Last term, a group of rather offbeat students representing the society Just Love gave up 24 hours of sleep, essay writing and the joys of Friday night Emporium to stand against the mistreatment of workers in the fashion industry. This is something we really care about, but if you managed to dodge our keen glance on that drizzly day outside the new Westgate building, we’re back at it in the Cherwell. So let’s chat about ethical fashion.
‘Ethical fashion’ is a term invented by self righteous Cellar-loving vegans who feel spiritually connected to the Thai woman who stitched their gap year pants.
False. Ethical fashion is a small part of a 30 billion dollar industry that ensures it treats its workers with dignity. It means they are committed to being accountable for the way workers are treated across the whole journey that our clothes take, from being cotton plants to becoming cotton pants. It’s a term I only began to think about earlier this year when I started getting involved with Just Love and have since been trying to navigate my way around.
In Just Love’s campaign last term, called Stand For Freedom, we set up 24-hour stalls providing information on the state of the fashion industry, sold Fairtrade goods and had a pop up clothes swap stall, smiling our cheeks off in the hope that someone would make eye contact for long enough for us to pounce. Complete with homemade bunting and pedalling a sign asking, “who made my clothes?” we had members of the public @ their favourite brands on Instagram to try and get people to engage with the idea of ‘ethical fashion.’ It’s an idea I’m very much still learning about, and I haven’t found it a very ‘nice’ issue to address. I mean, I helped out running the up-cycled clothes swap table and in repayment a bird defecated on me…twice. Not nice.
Ethically sourced clothes are expensive and overpriced, and I’m a poor deprived student living on £5 a week who’s in desperate need of a new gown for Keble Ball.
False. Yes, ethical brands are more expensive, but that’s because we’re paying the true value of the clothes we’re getting (alongside the standard profit margin). Have you ever tried making a dress? I can guarantee that if you counted up the hours it took and pay yourself minimum wage, you wouldn’t cover it with the £10 your mate paid for that absolute steal from Topshop. But I sympathise completely, budgets are often tight. No fear – ethical shopping doesn’t have to be from ethical brands. Charity shops are amazing – they’re cheap, support great causes, and reduce waste – everyone wins. British Heart Foundation are all out of ball gowns? Check out Oxford Ball Gown Swap and Shop Facebook page, we’ve got you covered. But I, for one, need to get real with myself; often we do spend large amounts of money on clothes – the only question is, to whom?
The clothes in ‘ethical shops’ are for middle aged mums who like chiffon scarves with anchors on them – if I shopped there, I’d have no chance of getting shiny gold flares, which are essentials for a night out in Oxford.
Okay, fine – true. But consider this a chance to get creative! You’ve got to search a little harder to find what you’re looking for, but if you wear it well, any granny top can work. I adore expressing myself through what I wear, but I’ve had to consider recently just how much that luxury is worth to me, and who is really paying.
To stop shopping at brands that treat their workers badly will just mean those people are left out of work and out of whatever small amount of money they were getting in the first place.
This is an important and complicated point, with much more depth than my word count allows, but I will say this – yes, you may be preventing one worker from being paid 6p an hour, but you’ll hopefully be providing another with £6 an hour. In the UK, we form a huge part of the demand in this industry, and if we begin demanding human rights for those who work in it, the industry will be forced to change.
Unethical treatment of workers in the fashion industry isn’t really a major problem any more – after that scandal most businesses have cleaned up their act, and besides, I only shop at Primark for bop costumes anyway.
If only. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in 2013 caused the death of 1,130 people, most of whom were young women, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. The building housed clothing factories for global brands (including Primark), that we shop at every day*. This tragedy was allowed to happen a mere five years ago – are we convinced that enough has changed in those last five years to say with confidence that it will never happen again? The year before that, the Guardian reported on the Karnataka Garment Workers Union in India who testified that workers who were providing clothes for retailers such as Gap, H&M and Next were victims of “a shocking regime of abuse, threats and poverty pay.” The article is a tough but worthwhile read, I’ve saved you the more harrowing details*. What disturbed me the most was the way the workers were forced into silence about their situation – if they didn’t lie to auditors, they were fired, they lost their livelihood. If these are the atrocities that reach us, what aren’t we hearing about?
Ethical fashion isn’t always easy but is undoubtedly worthwhile.
True. I believe that shopping ethically is a fundamental part of treating people according to their true value. In Just Love, we believe a person’s true value is infinite because they are given it by a God that loves them infinitely. That’s why we care and that’s why we ran the 24 hour Stand For Freedom, because we want to see justice and believe God does too. We hope that in doing Stand For Freedom, we raised money for organisations addressing this injustice*, raised awareness of ways to shop ethically, and raised some eyebrows in revealing the twisted nature of the fashion industry.
But I’m afraid now it’s on you to try and figure out what your own response is to all of this, because I know I certainly don’t have all the answers. You don’t have to swallow my agenda and become a haphazard dungaree-wearing hermit who lives in the Fair Trade shop at St Michael’s like me. But do remember that these issues aren’t detached from us; we are part of this industry’s chain and we choose the nature of our inevitable impact on it.