#17: FASHION REVOLUTION WEEK
This week marks five years since the deadliest garment-factory collapse in our history. On April 24th 2013, the five-story Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,138 garment workers and injuring another 2,500. Most of these workers were young women. The collapse was a tragedy, but certainly not an isolated event. The Fashion Revolution movement started as a consumer-driven reaction to the Rana Plaza collapse, to call for greater transparency and accountability in the fashion industry and to question the way we consume fashion by asking the simple question, ‘Who made my clothes?’
In light of Fashion Revolution Week, I want to explain why this movement matters to me, why and how I started a fashion line, and importantly, who makes my clothes.
I studied design at COFA, with a textile design Major. While we didn’t study 'fashion', we did learn a lot about the processes involved in dyeing, printing and fabric production. It was here that I first learnt about the global textile industry and the dire effects that it was having not only on the environment but also on the people making my clothes.
The global clothing industry employs around 75 million people to make our clothes, and over 80% of them are women aged 18-35*. In Bangladesh, the world’s second largest clothing-manufacturing country, these women are often working in unsafe conditions (such as those that lead to the Rana Plaza Factory collapse) and paid as little as 43 cents per hour - a wage that sees them living in poverty and unable to afford basic necessities. Many of these women support small children and send money to their families in regional areas, leaving very little for themselves to live off. The constant demand from consumers in countries like Australia to be able to buy cheaper clothing trickles down to these garment factories, putting pressure on factory owners which leads to the exploitation of workers.
On top of that, the clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, after oil. The mass-production of clothing in the last twenty years has led to copious amounts of toxic dyes and plastic microfibers ending up in our waterways. We are also consuming at an alarming rate - we consume 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year - 400% more than the amount we consumed two decades ago**. In Australia 6,000kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every ten minutes and 30% of fashion stock is never even sold***.
Since I first learnt about this, I've always tried to shop very consciously - reading the label, researching the fabrics, learning how they're made, what they're made of, where they're made and who is making them. The more you learn, the more you realise how important it is to shop more deliberately - literally every dollar you spend can have an impact.
I started my label in late-2016 after meeting Christiaan Kidd of The Fashion Production Company by chance as he moved his studio in next door to my work. I saw sewing machines through the window and chatted to him one day while he was taking his beautiful dog Danny for a walk. I asked, What do you do in there? and he said, We make clothes! I told him I was designing some fabrics but wasn’t great at sewing myself, so asked if he could help, and it escalated from there. I had no fashion industry experience, but I made some basic samples and did some sketches, Christiaan worked his pattern-making magic and all of a sudden I had a small collection of shirts, pants and tees, printed and made in Redfern.
All of my clothes are made in Sydney, at The Fashion Production Company (TFPC). I illustrate the prints by hand, create repeats using Photoshop and then digitally print them at Think Positive Prints, also in Sydney. I only use natural fibres - silk and hemp from China, linen from Lithuania and Tencel. Tracing the supply chains of my fabrics has been challenging, but to counter this, I choose fabrics that I know are grown pesticide-free (linen and hemp) or produced in a closed-loop system from sustainable forests (Tencel). You can find more information about my fabrics and processes here.
It’s amazing to have the production so close to my home - I pop in to TFPC several times a week during sampling and production periods, which allows me to get to know the lovely team of machinists who are helping me to realise my vision - Elinda, Christina, Ni, Hong, Kimmi and Ada. These women are incredibly skilled - I am constantly in awe of them as they create complex garments with meticulous attention to detail, and I have learnt so much about garment construction from watching them work. Local production also allows me to minimise waste by making smaller quantities to avoid having deadstock garments, and keeping all of my fabric off-cuts for upcycling. I’m currently in the process of accrediting my brand with Ethical Clothing Australia and am proud to be supporting local industry and employing these amazing people.
After speaking with fellow designers, makers and others in the textile industry about transparency in supply chains, my sister, Jess, and I started Locally Made as a platform for all of these ideas and conversations to come together. If we can understand the processes behind fashion production and where, why and by whom our clothes are made, we’ll appreciate them more. We’ll care for them better, mend them when they are damaged, keep them for longer and put more thought into our clothing habits. And as the Fashion Revolution Movement has shown already in the past five years, our actions as a collective have the power to implement change right along the supply chain. Fast fashion has warped our perception of value, but hopefully by showing people exactly what goes into the making of a garment, we can have a better appreciation of what our clothing should cost.
Fashion is often trivialised and dismissed as shallow, pretentious or meaningless, but I believe that it can be extremely meaningful. This is a gender issue, it is a human rights issue and it is an environmental issue. It’s something that connects us to people on the other side of the world - the shirt you’re wearing now may have been made by a garment worker working in similar conditions to the Rana Plaza factory. We all wear clothes, so we cannot continue ignoring the impacts of our clothes. With the growth of movements like Fashion Revolution Week it feels like things are changing, but we still have a long way to go.
It's devastating that it took a tragedy like Rana Plaza for people to start fighting against the exploitation of garment works and the environment. There are still hundreds of deaths each year from similar accidents in textile factories in Bangladesh alone. It's chilling that people are still working in conditions like these while we are paying next to nothing for a cheap item of clothing we might wear once or twice. Fashion Revolution Week is an important tool for amplifying those voices, creating noise and calling for widespread change in the fashion industry.
This week, ask your favourite brands where, how and by whom their clothes are made. Social media allows us to speak directly to the brands that we’re buying from - so comment, message, email, and use the hashtag #whomademyclothes, or go into a shop and ask the shopkeeper or the manager for this information. As consumers we’re entitled to know where our money is going when we purchase something, and consumer demand is what this entire industry runs on - we have way more power than we realise. Think about your habits as a consumer - really stop and think. Think about whether you really need to buy that new item of clothing. Think about how often you'll wear it, how long it will last and what it will go with from your existing wardrobe. Mend or upcycle your old clothes, hold a clothes swap with your friends, or donate pre-loved clothing (still in wearable condition) to a charity. By buying a piece of clothing, you're supporting a company and indirectly condoning their actions, so if they're exploiting workers in developing countries, you’re part of the puzzle. Alternatively, if they're making the garments themselves, or producing locally, fairly or through social enterprise, it can make shopping a truly meaningful and positive experience.
Fashion Revolution Week runs from April 23 - 28, and there are heaps of ways to get involved, from campaigns to events to workshops. Check out some of the ways you can be involved here.
*statistics sourced from Fashion Revolution