As we approach that time of year when our craving for cheap, throwaway fashion reaches fever pitch, Katie Garrett explores the implications for the poor fuckers who have to make the shit.
On 24 April of this year, an eight-storey garment factory in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh collapsed. The searches through the rubble for survivors went on for three weeks. The death toll totalled at 1,127 and a further 2,515 suffered injuries. Iit was named the biggest disaster in garment-manufacturing history. The concrete building fell on itself like a terrifying game of Jenga. The banks and shops that occupied the ground floor had been evacuated in the days preceding it when cracks appeared in the ground but the garment workers were told to get back to work. Primark, Benetton, Walmart, Matalan and Mango were among the brands that had clothes manufactured there. In September 2012, 300 workers died in a garment factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. Many of us do it. We buy in to fast fashion. Jeans for a tenner. New outfit for thirty quid in Penneys. We are socialised to consume. Buy more stuff. Stuff will make you happy. Sometimes the stuff is so cheap that you feel like it would almost be a sin to leave it behind. These clothes are not designed for a lifetime’s wear. They’re made for a few outings and then you can throw it away. Who cares anyway because the replacement garment won’t cost much either. And of course, a new dress might make you happy, particularly when you got it for five euro — but at what cost? Unfortunately, a very high cost. The reason “Penney’s Best” is so cheap and cheerful for Western women is because women in poorer countries make them for us in conditions that would be rightfully condemned in this part of the world, and they do it for the lowest wages in the world. There are those who will argue that for some women, working in ‘sweatshops’ can empower them but realistically they will barely be earning enough to ensure they and their families aren’t living in poverty. Our buying power and consumer choices have a global impact. After the Bangladesh factory collapse, the world was awash with calls to do something, anything, to improve the lives of those working in such dangerous conditions. And as much as we dislike it, we facilitate and enable these poverty-conditions by buying cheaper clothes. At a recent Comhlámh debate on disposable fashion, Irish Times fashion columnist Rosemary MacCabe made the point that she was pro-democratisation of fashion and that everyone being able to buy whatever style they wanted was a great thing – and then came the ‘but’; “What we really want is to spend as little as possible and we don’t consider the other end of the scale. We can now walk in to Penneys and buy a top for the price of a packet of cigarettes and it’s really hard to get people to think of the other end of the scale – it’s hard to impress upon people. I went shopping for a friend recently and encouraged her to buy a t-shirt for €65 but she didn’t want to spend that kind of money.” Understandably so. €65 for a t-shirt is not cheap. But what is cheap? For some, buying gear in Penneys is as unremarkable as buying a Twix. For others, buying a dress in Penneys that costs €20 may be a substantial amount of their disposable income. For the more financially bereft of us, fair-trade, ethically-made clothes sold in a trade union friendly outlet are not an option and we still, for the sake of decency, need to wear something when we go outside. For some, the idea of spending €65 on a t-shirt is only something that would be contemplated having spent the previous Saturday night spinning the wheel on Winning Streak. Up steps the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of 16 organisations across Europe working for a living wage for all garment workers and compliance with international industrial laws. Claire Nally an activist with the Clean Clothes Campaign who visited Pakistan to see factory working conditions said that without consumer uproar the shareholders won’t do anything, “If they know the public are watching them, they’ll say ‘oh shit we have to do something about it’. If clothes were better made in less quantity the workers could be paid more, but there’s also an environmental impact to disposable fashion. I think what the workers would be saying is that you buy these clothes and you should let the retailers know that we want to be able to work in a decent environment.” MacCabe believes the idea of disposable fashion contributes to people’s attitudes towards their clothes. “People don’t hold the same value with them. It’s not like the fifties where you had a few outfits that you wore all the time. There’s a cycle of pointless and meaningless consumption,” she says. David Joyce, the Equality and International Development Officer for ICTU agrees with MacCabe’s analysis and adds, “People have different attitudes to clothes these days. I remember years ago, people would wear t-shirts for years. I remember my grandmother on a sewing machine making clothes for us. I think that terrible tragedy in Bangladesh has started a conversation. There’s a huge lack of trade union power in countries where our clothes are made. The safety issues in Bangladesh were known. The companies through their various corporate social responsibility issues had audited the factory, yet thousands of workers were back inside.” For David lack of organised labour and poverty limited their choices: “It is mostly women working…which provides a degree of financial independence, but really the improvements are only going to happen when workers are allowed to organise. If there was a strong trade union movement there would they have gone back into the building? So it’s really important that we do what we can. I think what most garment workers would say is ‘please, don’t boycott’ because if we did, how would it help those people? It’s a complicated issue but if boycotts are called for by the people that are involved like happened in South Africa – it wasn’t people in London and Paris who initially called for it – then maybe they’re valid, but it’s complex. There needs to be more space for people who want to organise. The one area where it’s been really effective has been in increasing the amount of unionisation.” There are no easy answers to this. The trade union representatives may feel that unionisation is key to fixing this, but as Claire Nally reminds us, people might be risking their lives joining a union in some countries: “People know that if they organise, they might be abducted and murdered and the brands need to put in place something so that this doesn’t happen in stores they source from. Clean Clothes Campaign don’t advocate boycotts but we say to people to pay attention to where they’re buying from. Retailers are market conscious and they notice if they have an ethically labelled good and how it sells.” Public opinion makes a difference. We underestimate the capability we have to make a change here. Most people are on Facebook. Most companies have a social media page. If you don’t agree with their practices and how they source their clothes, say so.
Check out the Clean Clothes Campaign Ireland for more.