Let’s face it, clothing is an essential part of everyday life. We all wear clothes, therefore this conversation around our fast fashion habits and our ethical decisions is one that everyone should be taking part in. This is an issue that entails more than what you imagine when you think of the word ‘fashion’. The word is much more than the catwalks, the models and the ‘in-trend’ looks. It lies in the seams of the clothes you are wearing right now, in the fingers of the workers who have picked singular pieces of cotton for your t-shirt, in the stories of the people who have skilfully pieced fabric together for you. There is a whole process behind the construction of a garment, and one that sadly involves real people working in undermanaged factories being both unheard and unseen of. However, despite this, there has been a momentous drive for a light to be shone on this corner and for the process to be made more transparent.
April 24th 2018, is the fifth year anniversary of the Rama Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. In total, 1,134 lives were lost, making the collapse the worst single incident in the history of the apparel industry. This disaster was caused by the structural frailties of the building, with the management of the garment factory ignoring and failing to act on improving the worker’s conditions. A fashion revolution was born out of this tragedy. Citizens, brands, retailers, producers, and workers started to demand a safer, cleaner, fairer and more transparent process down the whole production line – from the raw material to a piece of clothing on a body.
As one of the many direct responses to the Rama Plaza disaster, this is the fifth year of Baptist World Aid Australia and Tearfund NZ producing the Ethical Fashion Report. Already we can see the role the report has had on changing industry and buyer behaviours. In the 2018 report, Ice Breaker was the most improved brand. Graded a D- last year, the company’s director did not recognise the report as a priority to take part in, acknowledging that this was because he did not see Tearfund as being an organisation that is relevant to the markets they are involved in. With a change in mindset, practices, and transparency, Ice Breaker came out with an A+ in the 2018 report. This is a testament to how encouraging increased transparency within a business will lead to greater accountability, which eventually will lead to a change in the way business is done.
We can also see the reports influence through the increase in responsibilities companies are taking for their manufacturing processes in a more holistic manner. The first report in 2013 showed that one-sixth of the companies assessed were publishing supplier lists, meanwhile in the 2018 report, the proportion had increased to one-third. This change also accounts for traceability whereby companies are reaching deeper into their supply chain and tracing where their fabrics have come from. Companies following this approach has since risen from 48% to 78% in the past five years. As well, the scope of the research has expanded significantly with only 128 brands taking part in 2013, and 407 brands taking part in 2018.
Banzaid has a project supporting one of the companies featured in the ethical fashion report - Freeset. Freeset is a freedom business based in Kolkata, India, which ranked 4th place in the report with an A+ grade. It is inspiring to see Freeset recognised for the work they do – especially around empowering women. Freeset shows that it is possible to have a successful business model which does not marginalise people involved in garment production. Freeset does not employ people to make a business, but makes a business to employ people. This makes their founding values based off hope, justice, love and freedom. It is important to recognise the profound effect these solid founding values can have on ensuring a business is an ethical one.
Fast fashion could be compared to fast food. It’s not in any way good for you, but when it’s put right in front of you as the accessible option, it is ultimately hard to resist. Because of this, many shoppers make a trade-off – should I do the right thing and buy ethically, or do I do what's best for me and my wallet and buy this $5 item of clothing from Bangladesh? These trade-offs are what is fuelling the fast-fashion industry. There is a limit to how the low-cost model works. Companies producing low price, high production and low-quality products are not sustainable. Through our purchasing habits, the only thing we as consumers have been communicating to companies has been that we care about price. The pricing has been pushed all the way down in response to this demand from consumers. What we need to start communicating with companies, is that we care about the people who make our clothes, that we care about the impact on the environment, and we are willing to pay more to make these possible. Consumers should continue to preference those companies upholding ethical practices in their supply chains and call out those that aren’t doing better. When we start to drive this, there will be a real shift towards progress.
This change in purchasing decisions calls us to remove the disconnect between buyer and maker. It clicked for me when I realised that while technology development in other industries is fast paced, there is not this technology available in the garment production sphere. Real people and their hands are still behind every single seam on every single piece of clothing you own. It caused me to ask questions on how an industry which is such an extensive and universal trade does not have the capacity to look after everyone that is involved in the process? As a society, we purchase 400% more clothing today than we did just 20 years ago. Ultimately, we need to buy less, buy better and keep asking questions about the realities of what we’re purchasing. The report believes that more transparency will lead to greater accountability, which eventually will lead to a change in the way business is done.
It is about being accountable, being aware and placing more value on the lives of people than the value we place in a piece of clothing. The fashion industry provides for millions of people around the world, and has the potential to not only be something beautiful, but also kind. Start conversations, ask questions, let workers be empowered, and let the planet be cared for.
The Ethical Fashion Report
Ella Martin is a student studying development at Victoria University. She is volunteering as an intern with Banzaid, to see some practical examples of how development works. She has written this blog post with her response to the Ethical Fashion Report.