“Who made my clothes?” It’s a simple question, but one which many brands are still reluctant to answer and many of us are too distracted or disengaged to ask. It’s no secret that a global demand for fast, cheap fashion has catastrophic effects on the lives of garment workers in developing countries. These effects became disturbingly evident in 2013, when Rana Plaza, an eight-storey industrial complex in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed and took with it the lives of 1,129 garment workers, many of whom were young women working in appalling conditions for abysmal pay. It was reported three years later that 38 people were charged with murder in connection with the disaster.
The tragedy served as a catalyst for Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers to found Fashion Revolution, in order to raise awareness of fast fashion’s true cost. The movement began with an inaugural Fashion Revolution Day on 24th April 2014, exactly one year after the collapse, and has continued to grow ever since. Not only have they organised countless events, talks and workshops worldwide, they have recently published their third Transparency Index and released their second fanzine filled with illustrations, articles and poetry. Their aim is simple – to break down the complex web of social and environmental issues exacerbated by the global fashion industry.
“Our mantra is 'Be curious, find out, do something about it',” explains Somers. “We don’t have all the answers, but equally we don’t want to give people all the answers. We want to encourage people to do their own research, to be curious and to be investigative – asking, ‘Who made my clothes?’ is the first step towards that.”
Crucially, these answers are often buried or ignored by mainstream media outlets. Various factory fires in the years before and after Rana Plaza have gone largely unnoticed, whereas Bangladeshi labour activists and union leaders have been arrested and persecuted for wage strikes. “It just doesn’t make the news,” laments Somers. “Most of the public haven’t heard of some of the larger tragedies like the Tazreen fires – it really took a tragedy to the scale of Rana Plaza to bring it to the attention of the mainstream media. Sadly, union leaders are constantly being jailed all over the world in places like Honduras for social and environmental issues – it’s just not going to make the news.”
Furthermore, terms like ‘sustainability’ have become embedded in the language of clickbait titles and brand marketing. These complex concepts are often reduced to buzzwords like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, leaving readers and consumers confused as to what they actually mean. “Sustainability is relevant, and it is an incredibly complex issue,” explains de Castro. “We need to celebrate that complexity. The word ‘green’ to describe an enormously complicated process is not exciting; the word ‘eco’ in describing the impact of the fashion industry onto the environment is not exciting.”
Their fanzine – available to read in its entirety on their website – provides a key tool for disentangling if clothes are low quality or well-made. The illustrated guide offers six seams, such as french, bound, flat felled and serged edges which can be used to identify a good quality garment. Other features in the zine break down exactly how you can edit your wardrobe in 8 simple steps - including letting the skeletons out, scrutinising your clothes, tackling the 'no' pile and sorting the 'yes' pile. There are also lighthearted games and quizzes that communicate the problems in an engaging, accessible way.
“The fanzine was our way of saying it like it is,” says de Castro. “We wanted to inform a young audience of the power behind their money, and how everybody’s purchases actually affect everybody else – in particular, how they affect the entire fashion supply chain. So we worked with some incredible illustrators to talk about something complicated but bring the message in an engaging way that makes people curious. The act of buying something has enormous repercussions – we vote with our money, therefore we have the power to change things with everything that we buy.”
What’s reassuring is that this pressure on brands to be more transparent actually seems to be working. Companies are increasingly publishing their factory lists, customers are more discerning than ever and legislation being introduced means that businesses are finding themselves with nowhere to hide. Put simply, we’re beginning to see a shift in mentality which means that labels must be as ethical as possible to gain our loyalty. “Clothes – whether they’re cheap, high street garments or mass-produced luxury – they’re no longer providing us with an intimate, emotional experience,” says de Castro. “It used to be, once upon a time, that being a shopaholic was a mood-altering experience for a consistent period of time. You’d buy something and you’d feel it for ages. Now, you buy something and, within five minutes, that sense of newness is gone because there is so much coming at you again and again from store after store.”
Somewhat paradoxically, it seems that increased accessibility has made consumerism less desirable – many of us would rather spend money on travel, good food or unique experiences than on throwaway fashion. De Castro also credits the rise of apps like Depop (a mobile, social shopping app) with ushering in a new way of thinking about clothing, which she wittily dubs ‘ready-to-throw'. “The new consumer is a trader,” she explains. “Kids, when they’re bored of something and need extra cash for the weekend, they’ll go on Depop and sell. There’s almost a sense of clothes being very temporary these days – everything is ready-to-throw, but people realise these things have some value so they may as well, somehow, sell them on. It’s almost like we’re renting instead of buying.”
This method of consumption is more sustainable than the alternative – the constant purchase of cheap new clothes which are often chemically treated, poorly made and destined for landfill. Clothing returns exacerbate this relentless cycle of consumption; shops can’t resell returned items, which means they’re often either thrown away or down-cycled into new fibres. The remedy to this problem is simple – buy less and buy smarter. Swap clothes with friends, buy from charity shops, rent designer pieces; these are all small ways of challenging a system which pollutes the environment and exploits vulnerable workers in developing countries.
Many see advice like ‘shop smarter’ and equate it with buying from luxury brands – the assumed logic is that the more expensive the clothing, the better paid the workers. This is not always true. “A lot of the mass-produced luxury is actually produced on exactly the same production lines in Bangladesh as the fast fashion brands,” explains Somers. “They might be paying an extra 50 cents because there might be more pocket detail or the seams are better sewn together, but it will be a marginal difference. Until you have transparency, you don’t know where those brands are producing. Just because you pay more money, the conditions aren’t necessarily any better – typically, the difference goes towards marketing.”
Crucially, when we discuss the fashion industry as though it’s divided into two neat categories – luxury and high street – we oversimplify the problem. “The fact that something costs thousands of pounds doesn’t mean that workers are being paid fairly, nor does it mean that they’re not employing chemicals in the production of the product,” agrees de Castro. “The point is that we have to treat luxury and high street in the same way and just call it fashion. This is the fashion industry – it has a problem in its sustainability and its ethical practice. We need to understand that it’s not this big divide and then understand how the whole can be more engaged.”
There is, however, a host of young design talent working sustainably without overstating the fact that they're doing so – it’s authentic, as opposed to a marketing tool. De Castro comes into daily contact with these creatives in her role as mentor at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins art school – she cites the likes of Bethany Williams, John Alexander Skelton and Maria Sole Ferragamo as emerging designers creating innovative yet conscious collections. Supporting new brands, buying locally, learning to repair the clothes we already own – these simple tweaks to our buying habits have the potential to resonate globally.
“Everybody is finding their own unique journey and their own unique part in the conversation,” says de Castro. “People aren’t just thinking of this as, ‘Oh my god, I need to change the world tomorrow', they’re beginning to embed it into their everyday thinking.” Her words are universally applicable – the way we often discuss sustainability can make it seem unapproachable, unaffordable or impossible to tackle. It’s certainly true that the fashion industry won’t change its ways overnight, but we all have the power to reach out to local MPs, to tweet brands, to engage with the problem.
We know that garment workers are being exploited, that wasted clothing is damaging the planet, that the fibres in our clothing are frequently chemically treated – these are complex conversations in which the fashion industry must engage. Somers also points out that, somewhat shockingly, sensationalist headlines are often examples of best practice; there are stories of verbal and physical abuse as well as human rights violations which go largely undiscussed. As we all know, money is power; corporations can’t survive without consumers, these factories can’t survive without clients. The more we pressure brands to be transparent, the more they will be forced to listen. The years following the Rana Plaza tragedy have seen remarkable progress but it’s essential to keep questioning, keep researching and keep asking that simple yet all-important question: “Who made my clothes?”