt associates across Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam. I was quite surprised to hear Dionne talk of a labour skills shortage particularly in China, if this is the case why don’t wages get pushed up as a result of demand? Whilst an increasing number of brands are hiring in-house ethical trade teams, many prefer to call on Impactt for complex issues and/or to get a third party perspective.

Ellie’s presentation shifted focus to Bangladesh where she had carried out six months’ ethnographic work and interviewing. Ellie found that the main problems cited by garment workers were production demands (ie. It is a high-pressured job) and communication (general disrespect between management and workers), wages were cited as a third concern, whilst hours worked fell into the least discussed category. Outsourcing of orders is a serious problem, as these are the factories which fall under the radar and out of the retailer’s ‘selective’ vision.

Dr. Jeoffrey Bray led a fabulous end to the day with, in his words, a ‘controversial’ summary of discussions. A retailer by background, he came to the subject of ethical consumption due to academic curiosity rather than a desire to elicit change. He posed the common question, is ethical fashion an oxymoron? This needs a post of its own. We spent the day talking about clothing; ethical fashion has come to be the recognised vocab for these issues, I don’t see a need to get fastidious! Jeff brought a new dimension to the table, stating that sweatshops are fundamental to development. A job is better than no job.

The consumer should lead, the brands will follow. Do M&S care about ethics? – Jeff questioned – no, but they think their customers do. It is a shame that we didn’t have a high street retailer there to give their side of the story. A speaker had been lined up from a major young high street clothing chain, but couldn’t make it at the last minute. If we are to get into the mind of the shopper, we are very underequipped to understand ethical consumer behaviour. Studies to date have focused on a sample of already ethically-conscious consumers. Jeff’s recently completed PhD study aimed to add to this literature by surveying the general public, sending out questionnaires to 3000 households. Look out for future publications currently in review.

And a final point, many of us buy free range eggs, even students, so why not free range (ethical) clothing? Do we need a Jamie Oliver type figure of the fashion world to bring the issue to the mainstream? I pointed to Livia Firth and Emma Watson, but was reminded that outside of my ethical bubble and my desire to sniff out anything ethical fashion related, the average consumer is not confronted with these issues on a regular basis.

Follow up the day’s presentation slides here.

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

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