This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.
Despite raised awareness of conditions in the industry through devastating events like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, consumer desire for fast fashion - currently around £44billion pounds worth in the UK annually - trumps ethics.
At the site of the Rana Plaza collapse where Rubi holds a photograph of her children who died in the factory disaster ©Leigh McAlea
Why is this? The reasons are complex, but in our hyper-globalised world with extended supply chains, it is extremely difficult to relate to the workers and processes that bring clothes to our high streets and into our wardrobes. Those making our clothes are so remote as to be barely human, and certainly there is no sense of people with lives and aspirations that may intersect with our own, for example as fellow workers, as students, as parents. At the same time, the voices of garment workers are rarely heard, further enabling and normalising exploitation in our supply chains. How do we change this?
At TRAID, we facilitate change through clothes reuse, education and by funding global projects to improve and change conditions in the garment industry. In our work to engage people with the problems within the industry and over-consumption, we are increasingly drawing on the idea of empathy; both as a tool to connect people to the conditions clothes are made in, and as a way to re-frame people's relationship to their clothes.
One of TRAID's charity shops, in Dalston, London, our alternative to the high street. ©Leigh McAlea
Empathy can help us to 'see the maker' - itself a radical act when brands, factory owners, advertising and magazines are predicated on reflecting a version of fashion that hides the myriad of processes carried out by people including farmers, machinists and packers. Empathetic connections also need to be encouraged in the professional realm, particularly with designers who have the power to build sustainability into pre-production processes, for example when it comes to waste and water consumption.
See the makers: farmers, machinists, embroiders, packers ©Leigh McAlea
What would this look like? Before even making a line on a piece of paper, an empathetic designer would consider the people making their designs, and the impact any processes would have on the local and global environment. So, things like fabric choices, water consumption, toxicity of dyes, how pieces are cut, local capacity (or lack of it) to deal with run off pollutants, will homeworkers carry out handwork like embroidery and if so under what pay conditions, and so on are considered before pieces go into production.
Farmers play a vital role in fashion supply chains: TRAID funded project supporting organic cotton farmers in Benin. ©TRAID / Pesticide Action Network
Connecting people to the reality of the products we consume is not easy, and there is no single way to do this. We also know that just because exploitation happens, empathy does not necessarily follow. In fact, in a hyper-connected world saturated with bad news, stopping people from switching off with 'compassion fatigue' is difficult. So while empathy may be a tool, making it useful requires conscious, constant and active work to build support for practical change in our fashion supply chains. So workers don't stay invisible, we need to keep reminding consumers that they exist and to keep asking consumers what conditions they think their clothes should be made in.
TRAID makes our contribution to building empathy by working to reframe people's relationship to their clothes so garments are valued and not seen as disposable. By reusing the public's unwanted clothes we are infusing them with value; by teaching people to repair and mend, people get in touch with the processes behind our clothes and that supply chains depend on people's labour; by funding projects to improve practices in the textile industry, we strengthen for example the work of trade unions to make workers visible, while bringing the realities of garment workers and cotton farmers lives into classrooms and to our shop customers.
Join TRAID & say No More Fashion Victims ©TRAID
Engaging with the politics, as well as the aesthetics of fashion, is crucial to raising awareness of the negative impacts of the fashion industry. We invite you to become part of this growing movement demanding change in our fashion supply and production chains.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle is running a special series around Sustainable Fashion for the month of September. Livia Firth is creative director of Eco-Age and founder of The Green Carpet Challenge, and will be guest editing on 18 September. If you'd like to blog or get involved, please email us.