LONDON, United Kingdom — I recently found myself bribing my 11 year-old daughter not to buy herself a new t-shirt from Primark. We were shopping in Westfield and she is at an age where she is allowed to make her own decisions about where she shops and what she buys. As she skipped off with her friend and strict instructions to meet back in half an hour, I suddenly had a thought. “You’re not going to Primark, are you?” I asked, and then realised that she only had £10 to spend — money she had taken from her savings. “They do really nice t-shirts, mum,” she said.
Since last summer, I have been a board member of Fashion Revolution Day, a campaign dreamt up by the Fair Trade hat designer, Carry Somers with a little help from the BFC’s Esthethica founder Orsola de Castro, and other board members including Ben Ramsden, the managing director of Pants to Poverty. For the best part of a year, Somers has devoted herself to making sure that when the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed on April 24 last year, the deaths of 1133 garment workers, and injuries of a further 2,500 were not in vain. She has put her day job — running her successful made in Ecuador hat company, Pachacuti — on hold to coordinate a global campaign that has been taken up by over 50 countries.
Somers was determined that this tragedy would mark a turning point for the fashion industry. “We will give a voice to all of the workers, to show where change needs to happen, and how we, as consumers, can make a difference,” she said. “Consumer demand can revolutionise the way fashion works as an industry. If everyone started to question the way we consume, we’d see a radically different fashion paradigm.”
And there I was in Westfield, Somers’ words ringing in my ears, myself part of the problem. So I gave my daughter an extra £5 and asked her to go somewhere else. But even £15 isn’t really enough money to spend on a T-shirt and be safe in the knowledge that it has been made from cotton that has not been picked by child slave labour in Uzbekistan, let alone been made in a factory that has had proper safety checks. Fifteen pounds is the equivalent of 50 hours’ work for a garment worker in Bangladesh. And that is just not right. And for that reason I, along with thousands of other people with half a conscience around the world (if you are still reading this, that probably means you) will be taking the Fashion Revolution challenge and will be wearing my organic cotton t-shirt inside out today. I’ll be proud to show off the label inside my clothes, to have taken the time to look at where they were made, and to have spared a thought for who made them — and at what price.
We have become far too used to paying far too little for our clothes. Eleven-year-olds can now afford to buy a pair of jeans with their pocket money. And so too can salary-earning grown-ups who should know better. But who can blame us? Just as we are seduced into buying one and getting one free at the supermarket, if only for that extra bag of apples to end up shrivelled up at the bottom of the fruit bowl, the lure of cheap, up-to-the-minute clothes is a strong one. But just as we don’t need the extra bag of apples, we really don’t need — or often actually really want — the majority of clothes we buy. But because they are so cheap, we chuck them into the shopping basket feeling as though we’ve snagged ourselves a bargain, oblivious to the fact that this mindless consumption is giving retailers and high street chains carte blanche to continue putting in orders to their suppliers that are impossible to achieve without inhumane amounts of overtime in return for $68 per month.
So while fast fashion has become the norm, we cannot sit back and simply blame the high street chains for churning out instant landfill in every glorious colour of the rainbow (how great, why not have one in every colour?). We are all part of the problem and we must all accept responsibility for the rate at which we are now consuming clothes. I can’t quite put my finger on the moment that we all started buying more clothes for less, but according a report for the Institute for Manufacturing, between 2001 to 2005 spending on women’s clothing in the UK grew by 21 percent and that on men’s by 14 percent. And in the same period, prices dropped by 14 percent in real terms. Over those four years, the number of garments bought per person in the UK increased by over one third. In 2012, UK consumers spent £44 billion on new clothing (about $74 billion), (£1,700 per household) leaving around 1.7 billion items (30 percent) hanging in the cupboard — or even left in its carrier bag — unworn. According to WRAP, (Waste and Resources Action Programme) we each own the equivalent of 100 items of clothing. It’s enough to make you rush home and clear out your wardrobes. Why do we need all these clothes?
If you want to join the Fashion Revolution and make your voice heard, now is the time. There are events happening near you — and if there aren’t, you can make one happen. Activists, garment makers, students and industry insiders will be wearing an item of clothing inside out and tweeting, Instagramming using #insideout. At today’s Sustainable Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, speakers including Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer; Marco Bizzarri, president and chief executive of Bottega Veneta; and Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M. They will be discussing all aspects of sustainability in the fashion industry. Livia Firth, creative director of Eco-Age, will highlight Fashion Revolution Day in particular, while Alan Roberts, executive director of international operations for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, will give an update on the work being done to improve safety in garment factories in Bangladesh.
In London, founding members of the Fashion Revolution Day board, Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro, will take part in two events this evening in London, one hosted by the American retailer, Eileen Fisher, and the other, a discussion panel at Somerset House. Earlier in the day, students from Central Saint Martins and UAL will stage a ‘Fash Mob’ at 3 PM on Oxford Street; and at Westfield Stratford, shoppers will be encouraged to get involved as part of a whole day of events organised by Designer Jumble, including special windows using recycled fashion styled by Susie Bubble.
But wherever you are, this is Fashion Revolution Day. Tweet a picture and ask your favourite brand or designer where they make their clothes. It’s a small thing but it could lead to big change that will ensure tragedies like Rana Plaza never happen again.
Tamsin Blanchard is the style director of the Telegraph Magazine and a board member of Fashion Revolution Day.
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