Because it’s Fashion Revolution Week, I want to pass on my thoughts in this editorial, as well as honour this important event by the nonprofit organization, Fashion Revolution.
Fashion Revolution Week, a global event happens each year surrounding the anniversary date, April 24, 2013 of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. Rana Plaza housed garment factories, employing around 5000 people with over 1100 killed in the collapse of this building. These workers were employees of some of the largest fashion brands. The mission of Fashion Revolution is to raise awareness about all aspects of the fashion industry, and work together to voice the human cost of clothes, as well as the devastating effects to our environment – “Value people and planet over profits”.
The need to change cultural behaviour is a tall order but necessary, because of the climate and social emergency. Covid-19, the pandemic we are in the midst of is having an enormous impact on the fashion industry, with the most vulnerable disproportionately affected; the suffering of the garment workers in low cost economies who make our clothes. We are so lucky in the western world to live in an environment where we are safe, with enough money and food to survive during this difficult time. If an issue isn’t directly affecting us or in our face, we are often blind to its existence.
The Fashion Industry
Many years ago, I became more concerned with the massive volume of clothing produced, its poor quality, our increased shopping habits, and the extraordinary amount of textile waste. We’ve become a disposable society, and have lost an appreciation and a disconnect with our clothes. Who Made My Clothes? and What’s In My Clothes? are two important questions we all need to ask and have answered.
What’s really irked me is that the majority of fibers and textiles produced for use in garments is made from synthetics. Polyester alone accounts for over 60% of the fiber content in our clothes. This is astonishing to me, because there was time when natural fibers comprised the largest percentage in our clothing including wool suiting, linen garments and silk blouses. I’ve talked at length about the effects of polyester in other posts, so I won’t address them here.
The fashion industry is huge with many different facets to its supply chain; the production of fibers, fabrics, notions, clothing construction, garment workers, fashion retailers, design houses, and consumers. It also falls into the top list of polluting industries. The business model of the large fast fashion brands creates sustainability challenges because they make too much cheap and disposable clothing.
Covid’s impact has resulted in cancelled collections, retail shut-downs, business closures and bankruptcies, companies like H & M borrowing money to stay in business, and most profound the cancellation of orders. The result of cancelling orders is that many companies are not paying supplier factories or refusing to pay for the garments already made. The business of fashion is unusual because factories have to front the costs of making the clothing, and only after the shipments are received do the brands receive invoices. This practice on top of Covid caused a humanitarian crisis, in which workers have been cheated out of money they have already earned, but also because these people don’t have the same living standards and practices we are accustomed to. Factories can’t pay up and governments don’t have the ability or the where with all to help. Fashion brands need to pay workers and take responsibility by honouring contracts. They certainly wouldn’t allow this to happen to them.
What’s always been crucial to any business, is adapting to change. I learned this many years ago during my fashion business education. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen in real life. I do hope that the pandemic we’re experiencing is the eye opener. We can’t continue to manufacture the massive volume of clothing and disregard the human suffering and costs to the environment. Actions taken towards climate change and the humanitarian crisis is more urgent than ever. Brands need to adopt new business models combined with innovative production and selling methods.
We can never go back in time, but need to move forward with sustainability measures that develop ethical business practices. Smaller businesses that use this approach and the ones that can pivot and change course will survive. We’ll naturally lose some fashion brands, and likely the most exploitive ones. Hopefully, consumers will consider shopping with smaller, local and domestic ethical brands.
Companies need to re-evaluate the contracts with suppliers because the risks are too unequal. They also need to build resiliency to be fair and honest, supporting the livelihood of those that make our clothes.
Because we can’t do this alone, we need laws and government regulations addressing producer responsibility and dealing with the waste, which would help us in making the necessary changes. Changing cultural behaviour is so difficult regardless of the individual actions we take. We’re in this together. We need to design and manufacture better clothes without exploiting humans and the planet.
Hand knitting was permanently established as an artisanal pursuit around 2000. I’m so proud to be part of the knitting industry. For the most part, this industry is more eco-friendly than fashion companies. Natural fibers are the predominant ones used in hand knitting yarns. There are many small breeding companies producing amazing wool fibers and other specialty hair fibers. Other manufacturers are making yarns using organic cotton, linen and hemp, and small hand dyeing companies are an important part of this industry. There are also many manufacturers that support the livelihood of knitters in communities of South America and India. The knitting industry is situated well, and will continue to survive and be appreciated for its contribution to our well being.
We do need a fashion revolution. Voice your thoughts and keep the conversation going.