After BBC Panorama revealed that child refugees have been working in factories producing clothes for some of our favourite retailers, Trans World Radio got in touch to chat about Ethical Fashion. Below is the interview in written form!
We’re talking today about the ethics of fashion after a BBC Panorama Investigation revealed this week that child Syrian refugees have been found working in clothes factories in Turkey that produce clothes for the British high street. I’m sure many of our listeners were really shocked to hear that, but exploitation of both adults and children is quite common place in the garment making industry isn’t it?
It is very common, Megan. Unfortunately a lot of this is down to fast fashion: that is, that where the fashion industry used to offer one collection per season, we now see new items appearing on our shelves weekly. The turn-around then is more pressured than it ever has been, and that means companies look for cheap and quick options, often impacting the world’s most vulnerable.
The reality is that if Vogue announce that the colour of the season is mustard yellow, it is not realistic for me to expect to buy a mustard yellow dress for £12 the following week. That just shouldn’t be possible.
Here in the UK we have the opportunity to buy cheap clothes on demand. There’s a ready flow of new designs, and statistics say that on average people buy four new items of clothing a month. Does this high demand make us more and more detached from the people who are making the clothes, and the conditions they might be working in?
That’s a great question. I do think we are detached. We don’t necessarily think about who has made our clothes, what kind of condition they are working in, whether or not they are paid fairly.
I was shocked to hear of a scheme in the Tamil Nadu region of India called Sumangali. Girls and women are recruited by the false promise of an ‘apprenticeship’, often endorsed by a lump sum paid to their parents. Once recruited, many find themselves trapped within a factory for up to five years. The workers have limited freedom. They have to sleep within the factory walls or guarded by the male factory employees with only limited contact with their families or the outside world. They are forced to work often up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week or more without the compensation they have been promised. Some are even given hormone treatment to prevent them menstruating.
These things just don’t cross my mind when I’m looking for a winter coat in Zara.
Now many brands when they are challenged on the working conditions of those in their supply chains say that they are committed to making working conditions safer and fairer. How can they do more to honour that commitment?
Things like Rana Plaza, and indeed the Panorama documentary, help to raise the issue with companies. We mostly agree that they have a moral duty to chain-check, but the reality is that this is a difficult and complex process (for example, a garment made from cotton will go through 16 steps at least in its production) they just won’t opt into unless there is public pressure. Once that pressure comes, there are great resources out there to help with chain-checking – STOP THE TRAFFIK has a brilliant one, for example. And it’s complicated: companies don’t always keep track of the factories they are sourcing from. So factories also need to be held to account, and governments can help with this. But again, it’s up to us as consumers to put the pressure on companies to seek that out.
Obviously when we’re talking about child refugees, or indeed anyone, being exploited to make our clothes it’s just a moral nightmare. Why should Christians be concerning themselves with this?
That’s a brilliant question. In Genesis 1 we read about how God made us in his image and in his likeness. It’s the only time those two words appear together in our Scriptures, and I think that the passage tells us is that we are image-bearers who are also in relationship with the living God. Thus, we have value that is transcendent – it is intrinsic to who we are. We are not to be bought or sold, lied to or abused. And so we should absolutely be enraged when people who carry this God-given value are treated so poorly in factories, when they’re seen simply as numerical parts of a process, or as commodities themselves. The good news is that God has given us this value, and has invited us into the work of bringing this good news into the world – we are called to ‘defend the oppressed and free the captive’, which we can absolutely do when we consider our buying habits.
Some people might think that to be completely ethical in their shopping choices would just be an overwhelming task, but we can all start by making some small changes. For someone listening who might want to start being more careful about the choices they make when shopping, what are some pointers you’d offer them?
It definitely can seem like an unrealistic or mammoth task. I’m a girly girl through and through and LOVE fashion. Three things I do are:
Buy less. We don’t need new clothes every week. There is a different between trend and style. Let’s cut this crazy demand for new items all the time: buy less, and buy better items.
Buy second-hand. You can find great things in charity shops and swaps, and this is a great way of cutting the constant for more things. Even better, organise a swap shop yourself! It’s a great way to clear out your wardrobe and raise awareness amongst friends.
Buy curiously. I don’t recommend boycotting specific stores, necessarily. A better way to address supply chain ethics is to ask good questions: find out what your favourite shop’s chain checking process is. Ask where your clothes were made. Ask who made them (there’s a brilliant hashtag campaign along that theme: #whomademyclothes). Tell your favourite shop that you love their clothes, but that you’re concerned about their workers. Lobby government. Watch documentaries – I recommend The True Cost. Speak up. Start a fashion revolution!
Little changes can have huge ripple effects can’t they?
They really can. A few years ago, when we were beginning to have this conversation about chocolate, it would have seemed unrealistic to think that major cocoa producers would be committed long-term to chain-checking and producing fair chocolate. But each year we have more certified options in our supermarkets. Who’s to say this can’t happen with our clothes?
Ps: come to No More Traffik’s Traffik-free Christmas Fayre! Thursday 24th November, St Nicholas’ Parish Hall. Pop in anytime from 7-10PM: there’ll be fresh food, hot drinks, and loads of goodies from local makers – all free from exploitation!