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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Humanistic Capital Links Producer to Consumer through Fashion Brand Runa

Production and consumption, once so closely interconnected in our daily lives, now sit as binary opposites in modern consumer culture. Whilst our ancestors would have been a dab hand with needle and thread, it is virtually impossible for us to know where our clothing has come from and who has made it – we just walk into a store and buy what we need instantly.

Humanistic Capital aims to change this. It’s an umbrella concept founded by Alex Probodziak, final year Oxford student and Head of Internal Relations at Oxford Entrepreneurs, to house a new fashion brand – Runa (meaning person, putting the ‘human’ back into the production process). Probodziak was inspired to create the fair-trade fashion brand, Runa, because he was aware that whilst trade and manufacture can do a lot of good, workers in developing countries particularly are often exploited and long, complex supply chains creates a disconnect between producer and consumer. Focusing on Colombia, Alex seeks to tackle the situation in which workers are underpaid and exploited. The project will pay textile workers a fair-wage, and allow the buyers of the fashion items to see exactly how the money spent goes towards goals of the workers, using a web 2.0, infographic style internet platform. The workers’ goals are continuously updated. This not only immediately impacts the lives of the workers in a positive way, but also creates and nurtures a new, dynamic relationship between consumer and producer.

Alex and the team intend to start a crowdfunding campaign later this month and they are currently developing the first six fashion pieces for Runa in their Columbian workshop. If all goes to plan the first full Runa collection will launch for SS14, aimed at the ‘confident, vibrant young professional’. I certainly look forward to seeing what they come up with!

Check out their website for more information on the project and find out how to contribute to their crowdfunding campaign. Further down the line Runa will have its own website where you can buy their beautiful pieces and track the impact of your purchases.

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House of Lords: Baroness Young of Hornsey ‘Ethics and Sustainability in the Fashion Industry’

On Tuesday 19th March 2013 Baroness Young of Hornsey opened the second debate on ethics and sustainability in fashion at the House of Lords. It was great timing for me, as I had just organised a workshop day on ethical fashion and was about to present the outcomes of this during Multidisciplinary Research Week at the University of Southampton. One of my suggestions during these talks was that we need greater Government involvement and intervention so it was fantastic to see this debate going ahead. Government intervention will help change progress quicker, either with greater regulation, tighter controls or tax breaks for ethical and sustainable clothing.

WhoMadeYourPants? provide jobs to marginalised women to produce pants in the UK

WhoMadeYourPants? provide jobs to marginalised women to produce pants in the UK

You can catch up with the debate yourself at parliamentlive.tv or read the transcription here. I made some notes, which I will just list in bullet points:

• Fashion is global and local
• Cheaper to dump dye affluent than clean and reuse it
• 400 people died in factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan in last 6 months
• Should have better traceability measures & country of origin labelling
• Horse meat equivalent in fashion industry = cotton as it is often impossible to know where it’s from
• Need for leadership from government to support change makers, ethical initiatives and work in partnership to educate consumers, investing in sustainable fashion SMEs
• We have the moral incentives to act and we have talent in the UK
• Role DFID Responsible and Accountable Garment Sector (RAGS) Challenge Fund
• Government can support ethical clothing through purchase of public sector uniforms
• Many ETI members are engaged in practices which attempt to integrate human rights across the supply chain
• Business secretariat efforts to support UK textile manufacturing
• 20 years after first child labour scandals in our high street chains, we still face same problems. Audit procedures are failing, retailers rely too much on cheap, bribable inspectors
• Need more opportunities to showcase best practice, like Estethica at LFW
• £140m of used clothing going to landfill each year we need to urgently address the issue of reuse, exchange and disposal of clothes
• Govt’s consultation on waste prevention last week identifies clothing as one of priority areas for action
• 95% of Brits would never wear real fur
• Green is not just the new black – it is not a trend
• Industry should discourage image of thin models
• Uzbek cotton = 10% of world’s harvest & 20% of their GDP
• Labour behind the label – calls for improvements in wages and health and safety
• Western companies must be more vigilant of the supply chain and take personal responsibility for supply chains
• Human society’s obsessive circle of creation and destruction
• We need ethical production in UK too, sweatshops do exist
• Consumer’s don’t understand the skills, resources and effort taken to make garments
• Can’t wait for retailers to put voluntary codes in place, we need to create laws for their compliance.
• Need – Reinvestment in UK textile industry, transparency of brands so people can make informed choices, legislation
• World market leaders in fashion
• Barbour makes all of waxed coats in UK – gives money to charity
• Scandinavian’s in lead with most sustainable issues
• Lord Giddens commends Vivienne Westwood for her work on climate change
• Buy less and wear it more – at the heart of how we change consumer behaviour, we are addicted to shopping.
• Benefits of clothes hiring services, retailers offering a mending/alterations service, buy back, clothing exchange events amongst consumers
• 2011, nearly 18000 students registered on fashion and textile course in the UK – influence there, need ethics and sustainability embedded into educational programmes

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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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