May 21, 2020
Clothing, Connection & the Crisis
William Shakespeare once famously penned the line;
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Perhaps one of the most romantic lines in history and written by the legendary Playwright during a plague that saw theatres close across London.
And here we are today faced with a pandemic of a different kind. But I am not here to ask you “what is in a name”? No. I am here to ask you “what is behind the clothing you wear and if you knew the truth would it be so sweet?”
Has your favourite dress never evoked feelings of nostalgia and romanticism similar to the writings from the man himself?
When you think of your favourite dress and the question poised “what is behind the clothing you wear?” – could you tell me about the Designer, Tailor, Seamstress, Pattern Cutter, Grader, Fabric Cutter, Sample & Sewing Machinist who have brought this piece to life, through to the Store Owner or Sales Assistant who have taken their time to help you find that dress.
That is just touching briefly on the many roles involved behind a fashion label and behind these roles are people whose livelihoods and businesses are now at stake due to the current crisis at hand and the impact that COVID-19 is having on the people who make our clothes extends further than what most of us know.
I asked myself recently who am I to write about the fashion industry during a time such as this?
Then again who am I not?
The more I delved into the current situation at hand and the impact the crisis is having on the fashion industry worldwide, I realised that this is an industry that requires us to step up as individuals and make a change.
In writing this piece I want to highlight that the fashion industry is affected far beyond the closure of our favourite boutique’s doors. There are the doors many of us are unware of; the doors where approximately 50 million Garment Makers have been impacted by this crisis, with factories clothing doors and in some cases fashion brands cancelling orders in turn leaving these workers who bring our clothing to life with no source of income.
I call these men and women Artisans. Fashion is an art form and art is something we all turn to in times of need (take a look at the recent fires on the East Coast of Australia where local Artisans stepped up to raise funds and offer support). But these particular Artisans need us to use our voices to demand change and equipped with the right knowledge we can educate ourselves on the ‘closed doors’ of the fashion industry and take action collectively.
I have spent my evenings pouring over articles or pounding the pavements listening to podcasts (Clare Press for the record has an amazing podcast “Wardrobe Crisis” featuring interviews with game changers in the industry) on the current crisis at hand.
Let’s start with manufacturing. Around 4 million people work in apparel factories in Bangladesh alone, in Indonesia it is another 4 million. In life, we are not given a choice of where we are born and at the core we are all the same, at the end of the day we should all be treated with dignity, respect and be given the same rights. For many or the women and men in these countries working in the apparel industry, they are not given these rights and working in the apparel industry is one of the very few options that they have for work.
I have read news articles on a Shoe Maker in India who had not received his wages for two weeks after the factory he works for shut its door due to the crisis. Along with his colleagues, he is unlikely to see any wages for the month of April, relying on last months’ salary.
In Bangladesh a Garment Worker who noted “if we stay home we may save ourselves from the virus but who will save us from starvation?”
This particular worker was a part of recent protests in the country after many large high profile fashion corporations pulled the pin on orders and these orders are paid after delivery rather than upon placement of the order (some at 30, 60 or even 90 day payment terms) thus leaving factories unable to pay their employees.
This is where the #payup movement has come to play that has been created by Remake
, a not-for-profit corporation that focuses on educating and informing consumers about the realities of the fast fashion industry. Earlier in April, Remake launched the #payup petition demanding that large fashion corporations pay for their orders now and noted an estimated $3 billion dollars was owed to garment factories in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Cambodia for both upcoming and in-production orders.
Remake has stated that an estimated 50 million Garment Makers will be impacted by the crisis. With the #payup petition in full swing its efforts have seen many large players step up and well pay up; ensuring that factories at the bottom of the supply chain can pay their employees at a time when it is needed more than ever; as it is those at the bottom of the supply chain that truly suffer the most. These efforts have not only come from Remake themselves but from consumers worldwide, yet again highlighting the power and importance of community and worldwide community at that. Individuals have stepped up by posting to Instagram and emailing companies direct, as well as signing the current petition (as at the 25th April 8,299 have signed!)
Speaking of worldwide community and from my own personal viewpoint, I believe that we are all connected no matter where we come from and that we have to take care of those within our own communities as well as internationally. This crisis has highlighted that we are all in this together.
Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate no matter where in the world you live and with regards to the world at large many Australian labels have been asked why they don’t manufacture here in Australia.
I want you to think of those in the aforementioned countries where garment manufacturing equates to a large proportion of roles and ask yourself does moving production locally produce a better world and is it really the answer?
There are many benefits to manufacturing overseas for labels and there are many reasons why labels do manufacture overseas. Manufacturing in Australia does not always equate to ethics either, with a report by the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman advising this year that 20% of textile, clothing and footwear businesses were failing to pay their workers correctly and while conditions in Australia are to a much higher standard than some of the large manufacturers overseas – collectively we still have a long way to go.
I had the opportunity to discuss the matter of overseas manufacturing with Ayesha Barenblat – Founder & CEO of Remake who brought to light that the fashion supply chain is very fragmented with examples of the number of Mills in China and Pakistan that are nearer cotton manufacturers.
“YKK is the largest manufacturer of zippers and has a monopoly on that market. For value added garments, a lot of that expertise resides in China. Sri Lanka has done a heavy amount of research & development, as well as technology investment to make high performance athletic gear and lingerie. Certainly COVID-19 has exposed how fragile supply chains are, and there may be some brands that are smaller, that would hope to bring some of these processes near to their home markets in order to assure supply chain resilience in the future but for the bigger players this type of consolidation would be impossible to do”.
Ayesha makes a strong point in the fact that there are sweatshops everywhere (and you may think not here but truth be told fast fashion labels, can, will and have always found a way to exploit labour.
“For example, in the US context, there are sweatshops right in LA sewing for brands like FashionNova and there have been similar sweatshops in Leister in the UK and in Melbourne. In fact our latest film short Made in America sheds light on exactly this issue. That with the rise in anti-immigration and anti-globalization and trade, there is a movement that conflates bringing manufacturing back home with those products always being sustainable and ethical.”
Ayesha and the team at Remake take the same viewpoint that I myself take on overseas production with the belief that developed countries have to keep transitioning to being service focused and make green and clean tech investments.
“If we advocate to just cut and run from Bangladesh what would happen to the 4.1 million women who rely on these jobs there? This is why our #PayUp campaign and our focus on transparency overall is more focused on holding brands accountable and we promote more sustainable brands committed to people and our planet, regardless of where the product is made”.
Whether production occurs here in Australia or overseas it should always be a question of ethics. A vast majority of Australian sustainable and ethical labels do manufacture overseas and for many of these labels the key is not only in choosing manufacturers wisely but also ensuring they visit the factories where production takes place so they can have the confidence in knowing that those producing their garments have safe working conditions and are paid fairly. As consumers it is important to understand what is behind the production of clothing and this is why labels need to offer transparency into their supply chains. As an example Arnhem recently released their latest Quarterly Sustainability Report
that offers everything you need to know behind the brands production, so that you as the consumer are equipped not only the knowledge but can have complete confidence in knowing that you are purchasing from a brand that honours and makes commitments to their global makers.
While it is great to see consumers ask the questions around manufacturing there are also expectations that manufacturing locally is easy and it really isn’t as simple as flicking a switch. The reason many ethical and sustainable labels choose to manufacture overseas is due to the fact it isn’t practical or feasible. It comes down to a variety of reasons but also includes those involved in fabric production through to a shortage of skilled workers in pattern making. While ethical and sustainable clothing costs you as the consumer more; you are in turn paying for quality and for the quality of life by the person who has bought that product to life. A good way to look at it is that how we spend our money is an exchange of energy and by spending with brands that honour commitments to those who manufacturer their garments you are in turn casting a vote for the type of world you want to live in.
I truly believe that our focus should remain on transparency on manufacturing as well as educating ourselves on the manufacturing process with a reminder that overseas manufacturing does not equate to unsustainable products and that local manufacturing does not equate to better ethics.
As Dr Rubana Huq a Bangladeshi women who is the first elected female President of the Bangaldesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) recently stated on a the ‘Wardrobe Crisis’ podcast;
“We are a manufacturing country. Our reality and your reality are entirely different but it is not a time to point out our difference, it is a time to work together”.
So let’s give it a shot – collectively and as one.
Back in the land down under the question remains of how we can support the fashion industry during this crisis?
While it is important that the labels we know and love here in Australia honour their commitments to global manufacturers during this time, it is up to us as consumers to honour our commitments to these Designers and their teams, furthermore supporting those labels that practice sustainability and ethics.
#WeWearAustralian is another creative initiative that has risen from the crisis. Created by Richard Poulson of ShowroomX, the project focuses on showcasing local talent and raises awareness for those in the fashion industry. Brands that are participating in the initiative are making either a monetary or clothing donation in support of two Australian charities – Dress for Success and Thread Together. A further example of how the fashion industry goes above and beyond to extend their support to the wider community.
While it is great to be able to purchase from Australian labels, there are other ways in which you can get involved in supporting not only the local industry but the worldwide industry and in a way that supports ethics and sustainability. This can include anything from being more mindful of whom you support during this time, posting a shout-out to your favourite local label on Instagram or sending your favourite label an email to let them know you are thinking of them, through to enquiring with brands on what their stance is on workers’ rights. Fashion Revolution Weeks
’ focus this year was on four key components that included;
We must rethink the nature of our consumption and how we spend, adopting new ways of engaging with fashion and calling on brands to rethink business models whilst honouring those who make our clothes and treasuring the pieces we own.
The impacts of clothing on the environment. Plastic based materials now comprise the majority of our clothes and in turn are shedding microfibers into our waterways that endanger not only human health but nature’s ecosystems.
The fashion supply chain exploits some of the most vunerable of people. It is about calling for deeper transparency to put an end to modern slavery and upholding human rights for everyone involved.
We are all connected and we are all in this together. When we come together we can make a change.
While Fashion Revolution Week may be just that (a week) let’s not forget that we have the choice to apply the above four principles in our lives every single day and there is no time like the present than to start now. Wouldn’t it be great to see more of society using this time to reflect on the old and implement practices for the future that benefit those that are involved in the production and manufacturing of not only what we wear but also the environment.
Together I hope we can create waves in the fashion industry, to shut the door on what is morally and ethically wrong and open the door to what is right – a society that not only embraces sustainability and ethics in fashion but a society that shows care and concern for those who create our clothing.
Just as Shakespeare created some of his greatest work during a crisis, perhaps we as consumers can too create something great. Who wouldn’t want to see a kinder industry emerge! It is up to us as consumers to change that. Often we feel that our efforts won’t be enough and let me tell you I have felt that way before, but this is about more than us and the perfect time to start is now, right where you are.
In the words of the famous Playright himself – “strong reasons make strong actions”.
Wear that dress that evokes a feeling of love and share a little love in the process…
Here are some great references to get you started on a journey in support of ethics and sustainability:Fashion Revolution Australia
The people behind Fashion Revolution Week! This website is at the forefront of ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry with the focus on conserving and restoring the environment and the value of human rights over growth and profit.UN Sustainable Development Goals
The United Nations Sustainable Development goals address the global challenges we all face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. There are 17 goals in total that are all interconnected with a focus on leaving no one behind.Arnhem Quarterly Sustainability Report
Arnhem’s Quarterly Sustainability Report is aligned with each section of the UN Sustainable Development Goals with the brand focusing on their responsibility to ensure that their environmental impact is as small as possible and that those involved in the supply chain are respected and cared for. Reports such as these give you as the consumer a true understanding of the whole process behind a label. If a label you love doesn’t have an ethics or sustainability report noted on their website send an email to their PR team requesting this info as this has been a game changer for a number of brands in the past adopting sustainable and ethical practices after consumer enquiries!1% for the Planet
With a focus on building a better future together and a global movement started by Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Craig Matthews of Blue Ribbon Flies the concept behind 1% for the Planet is simple; whilst companies profit from the resources they take from the earth, they should in turn protect those resources. Today they have more than 2,000 members in over 45 countries and have raised to date $225 million in support to approved environmental non-profits.Wardrobe Crisis
Clare Press is one of those people who when I am asked to “list three you could choose three people to come to dinner” well she is always first to mind. Clare’s book “Wardrobe Crisis – How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion” was a game changer for me and opened my eyes to the reality that is the fast fashion industry. Second to that was the release of “Rise and Resist – How to Change the World” will really change your viewpoint so you can change the world. Her podcasts are also a must for anyone interested in ethics and sustainability and in 2018 she was named VOGUE Magazines first Sustainability Editor. The Green Hub
The Green Hub is an Australian sustainable fashion and lifestyle blog started by Kira Simpson who shares brands, research, guides and practical tips to help empower consumers to make better choices that are kinder for both people and the planet. Kira is a real game changer for the industry and notes “we’re not perfect, nobody is. But we are trying to do a little something to leave the world a better place and you can too”.Remake
Remake’s mission is to make fashion a force for good. From the environmental impacts through to the unsafe working conditions in the manufacturing industry – the end goal for this community platform is to put an end to fast fashion by building local leaders and creating documentaries, stories and campaigns to empower the worldwide community to take a stand. You can also sign their online petition that demands brands #payup during COVID-19 and save Garment Maker’s lives.#WeWearAustralian
Created by Showroom X this Australian initiative unites the local fashion industry during this unprecedented time and helps to contribute and uplift those in the fashion community whilst supporting two national charities; Dress for Success who assist women wanting to return to the workforce and Thread Together who take excess stock from Designers and Manufacturers and redistribute to those in the community that need it the most.
Article written by guest contributor Lauren Sarah Purcell.
Lauren resides in Perth, WA. She is passionate about ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry. Lauren has previously written for Circular Style print publication and is a a conscious consumer, part time writer and a lover of wildflowers, photography, art history, poetry and mother earth.
Imagery supplied by Arnhem & Remake (community behind #PayUp)