Dirty Beauty, Ugly Fashion?

“They are making us believe that we are rich or wealthy because we can buy a lot but in fact they are making us poorer and the only person who’s becoming richer is the owner of the fast fashion brand.” Livia Firth, Creative Director of Eco-Age, speaking at a conference on the future of Fashion in Copenhagen, Denmark.

How many of us have really stopped to think about how dirty “our chosen skin” really is?

The fashion industry generates billions upon billions of dollars each year and its wealth may seem to be fairly circulated between the consumers and the brands but with a capitalist mind set and a capitalist drive behind the system, that is quite impossible. A documentary on Fashion “The True Costs” highlights for example that actually only 3% of the clothes sold in America are made in America and the other 97% are outsourced to developing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and China.

H&M is now the 2nd largest clothing co-operation in history and it has fully mastered this idea of Fast Fashion with an annual revenue of more than 18 billion dollars. It is also now one of the largest producers of clothing in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Something that should be common knowledge and should be thoroughly questioned, but is not.

Roger Lee, CEO of Tal Group one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers explained: “The prices of products have gone down over time but the costs don’t, they actually go up…the more production outsourced, the cheaper the clothing becomes.” And now we suddenly have this dramatic shift to Fast Fashion. The wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Instead of two seasons a year, we practically have 52.” If you look at most high street retailers, there is almost a new collection every week, at extremely low prices and a weekly YouTube video or blog telling us what we just can’t live without for that week. We are not fools so let’s stop being fooled!

A Comedy Central reporter said, “The global market place is a place where we export work to have happened in whatever conditions we want and the products come back to me cheap enough to throw away without thinking about it.” If that doesn’t set a few sirens ringing off in your head then you are part of the problem. Outsourcing work to developing countries where the minimum wage is low and is kept low allows those at the top of the food chain to decide that if a factory can no longer make a garment at a cheap price then they will no longer go to that factory for work and they will choose another one which allows productions to be carried out at a cheaper rate.

Although these large high street brands aren’t directly at fault, there are many circumstances in these countries to take into consideration such as; the lack of education, laws that protect their citizens and a decent living wage, these brands do exploit an unjust system and make it even worse. Factory owner, Arif Jebtik says, “In the West they are using lower prices every day, so every day they are hampering me and I am hampering my workers, this is how it is.” In many cases when garment workers protest over their working conditions factory owners and even their governments prove to be harsh punishers as they do not want to lose the imported business that is now thriving. Ultimately something has to give, either the factories shut down, or considerably worse, they cut corners.

Then Rana Plaza happened. In 2013 an eight story building just outside of Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed killing approx. 1,129 people. It is the worst ever industrial incident to hit the garment industry. Even worse is the fact that the building owners were aware of the cracks in the building but chose to ignore the warnings and while shops and banks on the lower floors closed after the cracks in the walls began to form garment workers were ordered to return the following day, and the building collapsed during that morning rush hour. It is thought that the decision by managers to send workers back into the factories was a result of the high pressure they were facing to complete orders for buyers on time. The following year was the industries most profitable.
“The garment worker is the only point of the supply chain where the margin is squeezed.” This “perfectly engineered nightmare” becomes very clear. Major brands don’t officially employ the workers or own any of the factories they produce in so they can profit hugely while remaining free of any responsibilities for the poverty caused by unfair wages, factory disasters and the mistreatment of workers.

And in the end, what is it really all worth. The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste each year, adding up to more than 11million tonnes of textile waste from the USA alone. Most of this waste is non-biodegradable, so it sits in landfills for 200years or more while releasing harmful gases into the air. Fashion has never been and can never be seen as a disposable product. The immense journey of one garment alone is extremely harmful to our eco-system. Whilst Fast Fashion has no limit in sight our planet does.

Fair trade fashion companies like “People tree” is trying to make a change in this polluting system by making garments from environmentally-friendly materials with a website page dedicated to “who makes our products,” with videos and details as to the manufacturing process, something that we should be demanding of all high street brands on their websites. Safia Minney, founder and CEO of People Tree is shown in the “The True Cost” documentary travelling to places like India, Cambodia and Japan to use fashion production as a way of educating and empowering vulnerable women, not exploiting them.

As the said documentary comes to an end images of luxurious fashion shows, Sales advertisements, the Black Friday mania in the USA and women in Bangladesh suffering in sweat shops flash through my laptop screen and I can’t help but think “I am never shopping again!” “How is it possible that I did not know about this!” “Why was I bragging about buying a new pair of jeans in Primark for just £3…I’m disgusted by my ignorance and that of others!” “This can’t be allowed to continue!” Even this idea that is shoved down our throats by blogs, music, adverts and social media, that the way to solve whatever problem you are facing right now is through a vicious cycle of consumption that must be faster and cheaper, has to stop!

In the documentary, you hear, “if you change all consumers into activists, all consumers asking ethical questions…all consumers saying “I’m sorry it’s not acceptable for someone to die in the course of a working day,”” then perhaps we can start to make a real difference.

Following the online magazine, “Fashion Revolution” and putting your money where your mouth is by looking at the beautiful garments made by People Tree is a good place to start.

By Wendy Muruli

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