This article originally appeared in Quarter Section on January 9, 2017
Who made my clothes? It’s a simple question but one we don’t often, if ever, think to ask when shopping for new clothes. And, one that we — and few clothing retailers — can actually answer. With so many fast fashion retailers producing more and more cheap clothes, the layers of their supply chain often get overlooked. Fast fashion is essentially throw-away clothing produced by garment workers who work long hours with little to no benefits, poor wages, and abysmal working conditions. All in the name of the $19.99 H&M dress. The environmental fallout is huge, too. Textiles and clothing are produced using mass amounts of water, chemicals, and dyes in countries that don’t adequately regulate their safe use and disposal. In addition to this, there are so many cheap clothes existing in the world today that we’re running out of places to put it all. Charity shops are bursting at the seams (pun intended) and eventually unclaimed and unwanted clothing winds up in landfills or in foreign markets where it threatens the livelihood of artisans who produce smaller-scale textiles and clothing. These artisans can’t compete with the price of all this low-cost secondhand clothing.
Instead slave-labour-fuelled working conditions can be deadly. On April 24th, 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1100 workers and injuring over 2500. It sparked outrage. It brought attention to an industry that has gotten away with slave labour for a very long time without much intervention. And, it ignited the Fashion Revolution.
The Fashion Revolution is a non-profit organization based in the UK that wants us to ask more of our clothes and more of the brands we buy from. They have a simple request: ask your brand, “Who made my clothes?” This question addresses two very important issues. First, the owner of that garment is now questioning where their clothing actually comes from, and second, it puts pressure on the retailer to confess their production methods. If they can’t answer the question, it’s a red flag. This non-profit organization has declared April 24th Fashion Revolution Day and last year they expanded this concept to an entire Fashion Revolution Week. The 2017 full week event will take place between April 24th and April 30th.
During this week, and especially on the 24th, they encourage all fashionistas and consumers to take a selfie wearing your garment of choice inside-out, exposing the label. The label indicates the brand, and is almost always followed by the infamous “Made in _____” line that we’ve become so accustomed to. Then, using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media platforms, you tag the brand and ask them “Who Made My Clothes?” The idea is to grow the movement so that more people put pressure on the likes of H&M, Zara, Forever21, JoeFresh, Old Navy, and many others to be completely transparent about their production methods both on a social and environmental level. With this transparency, the hope is that they’ll work towards more humane and environmentally-friendly production methods.
Many of these brands have been caught using poor manufacturing practices, but changing their ways is proving a slower task than what seems reasonable when human lives and the environment are at stake. One would think that after the tragedy of Rana Plaza, these companies would come together to pay fair wages and fight hard for safe working conditions for their employees with zero hesitation. However, this hasn’t been the case so far. To be fair, all of these companies do have policies in place when it comes to what they deem safe and acceptable working conditions and many have environmental policies as well. The enforcement of these policies needs more effort though. As long as those with privilege in developed countries continue to support these brands without questioning their operations, then workers and the environment will continue to be taken advantage of. This is what the Fashion Revolution fights so hard against and why all consumers need to actively participate in it to see significant changes made.
The aforementioned companies don’t have to be the enemy, though. I fully believe that with enough outside pressure from consumers, and from the garment workers themselves, that we can and will reform the garment industry for the better. But it’s going to take time, and tweeting one photo of your inside-out shirt once a year isn’t going to be enough. It helps, but there’s more we can all do.
But how can you avoid these brands and this business model when it’s everything we as consumers know, and have so readily available? It’s not exactly easy to find anything ethically-produced at your favourite shopping mall. Even if you’re super into minimalism, you still need to buy socks, underwear, and that plain white tee every now and again. The good news is there are many ways that we can all reduce our impact, and some of them are actually pretty fun!
Here are some great ways that you can actively participate in the Fashion Revolution and reduce your consumption of throw-away clothing.
1. Buy less. Buy way less. Odds are you have more than enough clothes in your closet right now. And the odds are even higher that you have items that you spent money on that you've only worn once or not all. We all like a good deal, but the deals we're used to getting on clothes come at a human and environmental cost. You'll be amazed at how much you can save or reallocate with the mentality of simply not shopping. Or, at the very least, shopping less.
2. Cultivate your style. Really think about the things you like about clothes and the items you find yourself wearing the most. We’re all guilty of buying things that aren’t truly our style simply because the price was right. But all of that adds up. Your closet ends up being cluttered or you end up throwing that garment away anyway. If you only ever buy the things that suit your style, you’ll end up with a closet you actually love and clothes that all get a fair share in the rotation. You’ll also learn to say no to those distracting garments that just don’t suit you. It took me a long time to figure this one out, but now that I have, I feel much more confident in the clothes I wear and my own personal style. I now find I have more money for other things and can buy nicer clothing, when I need to.
3. Buy better. Now that you're not buying as many cheaply-produced clothes, and you have an idea of what you like, make the effort to buy meaningful clothes and further divert your money away from fast fashion retailers. I’m of the opinion that it’s better to buy one garment you really, really love for $100 than to buy 7 really cheap garments that you only kind of like for $100. There are so many socially and environmentally-conscious brands out there compared to 10 years ago that it should be pretty easy to find one that suits your style. If you live in a bigger city, you likely have a handful of fashion designers that produce locally who would love your support.
4. Get thriftin’… at consignment stores. This is actually one of my favourite options. You get something that’s new to you, and you’re reusing a garment that already exists. Consignment stores are awesome because often you can get those same low prices you’re used to at fast fashion retailers but with higher quality garments. Consignment shops have gotten wise to fast fashion and many, at least in my city, won’t even take items from H&M, Forever21, Joe Fresh, and other brands like them because there’s just so much of it out there. It’s not unique and it’s hard to ask someone to buy these types of garments second hand when you can go buy it brand new for an equally low price. Therefore, you get more interesting brands, or even designer brands, at a fraction of the price. Forget your old definition of “second hand” because I promise you’ll find amazing things in amazing shape. Consignment shops often ask that the clothes be in pristine condition to resell them. Sometimes the items have never even been worn before being consigned. I scored an amazing pair of Marc Jacob mouse shoes that were only worn once or twice for a third of their regular retail value at one of my favourite stores in Edmonton! They’ve become my everyday, go-to shoes because they’re so comfortable and well-made.
5. Clothing swaps. This is a great way to recycle some clothes and freshen up your wardrobe without supporting fast fashion. Gather up some friends, bring your unworn, unwanted clothes, and play dress up in each other’s closets. This way, you get to part with your unwanted items and maybe get a few new things too without spending any money. And if you walk away with nothing? That’s cool too so long as your clothes get a second life. You can also organize or seek out larger-scale clothing swaps in your community to represent a wider range of sizes and styles.
6. Learn to sew. This is a tall order, and I realize not everyone will attempt this, but for those who have always wanted to get crafty, it’s a great way to form a connection with your clothing. As someone who sews and designs I can confirm that making clothes can be incredibly challenging. Sure I can sew a skirt with my eyes closed now, but it took a lot of practice to get to that point. If you try it at least once in your life, you’ll have a better appreciation for what goes into garment manufacturing. It also allows you to be your own designer. Give 10 seamstresses the same sewing pattern and you’ll get 10 very different garments. The fabric, the notions, the fit, the little details are all in your control and it’s very satisfying to see and wear the completed project that’s unique to only you. I promise it’s so worth the effort. It’s a very satisfying endeavor and I take a lot of joy and pride in every item I sew.
7. Make do and mend. This ties in with learning to sew, and is an old adage that has been kicking around since the worn-torn 40s when people literally had to make do with what they had and mend things to last longer. I think it’s a perfectly good mentality to adopt when you’re trying to reduce your consumption and avoid unethical retailers. It’s perfect if you still fancy learning a new skill but don’t want to sew something from scratch. Just put a little love into your existing wardrobe. Instead of casting away that shirt with the missing button, or the jacket with the fraying lining, look into getting these items mended. You can learn these repair jobs yourself, or take them to your local tailor. Either way, your favourite garment gets to live a much longer life with just a little bit of regular maintenance. I have a few coats that are close to a decade old and are still going strong because they still define my style, and because I’ve taken care of them when they need it. I should also warn you that you might be surprised at what a tailor costs these days. I can see why people don’t take the time to get their $12 shirt repaired when a tailor may charge $20 for a patch up and a few buttons, but ideally over time you will find yourself investing in the type of wardrobe that are worth these garment-saving repair jobs, and you’ll see the value in using what you have instead of always buying something new.
8. Ask your clothing brands: "Who made my clothes?" While utilizing all the methods above should reduce your need to purchase from fast fashion retailers, I understand that you may still find yourself buying that basic T at the mall. As long as you’re reducing your consumption and putting pressure on these brands to produce smarter and to be more fair about their manufacturing processes, then you’re part of the solution. Welcome to the Fashion Revolution!
I should also take this time to acknowledge my own privilege. I’m in a position where buying clothes was never a hardship. In fact, it was shamefully gluttonous at times. I’ve come a long way since learning to sew and design clothing, and learning the truth behind the garment industry. I’ve changed my lifestyle drastically and now apply the above mentality to all manners of consumerism beyond clothing. If I don’t truly need it, then I don’t buy it. However, I recognize that all people may not be in this position. For example if you’re a single parent with three kids who outgrow their clothes every four months and you need to stretch your money wisely, then I get the appeal of low-cost clothing. But for those who are used to dropping money at the mall or online shopping just because you can, then I hope you question where your clothing is coming from and take some of the above into consideration the next time you have the itch to buy something new.