Photo credit: Tamzin Haughton
#whomademyclothes? The question is fired by Fashion Revolution, a global campaign aiming to raise awareness in matters regarding social and environmental disasters in the fashion industry.
The movement was born following strong international reaction sparked by the Rana Plaza tragedy of April 24, 2013, the day an eight-floor building housing five clothing factories, a bank and offices, some 30 kilometers from Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,127 people and another 2,450 injured.
In 2016 alone, Fashion Revolution reached 195 million people online through its hashtag, while the movement is currently present in 95 countries, including Greece.
During a recent visit to Athens to attend an event focused on sustainable fashion co-organized by the British Council and cultural organization Atopos CVC, Fashion Revolution founder and director Orsola de Castro, an Italian-born, London-based former fashion designer and entrepreneur, spoke to Kathimerini.
Has sustainability become a hip term in the industry?
It is certainly not being overlooked anymore, and the stigma that was forever associated with it, hemp socks and so on, is now no longer part of the equation. We are seeing some incredibly cool designers – the younger generation in particular – express themselves with ethics and sustainability at the core of their design ethos. So yes, we are now looking at this being the new avant-garde, the next frontier, in fashion design.
At the same time it appears that some industry players are taking a more proactive stance toward sustainability issues and a number of major brands are changing their attitude…
Interestingly, some brands are, but many clearly aren’t. Talking is different from doing and we are really seeing some amazing greenwashing throughout the industry. Transparency still eludes most of the large mainstream brands and it will take some time before we will be able to see a real transformation across the fashion industry. But the combination of some big brands innovating and the majority of small brands embedding sustainable and ethical practices will inevitably facilitate and speed up this change.
We have witnessed the downside of globalization. What would you say are its positive effects?
Well, for me it’s about giving decent jobs to people who would otherwise struggle: not that we have achieved this by all means. Eighty percent of garment workers are female, and many are not being paid enough to live on, but if they would, if the fashion industry were to properly employ, to export dignity and skills to developing countries, then I think we would see a very positive effect of globalization, a system to empower and not exploit.
Can technology be a partner in the quest for greater sustainability?
Sure. Especially in terms of transparency, provenance, traceability and closed-loop technologies. Everything can partner sustainability if the intentions are right, and right now, technological innovation seems to be the next horizon. What is interesting to me though is the marriage between past and future: We need technology as much as we need skills and crafts – fashion is about making, and that element is irreversible. Human hands should always be a part of the making of fashion – the combination of artisanal and technological is a space I believe will create some amazing hybrids.
What is the role of education in developing a new consumer mentality?
We are looking at a massive shift of culture here, changing this throwaway mentality we have been served for the past 20 years, so education is the crux: whether its education in schools, or peer-to-peer education via social media. At Fashion Revolution our mantra is Be Curious, Find Out, Do Something: That to me is what oils the mental machine of people and makes them feel a part of the solution. Knowledge, making one’s own mind up, learning.
How can you challenge the allure of cheap, fast fashion?
We are. Cheap fashion has no allure. We will get bored of it, we will start to look for quality. I have been quoted many times with these few lines: “Look for quality, not just in the products you buy, but in the lives of the people who make them.” I think we are slowly getting there.
How can we, as consumers, become more eco-fashion friendly in our daily lives?
Just thinking a little more about our shopping habits can have a profound effect. Buying for love rather than impetus, keeping things longer, treating clothes well, mending and repairing, investing in pieces (and they don’t have to be necessarily expensive) emotionally... small actions, big changes. And, of course, always ask brands #whomademyclothes.
What has changed in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza disaster?
Rana Plaza was inevitable. There are ever longer supply chains and a resulting shift in responsibility. However, this was a tragedy that could have taken place in any fast-fashion producing country. Rana Plaza happens to be in Bangladesh. What happened reflects a global trend of increased demand, which feeds the fast-fashion supply chain.
There have been many improvements in the fashion supply chain since the dust settled on the Rana Plaza disaster, although it is unfortunate that it has taken a tragedy of this scale to start to bring about change.
The accord signed following the tragedy – a five-year, independent agreement signed between international brands and Bangladeshi labor unions – has led to some progress on safety standards. However, as we have heard through numerous recent reports in the media, 90 percent of the structural, electrical and fire-safety improvement plans are behind schedule. Thirteen percent of suppliers still haven’t removed locks from doors which could be used as fire exits. So far, 2,185 factories have been audited through the accord, but this only covers around one-third of exporting factories.
Most of the factories, particularly unregulated factories where subcontracting takes place, and all of the homeworkers in Bangladesh, fall outside of the scope of the agreement. These are the places where the workers are most vulnerable. It has been estimated that 3 million garment workers aren’t covered by these audits.
What will really keeps factories compliant is when all workers have a voice and they can speak out when something is wrong. Ninety percent of garment workers in Bangladesh are women and the National Garment Workers’ Federation recently found that 85 percent of all women garment workers in Bangladesh had been abused at their place of work.
Fashion Revolution will be launching the Transparency Index at the beginning of Fashion Revolution Week [April 24-30] because we believe that every stakeholder in the supply chain should be able to answer the question #whomademyclothes. Brands score points for having policies, how they implement them and whether they communicate them to the public. The idea of the index is to enable people to see just how much or how little information brands provide about their practices and products. While the first edition of the Transparency Index only contains 40 companies, we’re asking that members of the public contact their favorite brands to encourage them to answer #whomademyclothes.