Switching Focus from the Steal

slow fashion

Style breaks down barriers. We go to lengths to interact with people whose style we admire, even if we don’t know them. We compliment them. We ask where they found such a cool/coordinating/perennial piece.

Do not dismiss this everyday interaction for anything less than the opportunity for influence it presents. In this simple transaction, we can enact change. 

We can tell them, in a can-you-believe-it voice, the rock bottom price we paid for the beautiful blouse or statement shoes, and bask in the excitement of making such a “steal”—a rush not unlike the shopper’s high we felt in buying it.

But just as shopper’s high gives way to remorse, the steal has its own shadow. It’s a looming cloud that everyone is aware of, but not everyone chooses to acknowledge. 

When I pick up a T-shirt in a trendy shop and it costs only $4, I know that someone wasn’t paid a living wage to create it. That someone suffered in order to keep costs down. That if I buy that top, I am fueling an enormous and incredibly unfair business, one that primarily impacts women, and often children. As a feminist, as well as a human being, this concerns me.

According to War on Want, as many as 85 percent of Bangladeshi garment workers are women. Other research estimates up to 90 percent. In addition to tiny wages and extreme hours, women garment workers are vulnerable to sexual harassment and discrimination without recourse. The International Labour Office (ILO) estimates that there are still 152 million children involved in child labour around the world. Of those, 48 percent are aged only 5-11 years old.

But, you say, things are changing! My clothing company of choice has a code of conduct on their website! They have a social responsibility report! They’re trying! 

Fairtrade CanadaFacing increasing consumer demands for transparency, many companies have at least nodded in the direction of ethical practices. This can take the form of a code of conduct, a sustainability promise, or—even more vague—a responsible sourcing policy. Unfortunately, these statements may not even be worth the website space they occupy. Despite the confidence they may instill in shoppers, these same codes, according to ILO analysis, can be “unknown, unavailable, or untranslated at production facilities in developing countries.” Workers simply don’t know about the promises being made about their welfare. Furthermore, requests by workers for information can be viewed dimly, met with hostility, or worse.

Fault cannot be completely heaped at the feet of well-meaning brands, however. The sheer immensity of the global apparel industry is daunting and confusing. Companies enlist megasuppliers, or global supply chain managers, to keep up with the demand for fast fashion and ever-changing trends. Megasuppliers are like ivy, stems spiralling out in different directions, splitting work orders between thousands of factories, in a multitude of countries. This increases competition and directly impacts conditions for workers. 

This climate drives the murkiness that surrounds clothing production. Companies themselves can’t verify their supply chains, let alone guarantee that they are free from unethical practices.

At its heart, this cutthroat competition is driven by one thing: consumer demand for low prices. Our consumption of fast fashion fuels this cycle of plentiful cheap clothing, delivered in a constant stream. A knowing blindness to the facts is required to buy these goods at rock bottom prices. In this global economy, our choices and actions impact on others around the world.

So, I am dropping fast fashion.

I am choosing slow, deliberate, lasting.

Even if it takes a bit of extra effort and money, my clothes will demonstrate who I am to the world. They will not only do so by their appearance, but by the quality of their composition, by the ethical and sustainable methods with which they were created. The way my clothes were made will say as much about me as the way they hang, coordinate, and flatter me. My outside appearance will reflect my inner principles.

When someone remarks that they like my Converse, I will say thank you and reply that I love them, too, but they’re not Converse. They’re Etiko and made of sustainable materials by people who were fairly treated and paid a living wage. Etiko, a family-owned Australian company with Fairtrade, Organic, and BCorp certifications, prides itself in respecting the human and labour rights of its suppliers, from rubber tappers to garment workers.

When I get compliments on my People Tree dress, I can say with confidence #whomademyclothes. I will know that those people were treated fairly, paid a living wage, and encouraged to organize and unionize. An independent fair trade company, People Tree is an ethical leader, certified by the WFTO, Fairtrade International, and the Soil Association.

I may no longer be able to brag about the steal, but I can feel good about using my dollars to support change in the world. 

And perhaps by sharing the feel-good factor about my style, by focusing on the production chain and paying attention to where my clothes come from, others will want to switch their focus, too.

Author: Passionate about ethical and sustainable initiatives, Jennifer A. Clark wears many professional hats. Her roles include freelance writer, educator, and blogger, as well as communications and marketing coordinator.

Originally published in Fair Trade Magazine - Summer/Fall 2018 Edition