The other week I bumped into a friend of mine wearing a top I hadn’t seen before. ‘I like your top, is it new?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes’, she said laughingly, ‘it’s just one of those silly things. You know what it’s like: you’re a bit early meeting someone in town so you pop into the shops while you’re waiting and pick up something silly’.
Our conversation left me reflecting on the fashion industry, which, in the UK alone, is worth around £21 billion. Long gone are the days of Little House on the Prairie when Ma – if they could afford it – would make her annual trip into town to buy the calico to make her and her daughters’ new dresses for the year (one new dress each, of course), and when the daughters each got a new pair of hand-knitted gloves as their main Christmas present (seriously, can you imagine?!). Now, we face a high-street full of shops, brimming with new clothes, the majority of which are cheap and affordable.
Gone even are the more recent days when the fashion industry revolved around two main collections: spring/summer and autumn/winter. Now there can be thirty to fifty fashion seasons a year, which results in an industry that has to deal with very quick lead-in times and high product turnaround, and where producers are played off against each other according to who can produce things most cheaply. This industry rests on the backs of an estimated forty million garment workers, the overwhelming majority of whom work for pay that sometimes does not even allow two meals a day, with all the inevitable social and environmental abuses that accompany such a system.
It is this industry that utterly divorces us from the clothes we wear. They seem to appear – as if by magic – on the hanger, with no reference at all to who made them and what went into producing the materials of which they are made, thereby allowing us to ‘pick up something silly’. We have been taught to expect cheaper and cheaper clothes, which means we don’t think about the real cost (both human and environmental) of what we wear. And when we think that an item of clothing is ‘something silly’ we easily throw it away and buy something else, thus contributing to the 1.5 million tons of clothes and textiles that are thrown away in the UK alone each year.
Out of sight is truly out of mind, and it is sad that it takes a tragedy such as the Rana Plaza disaster to force us to remember what is actually going on in the garment industry.
I believe passionately that these sorts of things are issues that are important for Christians to be interested and actively involved in. We worship a God to whom ‘the whole earth belongs, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1), and I think this involves the fashion industry too.
So what can we do? Here are four steps that we can all take:
- The most obvious thing is to buy less clothes and not give in to the temptation to ‘pick up something silly’ without giving it much thought.
- Don’t buy new. Use charity shops, do clothes swaps, make your own (looking at where the textiles come from), ‘upcycle’ old clothes, check out vintage shops etc.
- When you do buy something new, make it a positive purchase by using small ethical brands who know their suppliers. The Guardian’s Ethical Fashion Directory is really useful for this. If you buy from the high street, H&M and M&S (must be something about initials!) are currently the best of a bad bunch, and look out for clothes made from organic and/or FairTrade cotton, and other more sustainable material (such as hemp and recycled polyester).
- It is important not only to change our shopping practices but also to push retailers to change theirs – the lives of so many workers depends on it. Find out more and have your say through Labour Behind the Label.