It's Fashion Revolution Week!! A week dedicated to discussing the fashion industry in all it's mud and glory and a call to action to learn as much as you can about your favourite clothing brands and ask 'who made my clothes?'
Now, there is a LOT to learn about the fashion industry - it is HUGE and intricate and there are many moving parts, but in this blog I want to get you thinking about where your clothing is made and highlight a common misconception regarding manufacturing:
MANUFACTURING OVERSEAS DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY = BAD
MANUFACTURING IN AMERICA (or Canada or Europe for that matter) DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY = GOOD
I've worked retail my whole life and I hear a lot of "I don't buy things made in China". This is a hard and fast rule for a lot of people, and honestly, it's usually a pretty safe rule of thumb. But why is this a rule in the first place? And how much truth is there to our reasoning?
When products are mass-produced in large factories overseas by companies like Walmart and Target, it's really hard to keep track of who is actually making the product. Sure, specific factories are contracted by the companies, but the orders placed are usually in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of garments, and often required to be delivered within just a couple of months. This means that garment workers are forced to work around the clock, usually with no overtime, childcare or healthcare and, as if that isn't bad enough, more often than not portions of these large orders are 'outsourced' to less reputable factories that employ children, or force desperate garment workers to endure even more dangerous and exhausting conditions (if you haven't heard of the Rana Plaza garment district collapse in Bangladesh, stop reading this blog, and take a minute to learn about it, this shit is important).
This backdoor policy is widely known in the industry, and large companies often turn a blind eye in favour of quick turnaround times and extremely cheap manufacturing costs. Remember all of the trouble Nike got into in 2001 when it was exposed to have children as young as 10 making their products in Pakistan? The company claimed to have some of the highest employment standards in the industry, but that "age was next to impossible to verify when records of birth do not exist or can be easily forged." Now, personally I find it very hard to believe that if you were monitoring your factories closely you wouldn't notice a 10 year old on the production floor, but hey, maybe that's just me.
So OK, this is definitely a thing that happens in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico...name any country you want, child labour and shitty production practices exist, no question.
HOWEVER, I want to give a big shoutout to the many factories overseas that are fighting really hard to combat this stigma and implementing really high (like, higher even than North America!) standards of employment; providing healthcare, childcare, housing, clean water, education and paid vacation to their workers. More and more ethically run factories are popping up overseas and many small to medium size brands are beginning to take advantage of their expertise and passion for turning the industry around.
Speaking of North America, there is a flip-side to this argument. And that is that just because something is made in North America (or Europe) DOES NOT MEAN that it was produced ethically. This assumption can be just as dangerous as the "all goods made overseas are bad" argument; perhaps even more so, as it lulls us into a false sense of righteousness when we shop products that are 'made in America'.
Even in the U.S. and Canada, garment workers routinely face wage theft and unsafe working conditions. These days, many of our garment workers are newly arrived immigrants or undocumented workers (especially workers at factories in LA, Americas largest manufacturing hub), making it hard for them to organize and demand better pay or working conditions for themselves. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labour conducted a survey of LA based garment factories, and reported that an alarming 93% of them in some way violated basic worker rights in terms of health, pay or safety. 93%! Why go overseas when you can exploit people at home, right?
I've heard horrifying rumors of garment workers chained to sewing machines in diapers, forced to work around the clock in sweatshop like conditions. I couldn't find any articles relating to this,but a quick Google search brings up a ton of articles relating to extremely poor working conditions faced by garments workers in North America. Besides, the fact that this rumor even exists highlights how bad things are in this industry, even here at home.
So, what's a shopper to do?
THIS is where Fashion Revolution Week comes in. It's not enough anymore to assume the conditions a garment is made in based on the country listed on the tag. It's so so SO important to be pushing your favourite brands towards more ethical production practices - demanding transparency, demanding to know where, who and under what conditions your clothing was made. Fashion Revolution is a call to action for all conscious consumers to ask #whomademyclothes and demand that the fashion industry start to make changes in the way it operates - and not just this week either, but always, until we start to see big changes.
I know that myself and many emerging and sustainable designers are doing our best to lead this charge, but it's up to all of us. A better world can't exist if we keep ignoring all of the facts - we need to get tough with our industries, start putting our money where our mouths are, and demand MORE from our fashion industry.
Cheers to the (Fashion) Revolution!