Do we wear fashion or is fashion wearing us out?

Rita Alcaire*

Today marks the second anniversary of the collapse of an eight storey building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This event captured the attention of the media, corporations, activists and consumers about the working conditions of the garment industry labourers. The Rana Plaza building, as it was known, housed an estimated 6.000 workers in three separate clothing factories. The collapse took the lives of about 1.100 people that worked there, left hundreds injured, and a great number of families and dependants distraught.

Illustration by Mitu

After rescuing teams retrieved the bodies of the workers who perished in the accident, labour rights activists groups were able to enter the ruins of the building to find several labels from well-known retailer brands, such as Benetton, Mango and Primark, which indicated that this was one of the locations where the mentioned companies were sourcing from.

If consumers buy garments made in specific countries they are contributing to an industry built on labourers whose wages and quality of life would be unacceptable to us. But if they do not, the labourers might lose their jobs and migrate to other jobs that are even more dangerous and for less pay. 

Consumers in the world are dismayed with a fashion industry with links to enslavement, oppression and a cycle of waste and pollution. In this awareness process, several factors are to be taken into consideration, but carefully. The interventions of some activists and of some sustainable development projects, that were created in the west and that aim to promote sustainable economic growth, the empowerment of vulnerable sectors of the population of in different countries and communities, while also aligning themselves with The Millennium Development Goals, are the case.

If we analyse it thoroughly, these proposals seem (voluntarily or unwillingly) to reinforce and perpetuate colonial relationships that were endured over centuries between the North and the global South. The ideas at the root of these projects stem from the western ‘developed’ countries as well as the responsibility over intellectual and creative work, while the manufacturing labour (under the North’s models and conditions) is still from the South. Adding to this, the recent denial of representatives of these countries to ratify agreements that would sanction the perpetration of human rights violations in other countries (where these nations source labour from) adds fuel to the fire.

Consumers are then aligning themselves with some NGOs and making ethical choices such as buying national products and not items manufactured in countries and by companies that violate human rights; choosing fair trade materials and uncluttering their wardrobes to a minimum of necessity.

The reality is that we will not stop consuming. Money moves faster than ethics in the global market, and it will probably continue to do so until companies, activists, and consumers advance the discussion by ‘asking the money’ to explain where it has been.

Should we be more ashamed that our clothes are made by adults and children that are paid small amounts of money, work countless hours and under poor safety conditions, or that we live in a world where child labour is often necessary for survival?

I do not wish to answer this question, nor do I believe that there is one easy (or possible) answer. What I wish to do is draw attention to the crucial weigh of the role of the consumer: individual decisions are not too small and too insignificant to have any influence over the status quo. As natural resources decrease and the planet is under unprecedented pressure, it has never been more important to take wise individual decisions, as well as collective ones.

It is also important to go back to the work of John Ruskin and his reflections on (nineteenth century) political economy. Because Ruskin was foremost a well-known art critic, his considerations on the economy of his time were relatively unappreciated but are relevant to address the international trade questions and fast fashion consumerism.

In Ruskin’s discussion on how merchants should provide for the nation and his argument that market actors have social responsibilities, in addition to his call for responsible consumption, there is a clear parallel with the concept (and the demand for) of Corporate Social Responsibility.
For Ruskin (using modern terms), the corporation should value the interest of all stakeholders, not merely the shareholding owning or company managers. As well as providing products that are socially useful, the good market actor should ensure that the ‘soul’ of the work force is well attended to (May, 2010: 199).1
This proposal was not focused on employment, but on the welfare of all contributing to a product’s manufacture, thus emphasizing personal responsibility through consumption choices. This reinforces the connections between the increase of consumerism, the fast-fashion supply chain, activism and labour rights and the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility.

As the concept of CSR continues to grow in importance and significance, so too should the concept of ‘Consumer Social and Ethical Responsibility’ (CSER) an idea that I wish to suggest, based on the same social and ethical considerations of the reflections of John Ruskin.

What I mean by CSER is that engaged costumers have a responsibility that goes beyond the simple acquisition of goods and that incorporates ethical values and responds to social environment. The same way we make healthy choices in food and in (other) aspects of lifestyle, so too we should do them in fashion. Not only should we make choices but also take action to ensure long term viability of sustainability measures.

As consumers we can buy with a keener eye for ecological materials, prioritizing sustainable fibres, be aware of alternative designers and labels that make sure that they leave a low environmental footprint and value social justice concepts such as fair-trade. 

It can be an individual project or a collective one, by making friends, families, and others with whom we connect on a regular basis, aware our choices and the reasons behind them, and by this way integrate human rights considerations into our shopping decisions and other choices.

1 May, Christopher (2010), John Ruskin’s Political Economy; ‘There is No Wealth but Life’, The British Journal of Political Economy, volume 12: 189-204.

This article is published as part of the initiative 24 hours of feminist action across the world.

Rita Alcaire is an anthropologist and her main interests are sexualities, identities and popular culture (film, television and music). She has co-directed several documentaries, including Filhos do Tédio (2006), Breve História do Rock de Coimbra (2010), O Pessoal do Pico Toma Conta Disso (2010), Um Quarto no Éter (2011), Filarmónicas da Ilha Preta (2011), and Das 9 às 5 (2011), and is currently working on a doctoral project about asexuality in Portugal.


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