Could you say confidently where your clothes were made? No, me neither. The Topshop dress I’m wearing may say ‘Made in Morocco’ but it’s no secret that this dress is far better travelled than I am. While it is not necessarily negative to buy clothes made outside of the UK (there is a plethora of ethical brands that work with traditional artisans from Turkey to Tanzania), the way in which the vast majority of our clothes are made involves an outsourcing of production that harms the environment and exploits the people making them.
The goal of globalising the fashion industry – and here I mean both high fashion and high street – was to provide consumers with lower-cost clothing, while creating jobs in less prosperous parts of the world. Sounds great, right? It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Yes, millions of jobs have been created in developing countries across the globe, but the quality of those jobs is, well, dire.
“It is said that prior to the Industrial Revolution, a shirt made from locally grown fibre, handwoven, and hand-sewn, would cost around the equivalent of £700 today”, Clare Lissaman, Director of Product & Impact at Ethical Fashion Forum tells me. According to research carried out by Fashion Revolution, the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 5,300 taka (£45) per month. While today’s technology means it wouldn’t cost as much as £700 to create a 100% 'Made in England' shirt in 2017, the disparity between that figure and the amount international workers are paid to make our clothes now is haunting.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, we wouldn’t have to pay much more than we do already for our garment to be ethically produced: Fashion Revolution’s fanzine, Money Fashion Power, breaks down the costs, showing that consumers would only have to pay €1.57 (£1.33) more for garment workers to receive a living wage. I’m sure we could all forgo our morning cup of coffee to ensure the rights and safety of another human, right?
“The inequalities of global trade and power imbalances mean that during this process [of constructing a garment], the true cost of production – one that factors in the impact on the environment and decent working conditions – is generally not factored into the prices we pay”, Lissaman explains. So it’s not that simple – there are huge factors at play here, from capitalism to global relations, which mean that simply upping the price of our clothes by a few pounds won’t result in a fair deal for garment workers.
So where exactly do our clothes travel before they land in our basket? “From raw material, to fibre, to yarn, to fabric, to clothing... our clothes use up natural resources and are transformed by the work of many, many human hands”, Lissaman says. Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut journey mapped out for us. BBC business reporter Katie Hope noted that “regardless of where they’re based, most factories are not owned by the fashion brands that use them. Instead, they’re selected as official suppliers. Often these suppliers subcontract work to other factories for certain tasks, or in order to meet tight deadlines.” When the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed back in 2013, killing 1,129 workers, the fashion brands whose clothes were made there were at first unaware of their involvement in the disaster – often, brands don’t know the location of these subcontracted factories.
In the Fashion Transparency Index produced by Fashion Revolution last year, founder Carry Somers reiterates this point: “After the Rana Plaza factory collapse, campaigners had to physically search through the rubble for clothing labels to prove which brands were producing there. Many simply didn’t know what their relationship was with those factories. Producers had become faceless and the lack of transparency and accountability was costing lives.” This far-removed supply chain means the journey from field to high street shop floor is often murky. Fashion Revolution hopes the Index, which looks at 100 brands and the amount they are currently revealing about their production, will encourage those scrutinised to be more open with their shareholders, customers and workers. With only eight of the 100 brands in the 41-50% transparency bracket, it’s clear that we have a long way to go.
Is buying British the answer? While there has been a rejuvenation of employment, traditional craft, and skills development in the UK – which had been in decline for a long time – there are downsides to consider, too. Several elements of our clothes – things like zips and certain fabrics – aren’t accessible in the UK and are shipped from China or elsewhere, creating a huge environmental footprint. Plus, by boycotting brands that outsource their production internationally, we’d be threatening the livelihoods of thousands of garment workers living in countries where poverty is just the other side of job security.
So what can we do? “Ask questions – about how the fibre was produced, where the garment was made, who made it, and under what conditions,” Lissaman says. #WhoMadeMyClothes is a campaign started by Fashion Revolution for this very reason – to use social media to put pressure on the brands not adhering to their responsibilities. “Buy from brands that are pro-actively sharing information about those issues.” adidas, Reebok, H&M, Gap and Puma were all top scorers in the Index; we've rounded up some of our favourite ethical brands here.
And Fashion Revolution’s rallying cry? "Transparency means accountability, and accountability means change." While we may not be able to trace every country and every pair of hands through which our clothes have passed, we can hold those who can to account.