By Emma Waight
I have a love/hate relationship with fashion. On the one hand I love the vibrant colour of a kaleidoscopic digital print, the luxurious feel of thick velvet and the innate power of a little black dress. On the other hand, I hate the fact that new stock hits high street stores on a weekly basis, that there’s an estimated 3.6bn items of unworn clothes hanging in British wardrobes and that, on 24th April 2013, 1134 people in Bangladesh failed to return from their garment factory jobs because they had been crushed to death making cheap clothes for us consumers in the West.
The general gist of this won’t be new to you. We all know about sweatshops, and how, twenty years after Nike and GAP first hit the mainstream news accused of child- and sweatshop labour in the early 90s, the Rana Plaza collapse brought it all screaming back. I was at school in the late 90s and like many young girls I loved clothes, with my heart set on a career in fashion by the time I was 13. When I was 16 I did work experience at Sugar magazine and chose my A-level subjects based on my desire to study fashion at University. To me a career in fashion was glamorous, bold and fun – basically the opposite of how I felt as an awkward teenager.
It all went to plan for a few years (although I wasn’t cool enough to get into the London College of Fashion) until I started to become interested in ethical fashion in my second year of Uni. I really can’t remember a trigger; I don’t think I watched any particular programme or anything, I just became aware of the fact that there was an ugly side of fashion, hidden from public view. I researched this for an entire year, writing my final year dissertation on sweatshop labour. By the end of Uni, when I needed to start looking for jobs, I remember telling my housemate how disillusioned I’d become with the industry and how I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in it. The problem was I’d spent the best part of a decade planning my career in fashion, it shaped my academic choices and work experience, what else could I do?
I had a few options. I applied for jobs but the only ones I got interviewed for were fashion-related (shocker!) and once I started getting interviews it did renew my enthusiasm for the industry. I applied for an MA in international business and intercultural communications thinking it could broaden my options; I was still interested in fashion and retail, I just knew there must be a better way. In the meantime I was also contacted by my undergrad dissertation supervisor. She had been awarded funding for an ethical fashion project and wanted me to be her research assistant, so that’s what I did. I also did an MPhil in ethical fashion, switching from researching labour, as I had done for my undergrad dissertation, to researching the environmental impacts of cotton production and ethical marketing.
I started my blog emmawaight.co.uk in 2010 where I compiled a directory of ethical fashion companies and continue to provide commentary and reviews. I wrote for other websites too, and volunteered for the Ethical Fashion Forum just as they were getting started. As a regular consumer so much is hidden from us but it’s very difficult not to care once you know, when you’re researching something full-time. That said, I wasn’t and am still not perfect. I still shopped on the high street, with token purchases from ethical brands.
There was a fascinating experiment run in Berlin last year for Fashion Revolution Day (now held annually on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse) where a €2 t-shirt vending machine was placed in the city centre. When passers-by inserted their money for a tee they were shown images of the shirt’s production at sweatshops around the world, before being offered the chance to donate their €2 to help incite change. Despite not even being told where their money would go, 90% chose to donate rather than take the t-shirt. Knowledge empowers consumers, without it we lethargically consume more and more without a second thought.
After my MPhil I went on to a different university to do a PhD in Human Geography. It was a steep learning curve (turns out GCSE Geography, even an A*, doesn’t get you very far) but Geography soon became my home. My PhD was about mothering and second-hand consumption of children’s things, so still shopping, but not ethical fashion. I kept my toe in the water though, continuing with my blog, starting a new ethical fashion website that has since ceased, organising a one-day ethical fashion conference, being one of the first Oxfam Fashion volunteers and co-founding a clothing ‘swap shop’ at the University. As my research interests have become more varied however, and I’ve become more time-pressured by work, I feel like I’ve lost my way a little. One of the reasons I closed down my second website, apart from lack of time, was that I started to doubt myself. I haven’t been involved in academic research on ethical fashion for years, I don’t work for an NGO or ethical enterprise, I haven’t seen a garment factory with my own eyes, and yet, others introduced me as an ethical fashion expert. I preferred the word advocate; I didn’t feel like an expert, or even an activist – I wasn’t doing enough.
As is the curse, the more I had learnt the less I felt I knew. I met people who went to garment factories in Bangladesh and India and said they weren’t that bad. I listened to the ‘at least they have a job’ arguments and ‘factory work empowers women’ narrative. It’s true, Western consumption supports millions of jobs in the Global South. I don’t always know which retailers are good or bad. I don’t know what I even mean by good or bad. I was getting more and more emails from people who wanted to start ethical fashion enterprises of some sort but I knew even the biggest ethical fashion companies weren’t making any money. I wanted to help publicise them but I didn’t have time to write a blog about every one, and I didn’t want my blog to be a series of adverts, so my blog writing slowed down considerably.
I was asked to write this blog at pivotal time. I recently sold my flat and moved back to my parents because I couldn’t rely on fixed-term research jobs to pay the mortgage. I’m focused on the academic job hunt, all my spare time spent working on job applications, research proposals and paper writing. The ethical fashion stuff has felt like a distraction from that, something I could easily leave at the wayside as I start the next chapter of my life. Although I’ve let my campaigning slip my personal consumption habits are more focused than ever. Shopping is democratic; we vote every time we buy something. Personally, I don’t want to give my money to fat cat company executives who exploit everyone else down the supply chain, I want to give my money to enterprises like Assisi Garments who supply People Tree. Set up by Franciscan nuns, they provide training and employment for deaf, mute and economically disadvantaged women in India. Transforming lives through trade – that’s where fashion’s real beauty lies.
The same week that I was asked to share my story here, I attended a session on ‘Scholarly Activism’ at a major Geography conference in London. With academics, fashion designers and campaigners all in one room sharing ideas, I realised I didn’t need to choose one or the other. The ethical fashion movement has gained huge traction; sustainability and corporate social responsibility are beginning to be integrated into education and messages are becoming clearer but there’s still a long way to go. Capitalism as we know it has failed us in many ways. This month, the major Fashion Weeks will be trying to sell the same garments we’ve had for centuries, just mashed together in a different way. We can choose to be part of that, or we can choose not to.
If you choose not to there are LOADS of alternatives. Brands like Nomads, People Tree and Monkee Genes offer excellent quality, style and are not necessarily more expensive than your regular stores. EthicalConsumer.org have a super website were you’ll find brands ranked on their ethical credentials. I have a long list of ethical brands on my own website too, and I’ll try to blog more, I promise.
About the author: Emma is a visiting lecturer at Winchester
chool of Art, having completed her Human Geography PhD in 2014 at the University of Southampton. A keen ethical fashion advocate, she blogs at emmawaight.co.uk and can be found on Twitter @EmsWaight.
This month all 4 of the major Fashion Weeks are on – New York, London, Paris & Milan – and so as the world’s beautiful people gather let’s pause to think about a different way of doing fashion. The stories shared this month are from people who are doing just that. Follow the blog to stay tuned.