Fashionista vocabulary has expanded over the past decade, with ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ becoming extremely à la mode. These two approaches are the industry’s way of combatting the destruction caused to communities and individuals by something known as ‘fast fashion’. For the youth, gaining knowledge about this topic is incredibly important as we are future leaders with the ability to evoke change. Living on student budgets, we are naturally eager for the best bargains possible on clothing, food and other essentials without giving much thought to where and how these products are produced to make them so cheap and easily accessible. Education around the topic is the first step towards change, because the more we know, the less is hidden behind commercial jargon, and an informed consumer is likely to be a more ethical one. Information gives us the power to make thoughtful decisions for ourselves based upon facts and morality.
Ethical brands, charities and ambassadors prioritize helping individuals and communities to benefit from fashion, the largest commercial enterprise in the world, second only to oil. The urgency for a new, ethical, approach to fashion stems from the devastating direct and indirect impacts of fast-fashion upon factory workers and their communities. Poverty stricken countries are targets for major retailers to use as sites for clothing production due to loopholes in employability laws which allow for illegal work practices and exploitative labour, otherwise known as modern day slavery.
The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster was one of the most horrifying incidents of inhuman workplace conditions. The collapse of an 8-storey clothing warehouse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, resulted in over 1,000 deaths and over 2,000 casualties. Due to relaxed contract laws, no major retailer has been held responsible for the incident as the companies do not directly employ their laborers. The deaths of 1,000 workers was a result of poor construction, for which fast fashion should arguably be held accountable. With growing demand for cheaper, more easily accessible clothing, retailers are constantly in competition and are being forced to cut corners to save money in order to afford to produce the cheap, constantly evolving clothing that our culture craves. These cutbacks include slashing wages to as low as $2USD a day and constructing factories without safety regulations.
There is an inextricable link between the fashion industry’s slave labour and the economic structure of western capitalism, unfortunately dictating the extent to which the industry can change. Commercialism is, arguably, the foundation upon which our societies exist. Therefore, to completely transform this practice would not only be impossible but would harm western economies and those of countries such as Bangladesh where a huge 80% of their global exportation is commercial. Therefore, small yet immediate changes are needed. It is certainly possible to better the situation, with some very simple and cheap approaches everyone can take part in.
Firstly, we can start by asking two questions when treating ourselves to some retail therapy: ‘Where did this come from?’ and ‘Who made this?’ By imagining a particular person in their working environment, we are encouraged to think with greater consideration about our individual impact. Engaging on a practical level can involve boycotting or minimizing expenditure in ‘naughty’ high street retailers, a term coined by Oxfam in their list of naughty and nice ethical fashion brands in 2016. ‘Nice’ brands include GAP, Big W, Uniqlo and Bonds. Sadly, some of our beloved brands appear on the naughty list; Topshop, Zara and Peter Alexander. To prevent boycotting, pressure needs to be placed on the major retailers themselves to provide the consumer with clothing which has not been made by slave labour. Here is where social media and the internet become the best tools. Signatures and names hold significant power in their numbers. Taking minimal time and effort to sign a petition, write an email to a retailer or hashtag an Instagram of a clothing label with #WhoMadeMyClothes? can really make a difference. There are websites available that host extensive information on fast fashion and tips for living and shopping ethically and numerous documentaries available online about ethical and sustainable fashion. There are also avenues online to sign petitions including some that advocates for big fashion retailers such as H&M to keep their promise of fair working conditions. So, get onboard and be part of the fashion revolution! Small changes really do count.