Part 1. Made in…
Four year old Harper Beckham sits on his father’s lap during a fashion show in New York, enthralled by the models parading the catwalk. She is described by her mom, Victoria Beckham, as a “very stylish little thing with her own sense of how she wants to dress”. Harper herself has become a bit of a celebrity, featuring in fashion magazines and a blog was even created by her fans to highlight her fashion styles, including pictures of her wearing Aviator Kids Sunglasses and Varina Flats by well known brands.
Ten year old Kristina Pimenova, a ‘Russian supermodel’ since the age of 3 – and dubbed ”the most beautiful girl in the world” – by the media has signed modeling contracts with a variety of well known haute couture and fast-fashion brands. Her popularity is clear through ‘her’ Instagram account, which has 1.4m followers.
In less well off parts of the world, children as young as seven are among the 75 million people, predominately female, estimated to be employed as cheap labour for the fashion industry. An industry known for its poor working conditions, environmental exploitation and destruction, use of harmful chemicals, promotion of unattainable beauty standards, racism and a whole idea of externalized value.
So how can something that is produced under such terrible conditions, and at a huge social and environmental expense, be portrayed as innocent and beautiful? Would little ‘fashionistas’ agree to be part of promoting this industry if they had adequate knowledge about the industry’s practices to decide for themselves? Or have we attained a level of alienation and disconnection from the reality of how our clothes are made today, and accept the exploitation of nature and people to look ‘chic’ and ‘trendy’?
For months I have been struggling to write an article about the impact of the fashion industry with a positive tone. I decided to write this article first, as in order to see a light at the end of the tunnel, it is first necessary to clarify why changing our perception on fashion is vital for the planet.
The global apparel market is a $3 trillion business that comprises not only clothes, but shoes, accessories, perfumes, bags, household, suitcases and makeup. However, this income is not uniformly distributed, with a large tranche going to those at the top. For example, the founding chairman of Inditex Fashion Group (Stradivarius, Massimo Dutti, Zara, Oysho, Bershka, Pull & Bear), Amancio Ortega Gaona, is ranked by Forbes as the world’s second richest man, currently worth over $70 billion.
In 2015, the CEO of H&M made $125,000 after tax. According to H&M’s own Remuneration Guidelines: “compensation for senior executives is based on factors such as work tasks, expertise, position, experience and performance… executives receive a fixed salary, pension, housing benefits and… car benefits.” Yet a Bangladeshi garment worker earns about $68 per month, while a spinning mill worker makes just $51 per month, often working 12 to 18 hour shifts. No remuneration guidelines were found regarding compensation and benefits for workers, perhaps because hard work is simply not valued the same in the fashion industry.
This business model is plagued with issues throughout its supply chain, with poverty, wages, excessive working hours, insecure working environments and links to innumerable factory tragedies for which brands try to evade responsibility.
As I write this article, I keep in mind the stories of survivors of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 on 24 April 2013. Other related fashion disasters include the Bhopal explosion in 1984, the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in 2012, and the Karachi and Lahore garment factory fires, all with deadly consequences and little or no justice brought.
There is very little difference between Haute Couture, Fast or Street Fashion when it comes to its business practices. Garments are produced using similar methods and conditions and very often have the same owners. However, none of them reflect the real cost of making clothes. Fast fashion’s clothes are cheap because someone else – such as garment workers – is paying for the real cost of production. On the other hand, expensive garments from Haute Couture are expensive because of the brand, but this doesn’t necessarily means high quality or better working conditions for workers.
As if this wasn’t enough to put anyone off fashion, the apparel industry – from the production of cotton, synthetic fibers, manufacturing , transportation, promotion and disposal of clothes – has also made an important contribution to the exploitation and pollution of the environment. The apparel industry is shadowed by its impact on the environment, the topic of my next article in this series.