I’m going to ask you two questions. The first, who made the clothes you’re wearing today?
I don’t mean the brand – I mean the people. Who picked the cotton? Who wove and dyed the material? Who stitched it?
No idea? You’re not alone and it takes me to my next question. Would you join 100,000 others to take a picture of the label in your top or jeans and post it on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – wherever you have a social media presence – and ask the brand #whomademyclothes? Here’s why.
Fashion is beautiful and powerful and transformative. It also disguises an industry that is ugly, degrading and exploitative.
Abuse in the fashion supply chain is predominantly a female issue – 80% of the 75 million people working in textiles around the globe are women (or children, but mainly female).
Fashion is expressive and yet it’s built upon foundations of silencing the women who create the clothes we wear.
Many are subject to exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, working in unsafe conditions, with very little pay. It’s time we give these women a hand, so they can pull themselves up.
Founded five years ago following the collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed 1138 garment workers, campaign group Fashion Revolution was created.
Nobody knew which brands the factory was making clothes for, the best they can do was to pick labels out of the rubble to find out, so as a first step Fashion Revolution are demanding more transparency in the supply chain. Then brands can start to be held responsible, not only for huge tragedies like this, but also for 8am – midnight working hours, only two days off a month and no lunch breaks in the name of “fast fashion”.
THE FASHION TRANSPARENCY INDEX
According to Fashion Revolution’s latest Fashion Transparency Index, Adidas and Reebok are leading the way when it comes to reporting their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts.
This is closely followed by Puma, H&M, Esprit, Banana Republic, Gap, Old Navy, C&A and Marks & Spencer, completing the top 10 of 150 brands surveyed.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean these brands necessarily have better working practices. Or that the information they are sharing is actually positive. In fact, no brand or retailer in the survey scores above 60%.
But what it does mean is that these companies are disclosing some information to the public about how and where their apparel is produced.
Transparency is important because it reveals the structures in the supply chain.
If companies are forced to reveal the locations and working conditions of every stage of this process – from the farmers picking the cotton to the factories where the clothes are stitched – then it leads to more pressure for them to ensure living wages are paid and less toxic chemicals are used.
“If unions and workers in Bangladesh have a list of where brands are manufacturing, it’s so much easier for us to resolve problems quickly. We can address issues directly with brands,” says trade unionist and founder of AWAJ foundation which campaigns for legal empowerment of workers in Bangladesh, Nazma Akter, who was just 11 years old when she started working up to 70 hours a week with her mum in a clothing factory.
Fashion Revolution is now celebrating its fifth birthday and their Fashion Transparency Index has tracked the supply chains of leading global brands since 2016.
Even over the last year there has been some significant improvements – 64% of brands have disclosed more policies and commitments and 84% of brands have increased their score.
“Too many people working in the fashion industry, mostly women, are still underpaid, unsafe and mistreated. It’s time for change,” says Fashion Revolution co-founder Carry Somers.
“Over the past five years, millions of consumers have demanded a fairer, safer, cleaner, industry. It’s working, we can see that brands are listening and the industry is starting to change.”
The Bangladesh government has delivered a 77% increase in the minimum wage to $68 per month for garment workers. Yet Garment Workers Diaries found that in Bangladesh, Cambodia and India many garment workers are not even being paid a legal minimum wage – let alone a living wage – which makes this meaningless to millions of workers.
Meanwhile, globally the industry is worth more than £2 trillion and at least six of the world’s top 20 richest people listed on Forbes billionaires list are in retail – including Amancio Ortega from Zara and Bernard Arnault CEO of luxury goods conglomerate LMVH.
You could boycott high street fashion and luxury brands who produce their clothes in these countries (I do), but some argue that’s not helpful in the end because a large-scale boycott risks garment workers their jobs – and the hard truth is for many any employment is better than none.
The whole fashion industry needs an overhaul and it starts by asking #whomademyclothes every time you buy something: to let the brands know you’re keeping tabs, and to let the garment workers know you have their backs. It doesn’t matter if you have one follower or one thousand, together our voices will roar.
Main image: Emma from sustainable fashion and styling blog ‘Back of the Wardrobe’ asks #whomademyclothes. Photographed by Rachel Manns.