Most of us are familiar with the ways fast fashion can make us feel bad about ourselves, from unforgiving changing room lighting and mirrors, to confusing sizing or unflattering trends. Fashion Revolution Week sought to expose other unattractive aspects of this global and complex industry, and some of their statistics were pretty alarming. For example, did you know that the clothes thrown away over the course of one year in the UK would fill Wembley Stadium? Faced with sobering facts and figures, it's easy to become despondent, assuming that as individual consumers we have no power; and defensive, when our own choices are often limited by cost, size or availability. However, Fashion Revolution Week sought to convey a positive message of consumer-led change for good, promoting transparency within the industry and encouraging us to value and care for our clothes.
I went to a couple of talks during Fashion Revolution Week and participated in several online discussions. The focus was really positive and everyone seemed engaged and well informed, but I realised there was an element of 'preaching to the choir' when I took part in a chat set up by an organisation that didn't have sustainability as its focus, and realised I'd been in a bit of an echo chamber. My (hastily tweeted) statement: “I'm not buying new clothes, I'm buying second-hand and will thoughtfully replace when clothes wear out", was questioned, with other participants making the argument that the fashion industry provides employment and that a boycott could hurt workers (I'm not criticising the question, it's a valid point and one I had thought about a lot). I was struggling with Twitter as a medium for nuanced discussion of a complicated subject during this chat; If I had more than 140 characters to express myself, I might have been able to emphasise that I meant impulse purchases rather than clothes in general, or that I already had a vast wardrobe that really didn't need that one extra blouse or dress. I wasn't suggesting a boycott, merely a reduction in overconsumption.
Until a global basic income becomes a reality (I see nothing wrong with the occasional utopian fantasy) jobs are vital for people the world over to meet their basic needs in a capitalist system, but these jobs should not come at the expense of health or dignity. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 caused over 1000 completely preventable deaths, not to mention countless injuries and traumas. Factory workers in Cambodia are killed by their government for trying to form trades unions. Fast fashion has resulted in a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and workers rights, and people (overwhelmingly women) in poor countries are paying the price. The environmental consequences of overproduction and overconsumption of fast fashion cannot be overstated either; when so many clothes are destined for landfill after only being worn once or twice, how can we claim that a job making these clothes is meaningful when we disrespect both the workers themselves and the work they produce?
I was concerned that trying to express this in only 140 characters made me sound negative, judgemental and antagonistic, and I genuinely don't want to be any of these things. I understand that low wages are an issue here in the UK, not just in the global south; not everyone can afford the premium prices of slow fashion brands. At the Fashion Debates panel discussion I went to on Thursday, Tansy Hoskins spoke on the importance of not disengaging from the industry, but imagining a brighter future for everyone involved. If workers were paid fairly for producing quality garments, rather than racing to produce huge quantities of cheap clothing, we could work on the issues of overproduction and overconsumption at the same time. Labour behind the Label's research suggests that for many workers, the national minimum wage as set by their government does not equal a living wage in the cities where jobs are available (this should ring bells for anyone living and working in London), but because living costs are still not comparable with those in the west, a decent standard of living would not contribute to a significant rise in the cost of clothing if a living wage was paid. It’s worth bearing in mind that, according to the Forbes Rich List, four of the one hundred richest people in the world own high street fashion brands; their combined wealth is estimated at £133bn. Something is incredibly wrong here, and we can all work together to make it right.
If I've learned anything from Fashion Revolution week, it's that the organisers, as well as sustainable fashion brands and bloggers, really love fashion and want it to be a force for good. Designers and makers are striving to create clothes that will feel and look amazing as well as trying to reduce fashion's impact on people and the environment. We don't want to live in the woods and wear burlap sacks; burlap would be so itchy, and we'd have to ask #whomademysack and probably wouldn't be happy with the answer to that question either.
At the Fashion Debates panel, Ayesha Mustafa spoke eloquently and passionately about the importance of valuing artisan skills in the same way we value academic education, as changing our mindsets about the value we place on certain types of work can have positive effects on families and whole communities, not just on the workers themselves.
Fashion Revolution Week's motto was "Be Curious. Find Out. Do Something", and I think this is a great starting point. All of us, or at least the majority of us, can afford a few minutes to ask questions of the brands we rely on for our basic wardrobe staples. Fast fashion brands aren't going to radically change unless we demand it, and at the moment sustainable fashion brands only account for a tiny fraction of the market share. We need to re-engage with the idea of solidarity, and recognise that we are not so very different from the people we expect to work for a pittance to make cheap goods for us. They probably long for holiday days too, and a chance to spend quality time with their families. Tansy Hoskins finished off the Fashion Debates panel with a radical but feel-good statement that seems like a great way to sum up my reflections on Fashion Revolution Week: Proper distribution of wealth would mean nice things for everyone!