Abuja, Nigeria: Abba is content with the world.
He speaks no English and has no desire to learn. He will probably never need to speak a word of it in his entire life and he could not possibly care less. He is a herdsman, living the life of his fathers before him and all is well with the world, well, his world at least. He receives about 30 cents per cattle and one day, he will save enough to buy some cattle for his own herd.
In London, Harry walks into a shop on Oxford Street. He is looking to buy a leather satchel and matching shoes for his new job. The store is doing a sale and he gets the two items at £2,500. He is happy with the bargain and easily pays with his credit card.
Harry and Abba are at first and last miles of an over 217-billion-dollar industry; the fashion leather industry.
In business, the first mile refers to the very beginning of the value chain of a product. This is the direct opposite of the last mile which refers to the last steps before the product gets to the hands of the consumer.
The fashion industry has one of the longest value chains in the world. Production from the first to the last miles can sometimes be broken down into more than 30 steps, and span across over five continents.
In my opinion, in the journey to sustainability, the first miles are the most critical. This is because, by the time the garment gets to the buyer in Europe, he or she cannot do much to make the production sustainable or even find out if it was made by slave labour in an overcrowded sweatshop in Bangladesh. This perhaps is precisely why fashion may never be sustainable.
Earlier this year, I paid a visit to Kano State in Nigeria. The purpose of my journey was to examine the leather industry in the region. It is widely held as equal to none and for good reasons. The abattoirs and tanneries in Kano are the first miles of the value chain of the leather industry in the country. They are also the sources of some of the leather used in the production of luxury bags for European brands located in Italy, Spain, France and England. This was my first in-depth look into the value chain of the fashion industry. After my trip which lasted a little over a week, I came back with some questions and impressions of the fashion industry and sustainability. The most nagging question was: Would fashion ever really attain sustainability? Frankly, my overriding impression is in the negative.
Related Post: Animal Leather: Ethical Fashion’s Enemy?
In recent times, there has of course been the clamor for the industry to become more sustainable. Despite this focus, there is no general agreement on what “sustainability” in fashion means. For me, sustainability can be summed up as: Do better, don’t harm the environment, don’t harm animals and treat your workers fairly.
The first hurdle I see in this move towards sustainability is poverty.'For me, sustainability can be summed up as: Do better, don't harm the environment, don't harm animals and treat your workers fairly.'Click To Tweet
The first mile of most of the fashion products begins in developing nations. Abattoirs for leather in Nigeria, fields for cotton in Egypt and sheep for wool in India. Some of those countries have some of the highest poverty rates in the world. This is not a coincidence. These countries were chosen precisely because of these reasons, so as to reduce production costs for fashion businesses. What this means is that the brands can pay whatever they choose, knowing that people living in poverty or at the poverty line, will take it. And these workers generally don’t protest or ask for more, as what they are paid is paramount to their survival and asking for more at a job that pays, even if it pays unfairly, is risky. With this state of mind and affairs, the concept of fair wages and trade becomes difficult to define or grasp and, in some cases, does not even arise. This is because what these often-impoverished workers consider “fair” is actually a pittance.
You see, the people involved in the lowest part of this value chain often do not see themselves as part of the lucrative, glamorous fashion industry. They see themselves simply as subsistence farmers, animal herders or casual labourers. They do not see down the road to the role they play in the global picture. Oftentimes, they do the work because there is not much else to do and it is the best and the only way they know to earn a living. It is an impossible thing: fighting for rights you do not know exist. And this is the case for a lot of people at the lower end of the fashion pyramid.
Another issue is that of jobs and the use of machines. Sustainability advocates artisanal production. This is because, as the Good website so aptly put it, “when we buy items hand-crafted by skilled laborers, our stuff lasts longer, reduces waste, supports local workers, and promotes transparent supply chains”. In reality, however, even though artisanship is sustainable for the environment, it is just not as sustainable for fashion labels. This is because it cannot meet the consumer’s high demands if it depended solely on human craftsmanship. The production is painstakingly slow and often, inefficient. Thus, the industry has to resort to the use of machines. I do not quite know what the consensus is amongst sustainable fashion advocates on the use of machines in garment production (aside from the fact that they consume lots of energy), but I know the position of the abattoirs and tanneries: they feel machines are their competition and they hate using them. Where the decision is made to use machines, many people lose their jobs and their means of livelihood. In the face of these alternatives, slavish wages and overcrowded sweatshops continue.
An indirect result of these lack of machines is the absence of data. In the abattoirs I visited, each task was done manually. From the identification and marking of the cows to the drying of their hides. Thus, there was no way to be sure of exactly how many animals were killed or how many tons of meat were produced daily, weekly, monthly much less yearly. When I asked for the figures, I was given varying estimates depending on who was running the estimates at each time. If pushed, perhaps by a buyer, they would produce better figures, but the veracity would be anyone’s guess. No matter how much consumers and even the fashion houses push or boycott, I think this is unlikely to change. The truth is that even though they have nothing to hide, they really couldn’t be bothered about data.
And in the absence of data, irregularities thrive.
My people have an old adage: he who does not know where the rainfall met him would not know when it would cease. It means that sometimes, to move ahead, it is crucial to look behind. As activists and consumers call for a more sustainable fashion industry, I think it is worthwhile to look back, down the line and ask if it had been ‘sustainable’ to begin with. Along with that realization is to ask, can fashion ever truly be sustainable?
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