Today is Fashion Revolution Day.  It marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh where over 1000 people were killed and over 2000 injured when a garment factory collapsed. Cracks were visible in the walls days earlier but nothing was done about it. This tragedy has shone a light on the conditions of garment workers around the world and the real cost of fast and cheap fashion.

So what can we do about it?  How can we, as consumers, really effect change?  To start with, we can learn more about where our clothes come from.  And a new documentary, Traceable, introduces us to the concept of traceability through the supply chain.  Intercut with fashion and sustainability experts, it follows a young emerging fashion designer across the world as she sources her fabrics and manufactures her range in the lead up to New York Fashion Week.

Watching the advanced screening of Traceable this week, as part of a Fashion Revolution Day panel discussion, I was really touched to see the relationships that the designer, Laura Seigel, built with each supplier. It really demonstrated just how much work needs to go in to ensuring traceability of a garment.  And without traceability, we can’t really know how well each person in the supply chain is cared for.

But Laura was producing a small range of garments and was happy to get over to India and get her hands dirty, so to speak.  On a larger scale, with runs of thousands of garments or more, a whole new set of challenges arise.  So it was really interesting hosting this panel discussion earlier in the week, with some leaders in sustainable fashion:

  • Wendy Savage, the Environment and Sustainability Manager of Patagonia.  Patagonia is a global brand specialising in outdoor wear who have pioneered many sustainability, eco-friendly and fair trade practices.  Wendy flew out from the US to be here for this event and a couple of other Fashion Revolution Day events happening around Australia this week.
  • Alice Jones, a fellow Fashion Revolution Day board member and one-half of the Australian sustainable, fair-trade and eco-friendly fashion brand Sinerji.
  • Elisabeth Harvey of Nico Underwear, a beautiful sustainable and ethical lingerie range made in Australia.
  • Cynthia Macnee of Queensland University of Technology Creative Enterprises Australia.
  • Kelley Sheenan and Rebecca Jamieson of sustainable fashion bible, Peppermint Magazine.

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Image of the panel above from Peppermint Magazine.

 

The room was full of QUT fashion students and faculty, designers, eco-fashion bloggers, Oxfam staff, eco-fashion business owners and more.  Some of the takeaway points from the evening for me include:

  • We, as consumers, are the ones who can demand better standards.  Social media in particular gives us an exciting opportunity to communicate directly with brands, ask them, ‘who made my clothes?’ and let them know that we do care about the welfare of their workers, from the cotton farmers to the pattern makers to the sewers to the people who dye the fabrics, etc.  Elisabeth Harvey said, “No one looks at pictures of Rana Plaza and thinks “yes, that’s how I want to consume.” They’re just really good at ignoring it. So the more people are forced to come to terms with what that buying choice actually means, the more they’re going to change.”
  • A couple of questions came up about the price of sustainable fashion.  A discussion I had after the event with someone has really stuck with me….he said, “It’s the same as food.  There is a saying that cheap, nasty food makes organic, healthy food expensive.”   It’s not that $40 for a t-shirt is expensive, it’s that $5 for a t-shirt is ridiculous and can’t possibly be paying everyone along the supply chain a fair wage.  But we’ve gotten so used to searching for a bargain and even celebrating it, that fast cheap fashion has become the norm.  Of course this doesn’t mean that we can all afford premium, sustainable brands but what we can do is be a little more conscious when we go shopping.  Curate our wardrobe carefully, buy second hand, save up and buy from sustainable brands when we need something and if we are going to buy from a brand that may not meet the standards we’re looking for then be sure it’s going to stand the test of time and last in our wardrobe.
  • We’re not perfect!  I loved hearing this from the panel, as professionals in their field but also as consumers.  Discussions like this are not about making us feel guilty, but empowering us to make conscious decisions.  No one’s wardrobe is perfect and dressing ourselves at all is going to have an impact on the planet, people and animals.
  • There are no excuses for brands anymore.  It was really great to hear that a global company like Patagonia, as well as small and medium local brands like Sinerji and Nico can do this.  They can trace their garments back to the people who made them and they are even happy to help other brands find their way too.  Alice Jones made it clear that there are no excuses now – you can search for sustainable and fair trade suppliers online in the same way that you would source other suppliers.  Wendy Savage said, “When you do the right thing, everything else falls into place.” 

We can only do what we can do.  As I write this, I’ve just arrived in a small town outside of Bangkok, Thailand visiting my Dad.  Looking around I get a sense that this conversation is both extremely important in ensuring that the people who make our clothes, particularly in countries like this, are looked after and at the same time it seems a little frivolous.  But the little old lady across the road selling mangosteen and bananas only buys what she needs.  And that, I think, is the real issue.  It’s the consuming on steroids and the 2 billion garments bought each year in the United States alone that is the problem.  We just don’t need quite so much stuff.  And so I’m going to take a leaf out of this old Thai women’s book and try to simplify a little more.  Live gently.  And when I do need something ask that all important question, “who made my clothes?”