Book Review: Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

stitchedupbook

You can’t have missed the media coverage marking the one year anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 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. 1,138 people died; a heart-breaking consequence of the West’s addiction to cheap, fast fashion.

This is just one, albeit horrific example of the dark side to fashion; an industry built on the image of glamour, wealth and beauty. A new book aims to draw all that’s bad about the fashion industry together into one hard-hitting, brutally honest volume. Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion was written by Tansy Hoskins, the writer, journalist and activist. Case-by-case Hoskins dissects the industry we all love to hate by investigating the plight of the garment workers, the insatiable want of consumers, and the manipulative nature of the media industry. This book surpassed my expectations. There are many books on ethical fashion out there, some more wishy-washy than others. Hoskins attempt is admirable and a credit to her top-notch investigative journalism skills alongside her genuine passion for the topic. If you liked Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? you’ll devour Stitched Up much like I did.

“There is no difference between a knight and any other man except what he wears”

This apparent quote from Robin Hood is Hoskins choice of opener. I’m not sure I would have opted to quote folklore whilst arguing for a realist shift in thinking about a multi-billion pound industry but nevertheless Hood makes an important point. Clothing is the most visible way we have to express our identity, status and values. Fashion is a global industry that we all take part in and Hoskins’ book helps us to take a more critical stance on it.

Each chapter looks at a different issue, from the cotton farmers at the start of the supply chain to the models showing off the final product and all of the sizest, racist taunts surrounding them. She delves straight into the politics and doesn’t shy away from an academic treatment of the subject, in fact, she loves Karl Marx, whose rules of labour and capital are called upon in virtually every chapter. Her key message is that capitalism is the root cause of all that’s bad in the fashion industry and individual action alone cannot reform it. Instead, we need a complete transformation of society, a new way of living and working to foster equality and quash class hierarchies. This she discusses in the final two chapters ‘Reforming Fashion’ and ‘Revolutionising Fashion’.

My only problem with the book is this disregard for the individual. Hoskins does a great job of building up a picture of a rotten industry, built on exploitation and greed, but it leaves the reader feeling helpless. Her concluding suggestions for a revolution are, in her own words, a “distant possibility”. I like to dream with the best of them, but I can’t envision a non-capitalist future unless something really terrible happens and we revert back to subsistence living out of necessity – it certainly won’t be an idealistic utopian society.

At one point she says, “As disappointing as it may be to hear this, there are no ethical clothes for sale”. I disagree. She destroys the likes of TOMS, who she says turned “poverty into a marketing ploy” and disregards CSR and ethical sourcing attempts of high street retailers as little more than greenwash. She gives the impression that as consumers we can do nothing right, we have no power (so therefore we might as well just shop?!). But I think there are ethical retailers, People Tree for example, who work with small fair trade groups and sustainable materials, are they not intrinsically a good?

As I hinted at before, this is a book for educated readers. It’s well researched, as evidenced by the extensive notes section and bibliography. It’s not a coffee table fashion book; although it does has some wonderful illustrations inside. It’s a must-read for students studying fashion, media, business, human geography or retail, along with inquisitive souls with a desire to know more about what exactly they have in their wardrobe. If I could make it law for everybody to read this book, and others like it, I would, because it’s important, and real, and something we can all play a part in to create change. I think Hoskins has succeeded in setting out what she hoped to do.

You can buy Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion direct from Pluto Press for £13.50. Don’t go to Amazon!

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Ethical Fashion Resources

This list of resources includes some of the key texts that I have come across over the last two to three years. It doesn’t cover every area of ethical fashion as the selections are based on my own research interests. The main areas not covered are the ethics of wearing fur, and recycling/waste, although these areas are touched upon in some of the generalised books.

Books

Prehistoric Textiles. Barber, E.J.W. 1992, Princeton University Press

Information on early textiles, relevant to explore how textiles have been important in our lives for thousands of years.

Design for Sustainability: A practical approach. Bhamra, T. 2007, Gower Publishing

Covers sustainable design in general, covers the whole life cycle.

Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox. Black, S. 2008, Black Dog Publishing

Key ethical fashion text written by London College of Fashion professor, Sandy Black.

Future fashion: White Papers. Hoffman, L. 2007, Earth Pledge

Fantastic resource for ethical/sustainable fashion and textiles. Compilation of detailed academic papers covering most topics.

Sustainable Textiles: Life cycle and environmental impact. Blackburn, R.S. 2009, Woodhead Publishing in Textiles

Fantastic edited book of various journal papers. Extremely detailed and useful information, but book is very difficult to get hold of.

Environmental Life Cycle Analysis. D. F. Ciambrone 1997, CRC Press.

This is a very specific book for LCA, not needed for undergrads but useful for business or professional research purposes. Hard going without background knowledge, but essential for anyone trying to compile a comprehensive LCA.

Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. Fletcher, K. 2008, Earthscan.

Fantastic book by Dr Kate Fletcher of London College of Fashion. Covers whole textile life cycle, really useful read.

The Textile Book. Gale, C.; Kaur, J. 2002, Berg

Puts textiles into a social and creative context. Great final chapter called, ‘Ecology’ which covers ethical issues.

Ecological Intelligence, Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy. Goleman, D.
2009, Penguin Group

A great read on consumption and ethics in general. Detailed discussion on LCA.

Sustainable Fashion, Why Now? Hethorn, J.; Ulasewicz, C. 2008, Fairchild Books

A collection of critical essays, fantastic. Something for everyone.

Ethics in the Fashion Industry. Hillery, J.L.; Paulins, V.A. 2009, Fairchild Books

A slightly different angle on ethics, concerns more the decisions that fashion professionals have to make. Retail/human perspective.

The Apparel Industry. Jones, R.M. 2006, Blackwell Publishing

Not specifically from an ethical angle, but a detailed look at the global clothing industry including a chapter on UK production, labour issues, offshore production and trade barriers.

Eco Chic: The Savvy Shoppers Guide to Ethical Fashion. Lee, M.; Hamnett, K. 2007, Octopus Publishing.

Nice read, good background info but not an academic text.

The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. Rivoli, P. 2006, John Wiley & Sons

As the title says. Very interesting look at production stage from cotton farms to consumer.

Slaves to Fashion. Ross, R. 2004, The University of Michigan Press

American perspective, history and impact of sweatshop labour. Essential for labour studies.

Explaining Environmentalism: In search of a new social movement. Sutton, P.W. 2000, Ashgate Publishing

Provides theoretical basis to justify ethical fashion perspectives.

Trigger Issues: T-shirt. Wells, T. 2007, New Internationalist Publications

Ethical issues in producing a cotton t-shirt, pesticide use, sweatshops.

Eco Fashion. Brown, S. 2010, Laurence King

A catalogue of ethical designers, great resource for case studies.

Making Sweatshops: The globalisation of the US apparel industry. Rosen, E. 2002, University of California Press

An historical analysis of the US clothing industry and the rise of sweatshops.

Reports

Environmental Assessment of Textiles. 2007, Danish Environmental Protection Agency

Scientific study, only needed for detailed assessment.

Public Understanding of Sustainable Clothing: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Cooper, T.; Fisher, T.; Goworek, H.; Hiller, A.; Woodward. 2008, Defra

Defra report, very useful for consumer study data.

Ethical Clothing. Mintel, 2009, Mintel Group

Respected market research, look out for future updated reports.

Are We Well Dressed? Allwood, J.M.; Broken, N.M.P.; Laursen, S.E.; Rodriguez, C.M. 2006, University of Cambridge.

Excellent reference report looking at UK textile industry and LCA for different products.

Fashioning the Future. 2008, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion

Documents the debates raised from a conference, therefore more of a conversation amongst key representatives than an informative report.

Fashioning Sustainability. 2007, Forum for the Future

A useful and very readable summary of all ethical fashion issues.

Websites

http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/

A fab source for resources, designers and events.

http://www.fashioninganethicalindustry.org/

http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/

http://www.pan-uk.org/

http://www.forumforthefuture.org/

http://www.sustainable-fashion.com/

http://www.waronwant.org/

http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/products/cotton/default.aspx

http://slowtextiles.org/

http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-clothing/fur.aspx

http://www.trackmyt.com/

http://www.soilassociation.org/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/thread/

http://www.ecochiccollection.co.uk/magazine/

http://www.ecofashionworld.com/

http://www.offsetwarehouse.com/

http://www.peopletree.co.uk/

I haven’t included a list of journal articles because I would only be able to list specific papers that I have used, missing many out. Newspapers, magazines and trade magazines also have helpful news stories, especially Drapers.

If you know of any other key resources please let me know! Leave your additions as a comment below, this list certainly isn’t exhaustive.

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Fashion’s Dirty Secret

If you missed Dispatches, C4, on Monday its worth catching up with it. The episode, called Fashion’s Dirty Secret, showed workers producing clothes for the High Street in sweatshop conditions, not in India or Bangladesh, but in the UK. It’s not a total shock that places like this still exist in the UK, but I didn’t expect them to be making High Street clothes. An undercover reporter took a job in a factory in Leicester for three months, during which time he was paid £2.50 an hour to make clothes for Bhs, New Look and Peacocks, among others. He wasn’t given safety equipment and was put under huge pressure to finish orders. Most of the workers are illegal immigrants, so I guess its this or leave the UK.

The big retailers said the factory was not up to their ethical standards, and they weren’t aware that their suppliers had outsourced the work. How frustrating! Its the retailers responsibility to know the output that each supplier can provide in a certain time span, if they are putting pressure on the suppliers then they should know it will be subcontracted – but they turn a blind eye. I wonder what happened to all the people working there?

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