Fashion Revolution is over for another year; a time when the global fashion community comes together to highlight the industry’s issues and explore ways to do better. Fashion Revolution Day was founded in response to the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in the manufacturing district of Dhaka in Bangladesh that killed at least 1,133 people. Since then Fashion Revolution has grown to be a worldwide network and extended to a full week celebrated in April. This year’s fashion revolution saw millions of people around the world participating in various events to raise awareness of social and environmental issues across fashion supply chains. Hundreds of events on ethics, sustainability and transparency in the fashion industry are organized or endorsed by national chapters of Fashion Revolution in various countries.
This year, the Fashion Revolution observances was once again kick-started with its flagship campaign: #WhoMadeMyclothes? To join this initiative, participants simply wore their clothes inside out, posted a photo of the ensemble on social networks with the hashtag “#WhoMadeMyClothes.” The question is designed to trigger the desire to understand how clothing is made and how they come at such cheap prices. This in turn, is expected to give a more human-face to the fashion workers while simultaneously nudging the customers to care for the people who make their clothes.
As I kept seeing the pictures and videos from this year’s campaign I got increasingly uncomfortable. Listen, I know that the clothing industry is one of the largest polluting in the world. Clothing companies, in fact, are as much of a threat to the environment as air travel and the global meat industry. The issue with such campaigns is that it places an unfair social, financial and moral weight on me, the average customer. It assumes that people who opt for low-cost products are either not very knowledgeable about the impacts of fast fashion or simply do not care. It fails to consider that, for some of us on lower incomes, buying habits cannot always reflect personal ethics.
Put differently, as ethical fashion becomes trendier, its prices only seem to get higher. The clothes are claimed to last longer but this is a useless argument for most of us who can’t afford a $100 pair of pants in the first place. It’s easy to switch to more expensive, more ethical clothing brands when the difference between a £35 top (US$49.56) and a £45 (US$63.72) product doesn’t really mean much to you. What happens to those of us who despite our best efforts to be more eco-conscious, simply can’t afford most of the stylish ethical brands that exist as alternatives to fast fashion? Most working-class people who buy from fast fashion brands wear those clothes for many long years anyway. Can’t that be enough?
The workers at these fast fashion brands make the clothes at such cheap prices because they have no alternative. They are from a poorer demographic of our world and they need the money. I call out the big brands for exploiting these workers but at the end of the day, when I buy fast fashion, I do so because it is what I can afford. If most working-class people figured out which underpaid worker in some developing region that made their clothes, the practical question here is: being barely well-paid themselves, what can they really do to help?
If it helps, look at this issue from a psychological perspective, Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs always comes to mind. Our need for clothing is a basic need and thus supersedes the need to care and participate in world causes. Only when these lower level needs have been met can people move on to the next level of needs, which include safety, security, and other feelings of self-actualization.
The entire premise of fast fashion is for you to be able to buy clothes quickly, look good and gain confidence while spending as little as possible. However, whenever we have a conversation about fast fashion we talk about trends and influencers and never mention the fact that the biggest reason people still buy fast fashion is tied to the size of their pockets. We discuss economic disparity and how many people across the globe earn below the minimum wage. Yet, we fail to see that there is a straight line from there to buying cheap fast fashion. It gets worse when I think about the fact that the people who often ask me to ask who made my clothes often do so from phones they paid $1000 for and do not care about who made them. I on the other hand should care about who made my clothes because I spent $20 on it.
We agree in the ethical fashion community that well made garments are better. So, why would anyone not want them? Have we thought that perhaps it’s because they can’t afford them? I think this feeds into a larger problem; the issue of an influencer focused sustainability- a form of modern-day classism. This is an easy trap that well-meaning people fall into. They need to be aware that for some people, all they can afford is fast fashion and this is a side effect of the cycle of poverty and low income in our world today. We have become so wrapped up in Instagram and Tik Tok sustainability that we have forgotten that there are other real world reasons that people might want to buy fast fashion apart from following fashion trends.
In researching this article I came across a lot of articles which pointed out that a lot of people still bought fast fashion because they couldn’t afford slower fashion. They would recognise that not everyone is financially capable of making better choices and at the end recommend that people shop in co-ops as an alternative to fast fashion. The problem with this suggestion is that it fails to take into account one truth. The two main groups of people who shop in co-ops are: 1. People who can afford better and people who have no choice. The former either for sentimental or environmental reasons by choice, and the latter, precisely because they have no choice.
This leaves out the middle-class workers who have a choice but turn to fast fashion for being stylish and cheap. For these people who I believe that make up a majority of fast fashion buyers, we need new messaging. Perhaps, we should be encouraging people to buy things they really love, no matter how cheap, because then we know they will wear it a lot. And when they are finished with a piece of clothing, we should focus more on the importance of clothes and textiles recycling, giving the used garment to a charity shop or a clothes bank, instead of tossing it in the bin.
I share these views not to play the devil’s advocate but to show our blind spots as a community. I have discovered that the greater the privilege, the bigger the blind spots. If we don’t fully understand the reasons behind most fast fashion purchases, how can we hope to show more people the better way?
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Cover image by Tim Douglas.