What I learned at NYC's Fashion Revolution Week and What You Can Do About It
Last week was Fashion Revolution Week. Sparked by the Rana Plaza tragedy in which 1,134 garment workers were killed when their factory collapsed, Fashion Revolution encourages consumers and makers everywhere to ask the question “Who Made My Clothes”. It’s easy to forget that real lives are behind every garment we wear. Up until a few years ago, I thought machines did most of the work. I mean we have self-driving cars now, they should be able to do everything right? Wrong. Robots may be able to open doors, but they can’t sew seams for shit. Go figure. Clothes are still made by people and those people (mostly women) are forgotten cogs in the wheel of fashion. They suffer poor working conditions, low wages, and forced overtime. Fashion Revolution’s goal is to honor those workers, and create transparency in the fashion industry.
All across the world clothes were swapped, panels were held, and lots of incredible ideas were exchanged. I was fortunate enough to attend Fashion Revolution Week in NYC, where there were more events to attend than you could shake a stick at. Even though I spend most of my time researching this stuff, there’s always more to learn. Attending these events I was blown away by the advances made in the ethical fashion world as well as just how far we have to go.
The Good news!
Fair-trade factories are popping up everywhere. Today there are over 150 million fair-trade workers in over 100 countries worldwide with another 20 factories projected to go fair-trade this year alone. That’s real progress.
The movement is growing. Over 2 million people engaged with Fashion Revolution last year plus over 53 million people engaged with the fashion revolution hashtags. The more people demand ethical garment production the more brands will flip.
Brands are listening. People asked “Who made my clothes?” and brands responded. Over 200 brands gave concrete information about their supply chain and even sent pictures of their workers with signs saying “I made your clothes”. That’s double what it was in 2016, and I can’t wait to get the final numbers for this year.
The Bad News
Millions of adults and children are forced to pick cotton in slave-like conditions in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Pulled from their regular jobs as teachers, doctors, nurses, etc. citizens are forced to meet daily quotas under threat of death. All while living in barracks without running water or basic sanitation.
20%-60% of garment work is actually outsourced from factories and done by women at home. As you can imagine, this kind of home-based work is very difficult to track and regulate compared to work done inside a factory. Home-based textile work generates very little money (they’re usually paid per piece) despite long hours and unstable work conditions. Home-based workers are a vital part of the economy world-wide and if we’re serious about improving work conditions we must include them. On the forefront of this problem is the non-profit Nest. They’re actively working to create safe working conditions for these home-workers by increasing transparency for work beyond a traditional factory.
Most disheartening of all is what’s happening to factories and garment workers in Bangladesh. Initially after the Rana Plaza collapse there was sweeping change. Thanks to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance For Bangladesh Worker Safety some 2,300 factories dramatically improved their safety standards. Great news right? Except that five years after the collapse the news cycle has moved on, and factory owners are not feeling the same pressure from the West. Today union activity (which is one of the best way to ensure workers’ rights) has slowed to a crawl, with union leaders being beaten and jailed. The Accord will no longer be able to inspect factories themselves after May 31st, leaving the work to the Bangladeshi government who *spoiler* let all sorts of infractions slide. Not to mention there are still about 1500 factories that have only ever been monitored by the government because they only supply to the East. Of these only 15% have fixed even half of their safety hazards in the last five years.
What you can do about it.
After a week of my emotions bouncing back and forth from joy because of all our progress and horror at how far we had to go, I’m left with this. We can’t let Fashion Revolution Week be the only time we put pressure on companies and governments to change. Most Fashion Revolutionaries will encourage you take action by writing a letter to a company or tweeting about it. Yes, do this definitely. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll start out super gung-ho and quickly burn out because you know...life. Letters and pics will only get us so far. The revolution is a marathon, not a sprint, and we must make small choices day in and day out if we want change to last. We must vote with our dollar every single day. Luckily, this is easier than it sounds. These 3 actions will help keep brands honest.
Buy fair-trade. This is the number one way to ensure workers are treated fairly and make a decent wage from their work.
Buy Union-made. Unions have their workers backs. It’s their job! Unions not only protect its members but by raising standards improve the lives of all workers.
Buy less, but buy Better. One of the biggest hurdles to in this whole ethical production cycle is us. What are we the consumer willing to spend on an item. Since the Rana Plaza collapse the price of men’s pants have dropped 13%. How the hell are factories supposed to pay their workers a living wage, when we expect to pay next to nothing? Where is that money supposed to come from? Look, I get it, buying ethical clothes is pretty expensive. Because that’s actually what clothes should cost. It’s rare that I buy anything new and this allows me to save up and buy clothes that are ethically made. It’s important that we shift our thinking from “ooh I’m splurging” to “this is what pants cost”. This helps me feel less tempted from picking up something I know was made in a sweatshop just because it’s cheap.
Did you learn anything new? What’s your plan of action to keep the revolution going? Let me know in the comments!