Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Clothes to Die For

Sometimes the world moves in mysterious ways and this past week has proved no exception. Last week I found out via @Scrapiana on Twitter some mind-blowing clothing factoids:

@Scrapiana Head still spinning with the stats from BBC2's documentary: in the UK, we spend £60 billion p.a. on new clothes.
@Scrapiana In Ghana, the clothes market (much of it coming from our charity shop donations in the UK) is worth £50 million a year.

In the same week I joined a tweet chat with Retail Week and was further enlightened as to the UK's clothing spending habits:

Yes. Consumer sentiment is up. 30% of people will now spend money on clothing as a treat, up from 7% in 2013
I replied "that's a huge increase. Bet they won't wear it all."
@Retail Week Interestingly 49.7% "have quite a few clothes I have never worn"& 68.9% have bursting wardrobes
 To which I replied "Brits love to shop. It's a shame our economic recovery is driving fast fashion at human cost." No reply from Retail Week.

Then I saw an advert on TV for the Clothes to Die For documentary about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last year. I have to admit I didn't watch it last night. I had just finished watching the Lego Movie with my 4 year old nephew and with the theme song "everything is awesome" playing in my head it didn't seem exactly the right time to switch over to BBC2.  I watched Clothes To Die For this morning and checked the hashtag on Twitter. Twitter was lit up with comments such as "fashion doesn't have to be like this" , "harrowing" and "we all need to do our bit to become more conscious consumers".

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013  was the worst industrial disaster of the 21st century, killing 1134 people, injuring 2400 workers and leaving 322 unidentified bodies (of which only half have been successfully identified one year on). The disaster highlighted the human aspect of fashion clothing supply chains but the documentary really brought it home for me.

With slogans such as TALK LESS MORE WORK daubed on the Rana Plaza walls, you can tell it wasn't the most motivational of environments. Workers spoke making up to 120 pieces of clothing an hour (that's insane - just think of the work rate - 2 items of clothing per minute), 25p night payment, going to bed at 2am and getting up at 5am to start work again. But the success of the clothing industry in Bangladesh is self evident - over 80% of its exports are clothes and it is the worlds largest exporter of clothes after China.

It took less than 90 seconds for Rana Plaza, an unsafe factory structure to collapse. "I never thought I'd have to amputate my own arm" said one worker, a survivor who was rescued from the rubble. SHE AMPUTATED HER OWN ARM  because the doctor couldn't reach. This. Is. Staggering. And still....we shop: the year after Rana Plaza clothing exports grew 16%.

Primark jeans found in the rubble at Rana Plaza

During the #ClothesToDieFor Twitter debate this lunchtime The Centre for Sustainable Fashion asked how can we slow the fashion cycle down. Look, people have been given abundant fast fashion in the form of cheap clothing for so long that changing a whole generation's shopping habits will be nigh on impossible. I think some people have become so desensitised to the human cost, or are blissfully unaware of the human cost, that all they see is the low price. Fair enough - you only know what you know and if you want to pay 99p for a vest top without questioning the ethics behind it then so be it.

So we need to build awareness in a wider, more constructive framework: teach this subject in business studies.  Teaching kids about buying cloth, margins, transport costs, wages, rents and production of clothing would at least engender an interest from a business perspective. Throw some ethics in there about good working conditions and you're on to a winner. Couple this with retailers taking a more proactive approach to garment labelling- how much the material was bought for, what wages were paid to the garment workers, cost of shipping - and we might start to see some changes.

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