Who Made My Clothes?
Perhaps you have seen photographs of workers and consumers showing a sign “Who Made my Clothes?” or “I made your clothes”, this is the motto from Fashion Revolution, an organization that calls for greater transparency and sustainability in the fashion industry. They have now partnered up with the University of Exeter to create an online course that educates consumers about the workers rights issues surrounding the fashion industry.
I signed up, but I couldn’t participate in the course in real time with the other participants. I went through the material a month after I signed up, so I wanted to share with you my experience because I think it is time well spent, even if you do it on your own time!
The purpose of the course is to learn how to Be Curious, Find Out (who made your clothes) and Do Something. Each week is devoted to explore one of these three pillars of Fashion Revolution’s mission.
During the first week, participants are encouraged to investigate their own closets, ask the brands and make educated guesses about where their clothes are made. We followed the journey of a single t-shirt and learned about the complex world of people, technology, resources and logistics that make the fashion industry possible.
The NPR documentary shows the contrast between a garment worker in Bangladesh (Jasmine) and a garment worker in Colombia (Doris). Working in a garment factory is tough work, but the conditions made all the difference. While Jasmine was forced to leave her rural town to work and pay off a family debt, Doris could support herself and her mother and run a side business selling pastries door to door. This difference in living conditions is what strikes a chord in me, in some parts of the world the garment industry can be just a regular industry.
Another realization I had while watching this documentary is that the fashion industry has never been mindful of how it treats humans. Children worked during the Industrial Revolution. Women left subsistence farming to work in garment factories and have always been paid poorly. Since the beginning, workers had to fight for safe work conditions and fair wages. We have forgotten this part of western history and it is now repeating itself in poorer, more corrupt countries.
It was great to read the comment threads, students took on the homework seriously! We were asked to do some research on our favorite piece of clothing and even though I didn’t go through all 300-something comments, most students had a tough time getting an answer from brands. The customer rep wouldn’t know, or they were just shady about giving answers. This is not surprising, since the fashion supply chain has always been convoluted and complex.
In the live Q&A session of week 1, Orsola de Castro shared some nuggets of wisdom. If, for whatever reason, you cannot afford shopping from an ethical/sustainable brand, at least treat your clothes as if they were worth $500, not $5.
She made a comment about how it is also challenging for brands that are trying to do the right thing because they get chastised very quickly for not doing everything right. I think there should be a balance here. I think we should congratulate and encourage the brands that are doing the right thing because this is a signal that sustainability is a good business strategy.
However, we cannot relax the standards and let businesses think that doing a few sustainability initiatives (usually the low hanging fruit) is all they need to do to gain the loyalty of customers or to be recognized as sustainable. This is not just about the fashion industry, this applies to everything! We are depleting our resources and polluting our air, soil and water. We need to be doing A LOT MORE than what we are doing now, we shouldn’t be handing out accolades for things that should be standard business practice. On the other hand, it makes you think about the sad state of the world when something like slave-free clothing is not even standard business practice, right?
Week 2 is when the real homework begins. Students are encouraged to make the connections between the humans that make our clothes and the information that is available online. For example, read the stories of garment workers in the Garment Worker Diaries, a year-long project led by Fashion Revolution which aims to gather data about the conditions of garment workers to give policy recommendations and advocate for change.
I really liked this course because it was not about anger, guilt or consumer remorse. Instead, I got to learn about conducting research with empathy, and how important it is to step outside my world and try to see this from a garment worker’s perspective. Empathy is the center of the discussion, and the biggest takeaway lesson for me: do not reduce people to one category.
Garment workers are like us. They have family, a home, aspirations, things to look forward to. I think that most of the people that are interested in the subject know this intuitively, but it is still good to point this out because I think this is what is missing in the mainstream conversations about the fashion industry. Workers are reduced to powerless, impoverished, modern slaves. That’s a gut-wrenching image, but wouldn’t it be more powerful if the story was about someone like you?
Finally, students combine the resources from weeks 2 and 3 and learn how to research who made their clothes. I don’t want to give it all away because I want you to enroll in the next course offering! I learn about new sources of information that I am planning to use in my own research. Students are also encouraged to write a story about what they have found (remember, empathy?) and to make their own pledge.
At the end of the course, you will walk away with a greater appreciation about your closet and with basic tools to engage in conversations with others and with brands.
While Fashion Revolution is not saying that the responsibility is solely on us, we are part of the system and we need to decide the role that we will play…so will you join the revolution?