Are you ready for the Fashion Revolution?

The fashion industry is increasingly under fire for terrible working conditions among the poorest members of our society. Often these people have no alternatives for work and no recourse if they are not treated fairly. The truth is, as consumers we should not feel comfortable buying products that are made in terrible conditions, and for those of us in the design community, we should be very uneasy working in an industry that treats people so unfairly.

women predominantly make up the workforce in apparel manufacturing worldwide. This is a scene from a production line in Cambodia (source: Dressed & Stripped)

How did we get here?

Bad working conditions in manufacturing are not a new problem. When manufacturing textiles and clothing was a booming industry here is the USA, there were children employed, people working inhumane hours and in awful conditions, and even some catastrophic accidents. One of the most infamous incidents is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in Manhattan in 1911 where 146 people (mostly very young women) perished in fire because they had been locked in the factory to work. This particular tragedy and others like it helped galvanize garment workers to demand better conditions in America in the earlier part of the 20th century.

As the USA became more affluent, and demand for ready-made clothing increased, the fashion industry grew. Larger companies started to dominate the fashion industry; with stockholders to please, they began to look for ways to cut manufacturing costs. Moving manufacturing to countries where the cost of labor was minuscule in comparison to the US and there were no unions to contend with, was inevitable, and with that it was easier to turn a blind eye to the conditions people were working in. In the later 20th century, many companies had their factories sign contracts of compliance that they would not overwork their staff or use child labor, but in reality, these things were nearly impossible to police. Companies would schedule compliance inspections, but everyone had the sense that many factories simply cleaned up their act before visits.

The digital age has given rise to the juggernaut of fast fashion, which has increased manufacturing sins exponentially. Consumers no longer had to wait to have runway information handed down to them by esteemed magazines, and they wanted those runway looks NOW - and for a fraction of the price of the real deal. Entire companies developed just to feed this new demand and the strain it put on the workers in their factories as well as on the environment cannot be overstated. It was not enough that manufacturing turnaround times were faster than ever, but the pressure to keep prices down made it inevitable that workers would suffer. Unfortunately, it took the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24, 2013 to really shame the industry and rally consumers to act. This catastrophic factory collapse in Bangladesh claimed the lives of 1,138 people and injured many more. The event provoked a global outcry and has spawned a greater awareness among consumers, which in turn has applied pressure to have a greater transparency and accountability in apparel manufacturing.

images from the Rana Plaza factory collapse shocked the world (sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Metro.co.uk)

Dilemas

So how do we move forward in an environment in which clothing has become such a cheap commodity at the register, but with such a huge cost to workers and the environment? Do we keep prices down through robots and automation? I think not; to take away viable jobs from the poorest cannot be a good solution, also it is terrible outcome to diminish the role of the craftspeople from the industry. It is hard to imagine that some of these skills would be so undervalued that they could be lost in a generation. Furthermore, we have not talked all that much about the environmental ramifications of fast fashion, but they are arguably as devastating as unfair workplace practices. Maintaining the cheap commodity mindset through automation will not help this at all and is a short-sighted solution.

We would be delaying the confrontation of the heart of the issue, which I believe is the culture of overconsumption. It may sound trite, but the analogy that comes to my mind is diet. I believe a fasting of sorts is necessary. Fast fashion is the junk food of the industry, and we need to start consuming quality at a reasonable, sustainable quantity and pace. Just like food, clothing is first and foremost a necessity, but for most people it fulfills so much more that in the human experience. As a designer, I admit I am not willing to eschew the enjoyment of fashion beyond function. It is as much meant to delight, to be shared, and to bring people together as food. But the binging of the past couple of decades has to stop. It is a hollow and fleeting joy and is not good for any of us in the long run. Whatever the solution is, it will involve changes culturally and/or economically…. and it will involve a change of mindset on the part of the consumer away from impulse buying and towards an awareness about what kinds of businesses their purchases are supporting. The fact is, if enough consumers demand this change and transparency, companies will have to comply. Changing the habits and mindset of a consumer, even one who at heart agrees with the directives of the ethical movement, is not the easiest thing to do. So where can we begin?

infographic cost breakdown of a polo shirt

Solutions?

I believe there are some key barriers for many consumers to regularly purchase more ethical product. Namely, the misconceptions: that they won’t be as fashionable, or that it is an inconvenience to find and therefore shop more ethical brands, or that the products will be vastly more expensive if workers are paid a higher wage.

To overcome these hurdles, it will take effort from both the consumer and the brand. One of the most important things you can do is to be an educated consumer.

Keep up to date on the facts about what can make a difference. For instance, on the topic of affordability, do you know that on average garment workers’ wages account for only 1 - 3% of the cost of a mass produced garment? In theory, if we could add one dollar on to the cost of a knit shirt to go directly to the worker, they would be tripling their income on a $15 shirt. I think most consumers would be willing to pay that difference.

Consumers should also keep up to date about the products they buy and hold companies accountable both online and in their shopping habits and loyalties.

Those of us that are working within the industry can do their best to steer their companies toward better practices and more accountable behavior. We also need to do our part to market the message that working sustainably is the way the industry is going to go and not flag in our effort until this becomes the new normal. We need to do what we do best: design and produce the best possible product we can within the parameters given to us - in this case, adhering to ethical and sustainable practice. W