This week is Living Wage Week, an opportunity to highlight the importance of implementing a living wage in order to create sustainable employment and to end exploitation within workforces. And of the many industries where workforces are indeed exploited, the fashion industry must be one of the most notorious. Just this week yet another of the big high street retailers, Zara, has been lambasted by workers for failing to pay them at all after the manufacturing firm they were working for closed overnight. It is telling that the way these workers chose to highlight their cause was by tagging clothing so that consumers themselves could read their grievances with their very own eyes. It shows the power that garment industry workers believe fashion consumers have to influence retailers and demand change. And they have a valid point.
Image Credit: Kowtow
As the co-founder of online ethical fashion retailer, Gather&See, I have spent the past 3 years building a business built on the fact that people are caring more and more about the provenance of their clothes and the welfare of those making them. Tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013 and many allegations of exploitation by fast fashion garment workers just like the Zara incident have made headlines and been amplified by social media so that, thankfully, they are hard to ignore. What's more, millennial customers who view themselves as global citizens and are arguably more politically and socially aware than their forebears are placing increasing value on a brands' ethical reputation. Recent studies from Nielsen and Deloitte show that millennials are most willing to pay more for products and services seen as sustainable or coming from socially and environmentally responsible companies. As the millennial market (the largest in US history) comes of age, retailers would do well to listen to them.
Fashion is a trillion dollar industry that employs up to 75 million people globally, of whom around three quarters are women. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign cotton pickers in India are often paid just £1.30 a day, spinning mill workers just £18 a month and much of the cheaply produced cotton that supplies fast fashion clothing manufacturers is picked under forced labour in Uzbekistan. The result is a never-ending spiral of poverty for these workers and their families. All for the sake of keeping prices low in order to feed the West's fast fashion habit. Imagine the difference that could be made if the fashion industry faced it's demons and demanded fair and living wages. As fashion consumers we need to start voting with our wallets and choosing to support brands that are doing things right - to send a message to the big players if they truly want to be sustainable and to future proof their businesses they will work towards fair fashion.
Thankfully we are seeing increasing numbers brands that choose to embrace fair trade and living wage principles and they are living proof that they can succeed in the harsh environment that is fashion retail. Kowtow, a New Zealand based brand producing fair trade and organic pieces in Living Wage accredited factories in India is just one example of many smaller brands the likes of which we are seeing resonate hugely with customers. Big name brands built on transparency and social awareness such as Patagonia, Everlane and Reformation are achieving cult like status thanks to merging design and awareness. Yes, there is a mountain to climb - the industry lacks enforcement and regulation and the fast fashion monolith won't be broken easily. But let's make this Living Wage Week a start to demonstrating how we can all make a difference.