Who made your clothes? This might not be a question you ask yourself too often. In the age of fast fashion, people are more concerned with next season’s colour palates than they are with the human cost behind the garments they purchase and wear. Fashion Revolution Day, the brainchild of UK-based designers Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, is an attempt to address the many ethical issues faced by the fashion industry. The day is designed to spark a conversation amongst fashion consumers around the world. It does so predominantly via social media, encouraging participants to “show your label and ask brands #whomademyclothes?”
While the “wearing clothes inside out” as activism may seem like a light-hearted novelty, the incident that inspired Somers and de Castro to call for a Fashion Revolution was far more tragic. On 24 April 2013, there was a deadly collapse in the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This Plaza was home to a number of garment factories and churned out branded clothing for first world consumers. The collapse took the lives of one thousand and thirty-three workers and severely injured over two thousand more. Due to illegal extensions and virtually no emergency exits, workers in the factory became trapped as they tried to escape. Many of the families of the deceased lost their main source of income and were unable to claim any compensation due to huge amounts of red tape and bureaucratic callousness. Retail giant Primark refused to pay compensation to relatives of victims until they could identify the bodies of their loved ones with a DNA test.
Australian fast fashion giants such as Kmart, Big W, Cotton On Group and Target order huge amounts of goods to be produced in Bangladeshi garment factories. The garment construction industry accounts for more than 80% of Bangladesh’s foreign earnings and provides employment for many of its residents. However, as the collapse of the Rana Plaza proved, the dirt cheap prices offered by the aforementioned companies to Australian consumers come at a great cost. Those employed by the textile industry in third-world countries such as Bangladesh are often overworked, underpaid and undervalued. The response by these huge companies to such a large-scale industrial tragedy proves the blatant indifference towards the lives of third-world workers who make fast fashion possible.
Beyond these social and ethical issues within the fashion industry are the environmental problems. Cotton plants destined to become textile products are routinely doused with toxic pesticides and require thousands of litres of water to grow. In most places in the world, large-scale cotton farming is detrimental to the natural landscape, yet the demand for this material is so high that it remains a lucrative practice for farmers. Beyond these direct environmental effects are those that the consumer brings about. Much of the clothing created by garment-factory employees in the developing world are discarded after little use. The average Australian household produces roughly 1.5 tonnes worth of waste each year, including textile waste. Every day, people throw out clothing for insignificant reasons. Minor defects, stains, or plain old falling out of fashion are some of the reasons we decide to dispose of garments we once loved. This frivolity is seriously far removed from the make-do-and-mend mentality of our grandparent’s generation. There are hundreds of alternatives to throwing ruined clothes in the bin. It is just as easy to donate undamaged or unfashionable clothes to the op-shop as it is to discard of them in the bin. As for clothing in less-than-perfect condition, recycling or repurposing is another simple option. Even those with no talent for DIY can cut a t-shirt up to use as a rag. Until we are able to understand the lifespan of a cheap, mass-produced garment, it will continue to be easy for us to effortlessly dispose of our clothes without a second thought.
Fashion Revolution Day is a great notion. Our collective way of life is sustainable in very few respects and the fashion industry is one aspect of modern life that is fraught with ethical, social and environmental issues. The questions Fashion Revolution Day raises and the ideals it promotes must become a part of our day-to-day decision making. We must resist the urge to buy $10 t-shirts, or to deck ourselves out in the latest colour or silhouette. In the twenty-first century, fashion seems to have the lifespan of a mayfly. By the time you’ve put something through the wash twice, it’s irrelevant. Instead, we should be using our power as consumers for good. Purchasing from local designers and makers costs more financially, but a well-made piece of clothing is an investment that will outlive dozens of ‘micro-seasons’. Most importantly, we need to keep asking ourselves that question – who made my clothes? Until the human cost of fast fashion is widely recognised and acknowledged, tragedies like the collapse of the Rana Plaza will continue to occur.