What would you do for the perfect pair of jeans? Travel across time zones? Pay a full month’s salary? I know people who have, and I’ll bet you do too. Perhaps those denims wouldn’t seem so desirable, though, if you witnessed the toil behind the twill: cotton-picking, dyeing, weaving, sewing, decorating, stone-washing, packing, and transporting — each stage of the supply chain taking a toll on a human body. Perhaps we’d think twice about two-for-one deals if we saw the exhausted faces, aching backs, and calloused fingers on the production line. Perhaps if we knew the names of the makers, heard their voices, and watched their struggle to keep up with our lust for fast fashion, we just might rethink our actions.
Sustainability is an important topic — but, until recently, it’s failed to capture the public’s attention in an impactful way. Things look set to change though, as Fashion Revolution, a platform that drives for greater accountability and better practice initiatives from across the supply chain, is set to have its most successful year yet. The eco-fashion initiative is working to build the conversation around sustainability by asking consumers to tap into their curiosity and investigate the provenance of their clothing. By bringing an element of fun and creativity to the topic and harnessing the might of social media, Fashion Revolution has inspired millions of people worldwide to participate in a bid for industry transparency. Founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, where 1,134 people were killed and thousands injured in the deadliest garment factory disaster ever, Orsola de Castro, Fashion Revolution's cofounder says the tragedy was a catalyst for worldwide debate. “The Rana Plaza disaster acted as a metaphorical call to arms,” she says. “Consumers are increasingly aware of inequalities and ethical inadequacies throughout the fashion supply chain. We, as many others, felt that enough suffering had happened in the name of fashion and it was time to join forces and create a movement for positive change." From now through April 24, Fashion Revolution Week will raise awareness of the true cost of fashion with the social media campaign #whomademyclothes. With 63 million unique users of the hashtag last year, its massive digital reach has helped put sustainability at the forefront of people’s minds, sparking debate about the consequences of our consumer habits. “It’s a place which everyone can use to ask questions, raise standards, and set an industry-wide example of what better looks like," cofounder Carry Somers explains. In doing so, Fashion Revolution aims to put power back in the hands — and phones — of consumers, enabling them to challenge the industry by taking selfies that show their clothing's labels. Empowering the consumer also helps relieve the burden of sole responsibility; namely the idea that the public have “inherited a massive problem,” de Castro says. “We’re stimulating them to feel a part of the solution. And we are a pro-fashion protest; we speak the language of fashion, positivity, and inclusivity in the way that we wish to express ourselves.” With public involvement in 84 countries worldwide showing a commitment to raising stakeholder accountability, the revolution seems to be well underway.
Despite the advances being made, public disenfranchisement with sustainability goes deep, and it’s difficult to confront questions about our impact on people and the planet when the bright lights of the shopping mall lure patrons on a Saturday afternoon. Fast fashion has become a basic ritual for many twentysomethings I know, enticed by cheap price tags and the adrenaline rush of bagging a bargain. Most weekends, Oxford Street in London, Broadway in New York City, and other hubs remain a no-go zone as clothes are ripped from the rails — pile them high, sell them cheap, or so goes the saying. Shopping has become a defining characteristic of Western culture in which we assert that hard work can be rewarded by buying stuff. But do we really care about the cost? “I remember a story someone told me about a girl running for a bus on Oxford Street, carrying a bag full of clothing just purchased from a well-known discount high street retailer,” Somers says. “She dropped the bag in a puddle, glanced back at it, and decided to abandon it there and catch her bus. Moreover, no one else stopped to pick up the discarded clothing. How can a bag of clothes have so little perceived value?” Unlike food labeling, the labels on our clothes tell us very little. The widespread lack of transparency means that brands are unable to be proactive in managing their risks, potentially leading to another disaster like Rana Plaza." It’s not hard to see why industry secrecy and collective public ignorance is a toxic mix. Distanced from the realities of the supply chain, there is little incentive for shoppers to consider industry exploitation when presented with a beautiful garment hanging on a rack.
We arrive at a time where the conscious consumerism has fallen by the wayside. In its place sits new sustainability movements like Fashion Revolution and H&M's World Recycling Week, and documentaries like The True Cost, helping to bolster interest in the ramifications of fast fashion by tapping into our hyper-visual world. Similar initiatives, like Project Just, a site that lets you search ethical practices by brand, and Good On You, an Australian app that matches company's values with your own, only further this eco-aware movement. But it’s only half of the battle. Somers explains that the fashion industry itself must take more accountability, and respond to public calls for transparency. “Many consumers are becoming more aware of sustainability issues, but they are confused about where to shop, as they just aren’t getting answers from the brands,” she says. By asking #whomademyclothes, we show that as consumers, we care about the threads we put on our backs, as much as the people who made them.