I’m not a fan of Stacey Dooley’s documentaries. Don’t get me wrong, she was a queen on the Strictly dance floor, but when it comes to ‘uncovering’ great insights, I think she often misses the point and doesn’t ask the truly insightful questions. Indeed, my opinion on her investigative talent hasn’t been swayed by one of her latest documentaries, “Stacey Dooley Investigates: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets”, however, I am swayed by her choice of topic. I am grateful to her for opening up a dialogue on the unethical side of the fashion industry to a demographic that otherwise may not have been aware of it.
Dooley ‘reveals’ that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. She uncovers this seemingly unknown fact to shoppers who are worryingly surprised. They were unaware of the disgusting conditions in which factory workers slave away to produce the clothes they buy for a short-lived shoot of pleasure, and of the amount of water used to produce a pair of jeans. Their surprise is worrying because it reveals the lack of awareness of the ugly truth behind fast fashion. Although Dooley’s documentary may be the one that puts the upsetting nature of fast fashion on the map for many consumers, I will always remember The True Cost as the documentary that opened my eyes to the horrors of the fashion industry. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this topic, although you should be warned that you won’t be able to go into a high street shop without feeling a wave of guilt for at least a few months.
For many, fast fashion is perceived as an unavoidable part of life. It is cheap, on-trend and easy. However, it is not the only option. I met with Ben, a vintage-fashion entrepreneur based in York to discuss the fashion industry, slow fashion, and how consumers can be both responsible and true to their own style.
So, what are the ethical issues caused by the fashion industry? Ben’s immediate response is the unfair wages and working conditions of factory workers. He tells me about instances in which employees have been physically trapped in warehouses, forced to work like slaves. ‘Made in China’ is what us westerners have come to expect on labels, but I am told that ‘Made in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Cambodia’ is becoming more and more common. And this isn’t a good thing. In fact, Ben tells me that China has become one of the better countries in terms of worker wages, which isn’t encouraging seeing as their wages aren’t exactly fair.
The globalisation of fashion factory workers comes after the globalisation of fashion. Fashion globalisation and fast fashion are more than just coincidental; in 1990, more than 50% of clothing sold in America was made in America, whereas in 2016 a meagre 2% was made in the States. Globalisation has allowed the western world to quench its thirst, or greed, for the instant fix of retail therapy. However, the cause of fast fashion runs much deeper than globalisation. Both Ben and I agree that fast fashion isn’t just the act of buying often and unconsciously, but it is a mentality. It is the feeling that more is never enough, and the unquenchable thirst for the new-clothes ‘high’. Fast fashion is also a plea for acceptance. Did you get complimented on your new top? Does that mean they noticed you? Do they like you? The tantalising idea that having a constantly evolving wardrobe will make you ‘fit in’ to society is enough to tempt most shoppers. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, extrinsic rewards are being chosen over intrinsic ones because they get you immediate affirmation from others, and a short-lived warm sensation of feeling part of something.
The conversation with Ben turned to who to blame for the consequences of fast fashion. It is natural to want there to be a culprit, and annoyingly, it is hard to know who to point the finger at in this case. Was it all just one big mistake? Let’s take customers who buy cheap clothes from Primark in the knowledge that they are bad quality, and with the intention to replace them if need be. I am sure that most of these customers would be against the clothing factory conditions and the negative environmental impacts of clothing production, yet they still buy them. Why? As Dooley’s documentary demonstrates, it’s very possible that they are not aware of what goes on, or that they may have covered their eyes on purpose. Alternatively, they might be aware but feel unable to do anything for lack of time and money. Maybe each individual shopper would argue that them alone changing their habits would make little or no difference to the factory workers or the planet, so why bother? To that, both Ben and I would argue that a difference is still a difference, and one changed mentality will encourage others to change theirs’.
One thing we need to address as a society is our high expectations of how many clothes we need to own. We have come to expect a continuously evolving wardrobe that previous generations wouldn’t have thought possible. My mum has told me of having one new dress a year, an idea that horrifies me and my peers. We would expect to buy new clothes throughout the year, and even let ourselves believe that they are ‘necessary’. I am not suggesting that we should rid ourselves of joy and ration ourselves to one sock from a charity shop every few months, but I do believe that we expect too much. It becomes hard to feel happy if those expectations are not fulfilled, like a dependency. We have forgotten to be grateful for what we have, and if we had more respect for where our clothes came from, maybe we would respect our clothes more too.
As for the brands, they of course hold part of the blame. Ben speaks of the ‘Western blindfold’, by which he means that brands deliberately shield us from the origin of our products for their own profit. For example, H&M pretends to be a sustainable option with their small line of recycled products, (I’d be interested to know what percentage of each product is required to be recyclable) when the vast majority of their clothes are essentially made by slaves, with non-biodegradable fabrics. Ben was particularly anguished about River Island’s ad campaign which promotes diversity using models of different ethnicities, some of whom are disabled. This is a positive message that makes consumers who agree with diversity inclined to like the brand. In other words, it is a manipulative strategy used to cover up the atrocities faced to produce each garment.
No matter what the campaign is or the reality behind their fashion lines, the brands deny blame. They say that the worker’s conditions do not concern them because they do not own the factories, and that the problem is that consumers expect low prices and a constantly changing stock. So, who’s fault is it? It’s like the chicken and egg; Have brands trained us to constantly want more at lower prices, or did we force brands into fast fashion practices because of our ‘never enough’ mentality? Whoever started it, it is the brands that have made fast fashion possible by abusing the rights of workers and abusing the earth’s resources. I understand why brands went down this road but I don’t understand why they continue in this way when they are aware of the disgusting consequences. It is now their responsibility to be among the pioneers of the awakening world by either slowing down production; increasing prices by a pound; demanding better working conditions or making their own factories; or using recycled fabric which is readily available.
I asked Ben if he thinks it is conceivable for the industry to make meaningful changes to move towards slow fashion. He replies encouragingly, assuring me that it is “more than conceivable”. He should know, having set up a vintage and recycled clothing business while at University. He now has three projects but his first business, and the one I am most familiar with, is Past Apparel. The idea behind it isn’t ground breaking or original; resell at a profit, but he executed it well and impressively funded his university career. The business started after Ben bought a coat from a charity shop and sold it at a profit. He saw the opportunity and his eye for fashion got Ben from a budget of zero to a fully blown business run out of his bedroom in York. How? It started out as you can imagine, with Ben looking through charity shops to find the products that would be valuable to his target market and posting them on Instagram. As his Insta following grew, he noticed an increasing number of teenagers from ‘third world’ countries among them. In the knowledge that second-hand designer products end up in such countries, he contacted these teenagers, offering to pay them to send the products he wanted back to him in the UK. An idea that most wouldn’t dare following through, but Ben isn’t most people. From there, his success took off.
We got talking about our shared dislike of the term ‘third world countries’ and from there, of the pedestal Britain puts itself on in comparison to countries with less money. Maybe we have more money than some countries, but we don’t have the same attributes as some. For example, Ben praises the entrepreneurial spirit in countries such as Pakistan, where they don’t have the same rightfulness ‘condition’ that we nurture here in the UK, in which we expect that the world owes us something. He explains that people in less ‘cushy’ countries are more comfortable with risk and more prepared to do hard work. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but our ‘rightful’ attitude definitely adds to the reason why we believe we ‘deserve’ or ‘need’ more clothes.
As we came to the conclusion of our discussion, we came to the understanding that the problem we face is much greater than fast fashion, it encompasses our insecurities, our attitudes towards others, and our tendency to push responsibility elsewhere.