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Clothes to die for? Notes from a panel discussion on 'fast fashion'

After the excitement of seeing my new commission for Salts Mill going up on display last month, I am finally getting round to sharing my notes from the stimulating panel discussion on fast fashion I took part in at Bradford Industrial Museum (BIM) in March. The discussion, entitled "Clothes to die for?", was part of the events programme accompanying my "Wonder and Dread" exhibition at BIM.

I was delighted to share the panel with three experts who, from different angles, all work on making fashion more sustainable: Sarah Ditty, Head of Policy at Fashion Revolution; Mark Sumner, Lecturer in Sustainability, Fashion and Retail at University of Leeds; and Anna Skodbo, Creative Director and founder of phannatiq, an independent clothing brand committed to sustainable manufacture and supply chain transparency. The event was deftly chaired by labour rights, ethical trade and supply chain expert Pins Brown, who made sure that the 50-strong audience had plenty of opportunity to join in the debate. Many in the audience had personal and/or family connections to the textile trade - not surprising given the event's location in Bradford!

The main discussion points of the event were:

(i) What, if anything, has changed in the global fashion industry since the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2013, which caused the death of over 1130 garment workers?

(ii) What can producers, retailers, trade unions, campaigners, regulators and consumers do to make global fashion supply chains fairer, safer and more sustainable ?

Before summarising the debate around these two questions its seems appropriate to put them into context: What does fashion mean to us? Why is it important? Some participants made the distinction between "clothes" and "fashion" (ie fashionable clothes). Clothing is - at least in most parts of the world - a basic necessity and therefore essential for human wellbeing. But beyond keeping you warm (or cool), clothes are also a means of self-expression, a chosen skin of in which to present yourself to the world, an adornment, and a part of non-verbal communication, signalling one's belonging to a peer group, or sexual attraction. The transition from "clothes" into "fashion" is fluid depending on whether "fashion" is understood as what is defined as such in the media, what sells most on the high street, or what a particular 'tribe' likes to wear at a given moment in time. In summary, clothes/fashion are an integral part of our humanity. Therefore, the debate around fast or unsustainable fashion is not an anti-fashion debate. It merely demands that the enjoyment of a garment does not come at the expense of the human rights of its producer.

After introductions, we set out the main social and environmental issues associated with producing, selling, consuming and discarding clothes, and discussed how these issues might have changed in the last 5 years and which new challenges have arisen.

On the environmental side, there are land use issues and pressures on land; water and energy consumption (also when washing clothes!); use of chemicals; greenhouse gas emissions; and solid waste generation. The volume of waste from end-of-life clothes has increased significantly in the last years as we buy ever more clothes, wear them less, and re-use less than 1%. Another issue that has received more attention recently is water pollution from micro-plastics shed by synthetic clothing during washing.

In recent years there has been further experimentation with new, potentially environmentally friendlier textiles, for example making fibre out of recycled clam shells. We had quite a discussion about bamboo fibre - growing bamboo may be more environmentally friendly than cotton, but to in order to make it into spinnable fibre the same chemical-heavy process is used as for viscose - which makes it fairly toxic! Only processes using a closed-loop system (in which only 0.5 -3 % of chemicals used get released into the ecosystem) can claim to be an environmentally friendlier alternative.

As for social issues, the first thing to keep in mind is that whilst the Rana Plaza disaster was the textile industry's biggest and most deadly industrial accident, it was by no means the first one - "there were many Rana Plazas before Rana Plaza". And industrial accidents haven't stopped - in Bangladesh alone over 400 people died in over 300 workplace accidents in 2017. Bradford had its own, Victorian "Rana Plaza" with the Newlands Mill collapse back in 1882 - commemorated in my work 'A Terrible Calamity' in the 'Wonder & Dread' Exhibition as a companion piece to 'Aftermath', which commemorates the Rana Plaza disaster

Alke Schmidt, Details of "A Terrible Calamity" and "Aftermath"

Details of 'A Terrible Calamity' (left) and 'Aftermath' (right), mixed media on canvas

Fire and building safety: The Rana Plaza disaster triggered a groundbreaking initiative to improve safety conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories: The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Signed by 220 apparel brands , 8 national and 2 international trade unions, the Accord includes binding commitment for brands to inspect and upgrade fire and building safety in their supply factories. To date, over 1,000 mostly first-tier suppliers covering 2.2 millions workers have been inspected under the Accord, with a remediation rate of 85%. Recognising that this work is not completed (there are an estimated 7,000 garment factories in Bangladesh!) the Bangladeshi government has just extended its permission for the Accord to continue its work until the agreed conditions for a handover to fully-functioning and competent regulatory and enforcement authorities have been met.

Apart from safety, there are other major issues around labour standards and working conditions all along the supply chain - from forced labour in Uzbek cotton fields to zero-hour contracts in UK fashion retail and unpaid interns at fashion shows and magazines. In addition, as more and more fashion is sold online the working conditions of warehouse and delivery staff have come into the spotlight.

Living wages and collective bargaining: Today, there is wide recognition that responsible sourcing also means living wages and collective bargaining rights for textile workers, and that the latter is a vital tool for achieving the former - individual brands cannot resolve this issue on their own. ACT is an initiative between international brands & retailers, manufacturers, and trade unions to address the issue of living wages in the textile and garment sector by establishing industry collective bargaining in key sourcing countries, supported by world class manufacturing standards and responsible purchasing practices.

'The Power of the Union', oil on Indian cotton print (detail)

Exploitation of the most vulnerable continues - even in the UK.The more vulnerable the worker, the higher the risk of exploitation - e.g. a recent study by University of Leicester found that abuse and wages of less than half the UK minimum wage were especially rife among poor, possibly undocumented, immigrants working in Leicester's burgeoning fast fashion industry, often in informal work arrangements.This increasing informalisation is a worrying trend, given that jobs in garment manufacturing have often been a way into formal work, particularly for women.

On the plus side, minimum wages have increased significantly, although in Bangladesh they are still only a fraction of what would be considered a living wage. Finally, the way fashion is marketed has come under much scrutiny in recent years. Phannatiq, for example, has a policy of using a very broad range of models of all ages, sizes and ethnicities, and of never photoshopping images of models.

Everyone agreed that transparency in supply chains is vital for making fast fashion more sustainable. Transparency has increased significantly since Rana Plaza, driven partly by regulation such as the UK's Modern Slavery Act, partly by pressure from civil society and the media. For example:

  • Over 150 big brands now publish list of their first tier suppliers, whereas 10 years ago this was regarded as secret, commercially confidential information - e.g. one retailer kept their list of suppliers in a safe!

  • Inspection reports under the Bangladesh Accord are published online.

  • The Better Work Programme, a joint initiatve of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), assesses labour standards compliance of currently 1450 apparel factories in 6 countries, and publishes key findings on its Transparency Portal.

  • The Ethical Fashion Forum has a database of ethical fashion businesses and resources.

  • Fashion Revolution maintains a Transparency Index that ranks 100 of the biggest global fashion and apparel brands and retailers according to how much information they disclose about their suppliers, supply chain policies and practices, and social and environmental impact.

  • Phannatiq's clothing labels state in which country the fabric was knitted/woven, where it was printed, and where the garment was made. More detailed information about the companies involved in these processes is available online by clicking on the "How it's made" button for each garment featured in the online shop.

The question is what to do with all these data. Factory inspection databases are certainly useful for fashion brands large and small who want to source responsibly. Monitoring data from the Better Work Programme suggest that tansparency can drive improvements in labour practices. Trade unions like the data because they shift the burden of proof away from workers who want to challenge abuses. (Another way to improve workers' recourse is a mechanism where supply chain workers can report grievances directly to the brands, rather then just to the supplier's HR department). As to consumers, I find that it would be asking a bit much to expect everyone to do extensive research into every item they want to buy - consumers like certifications (e.g. fair-trade; organic) by trusted organisations that have already done this research for them.

Finally, we discussed the limits of transparency. For example, it's been proposed to post on brands' websites videos of supply chain workers at work - but would that not violate the workers' privacy? Most of us would not be happy to have a camera at our workplace filming our every move.

Regulators have a very important role in creating more responsible supply chains, but this is not always sufficiently acknowledged by governments in both producing and consuming countries. In producing countries effective law enforcement is key - bad labour practices are typically illegal and should be heavily penalised to have a deterring effect. A number of consuming countries have introduced supply chain transparency requirements for larger corporations, which go some way to push companies to be more vigilant about human right abuses in their supply chains (cf UK Modern Slavery Act). In addition, the panel suggested that governments should introduce, in their import regulations, a requirement that the customs documents for every apparel import need to state where clothes were made, and where the fabric and raw material came from. Clothes could have a barcode to this effect. This would do much do curb illegal sub-ontracting/outsourcing and, crucially, it would create a level transparency playing field for all apparel retailers.

We touched very briefly on the question whether the corporate duty to shareholders to maximise profits stand in the way of responsible sourcing. We concluded that it should not, because corporations have to conduct their business legally - an obligation that precedes profit maximisation. As to human rights violations in the supply chain, the due diligence obligations enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide an internationally recognised standard that would again precede the corporate duty to maximise profits.

Much of the discussion revolved around consumer behaviour. Everyone seems to agree that awareness of unfair or unsustainable fashion has increased, but it is unclear to which extent people have actually changed their behaviour. For example, in the year of the Rana Plaza disaster, one of the brands that in this context got a lot of bad press about their sourcing practices reported a 44% increase in profits - which suggests that people did not stop buying their clothes!

Overproduction and overconsumption are still rife (e.g. 100 billion garments were produced in 2016) and many participants highlighted the need to change today's throwaway culture, which many thought was fuelled even more by the 'instagram culture'. At the producer end, cheap fashion brands typically have low profit margins and therefore need to sell a lot to make a profit. So is the ubiquity of fast, cheap fashion driven by consumer demand for cheap clothes or by brands creating this demand by selling garments at knock-down prices? I for one can remember a time when clothes weren't as cheap as they are today. On the other hand, clothing poverty also needs to be considered - not everyone can afford to pay more for clothes. But then, labour cost are only a tiny fraction of the total production cost of a garment, so paying workers a living wage would not require vast retail prices increases. But how can a brand ensure that a higher price paid to suppliers gets actually passed on to workers? Mark Sumner, who worked for 20 years in the clothing industry before moving into academia, pointed out that fashion supply chains are so long and complex that it is very hard for a brand to track down where its money actually goes - hence the need for effective collective wage bargaining in producer countries (see above).

Fashion Revolution specifically targets young people's consumption habits with initiatives designed make 'loving your clothes longer' cool, mostly through social media but also in other ways e.g. a collectible fanzine. Many participants thought that it is important to start educating very early - e.g. at primary school level, teaching children sewing skills and how clothes are made.

At the local level, there a a growing number of often community-based initiatives around sustainable clothing ranging from clothes and uniform banks and swaps/exchanges to sewing, mending and upcycling workshops and social enterprises (such as Vintage Vision) engaged in a range of activities. The challenge is that their reach is necessarily limited and that there don't seem to be enough mechanisms to promote, share and learn from each others' initiatives.

With so many complex issues and challenges, it is easy to feel overwhelmed if not discouraged. Hence, Fashion Revolution takes the view that purely negative campaigning is not always effective and it is very important to also showcase good practices. We have to keep in mind that for every horror story we hear there are other examples of good practices, of factories and businesses that are doing a fantastic job. My painting 'On the Move' was partly inspired by photos of workers at a best practice garment factory in Vietnam; I then expanded this theme to a broader exploration of the situation of young Vietnamese women today.

'On the Move' (detail), oil and appliqué embroidery on patterned cotton sourced in Vietnam

Also, it would be wrong to assume that "made in the EU" is necessarily better than "made in Bangladesh" or another developing country - there are good practices in these countries as well as bad practices in the UK (see Leicester example above). Finally, more expensive doesn't necessarily mean more sustainable - e. University of Leeds did a study on garment durability involving clothes in different price brackets - and the cheap 'fast fashion' garment came out best! So it's very hard to generalise.

At the end of a very lively discussion, the chair asked us to name one thing that people could do to to help make fast fashion more sustainable. Here's some of the suggestions that were made:

  • We should be curious and ask questions (as in Fashion Revolutions "Who made my clothes?" campaign). We should tell brands why we buy - or don't buy - their clothes. Brands take consumer feedback very seriously, so it's worth the effort. Questions and feedback should be directed a brand's top management , e.g. CEO, chairman (i.e. not the poorly-paid, overworked shop assistant!).

  • We should buy less, wear our clothes longer and wash them less often. The impact of washing is, after production, the second hotspot for water management in a garment's life cycle.

  • We should maintain a certain level of cynicism: Just because a company, an NGO, or a social media post say something it is not necessarily true.

  • Those of us who support charity shops should ask charities if they send clothes to developing countries and if so, what they do to avoid second hand clothes donations undercutting or even destroying the local textile industries in these countries.

At the end of the discussion, I felt inspired and energised - despite the many challenges discussed. Anna, Pins and I continued the debate on our train ride home. Big thanks for Bradford Industrial Museum for hosting this timely event!

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