April 24, 2013. A typical day in Bangladesh’s Dhaka District as hundreds of factory workers make their way into the Rana Plaza where they sweat to keep up with the high demand of fast fashion from brands like Nike, H&M, Zara and other familiar names. Hours of unpaid overtime in a job where the fashion chains continue to get wealthier as the wages for the garment workers continue to drop, the workers fight fatigue and hunger to receive far less than minimum wage. Home to clothing factories, apartments, a few stores and a bank, the multi-story Rana Plaza has cracks in the walls and other unsettling indications of neglect. Despite their pleas to have their working conditions improved, nothing is done. A decision that, on this day, proves to be catastrophic as the building crumbles into dust, killing over 1000 garment workers and leaving thousands more injured – the deadliest garment factory disaster ever.
Abused and underpaid factory workers in extremely poor working conditions are not the only consequence of this ever-growing trend of fast fashion. Because of its focus on speed and low costs in order to consistently doll out new collections, it is also creating a devastating impact on the environment. As the pressure to reduce cost and time increases, huge environmental corners are being cut resulting in water pollution, extremely toxic chemicals being used in fabrics and dyes, and increasing levels of textile waste that just keep growing. Intricate fabric finishes, detailed prints, and vibrant colours the new ‘it’ thing this season? Take a moment to consider that textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally after agriculture. A somber thought.
But what does this all have to do with us? Well… everything. The likelihood that one of the garments hanging in your wardrobe was made in a similar sweatshop environment and has polluted someone’s clean drinking water is pretty high. And it doesn’t matter how big or small your bank account is, or how many clothes you have. Every penny spent has power. Each time you fork over cash or swipe your card for a garment, you’re supporting the company you’re buying from, as well as its values. Now please don’t get me wrong… I am by no means trying to guilt trip you here. It’s just important to know. The biggest problem lies in the fact that consumers aren’t informed enough to make mindful, conscious shopping decisions.
So what exactly is a conscious consumer? According to Medium.com journalist, Jaya Ramchandani, “a conscious consumer is an agent of change who considers the social, environmental, ecological, and political impact of their buycott [choosing to spend money on ethical products] and boycott actions.”
To help put energy into your own ethical practices, and encourage others to do the same, here are some ways in which you can become a more conscious consumer:
Where was this piece of clothing made? What does the company I am supporting stand for? What is the environmental impact of the garment I am about to buy? While some of these questions may be able to be answered by checking the label or doing some research online, it’s important to demand transparency from retailers when making purchases. Ask to see ethical fashion certifications that let you know if your purchase was made under fair and safe conditions. Use your purchasing power to make your voice heard and let companies know that you will not stand for unethical practices or shoddy values.
Less is More
Dame Vivienne Westwood once said: “Buy less. Choose Well.” The most simple solution is, of course, consuming less. The next time you’re itching for a wardrobe revamp, or feeling like making a purchase to fill an emotional void (we all do it), reconsider it. Becoming more mindful about how much you have and whether you actually **need** something is an important step in understanding the value of ‘less is more’.
Buy and Sell Secondhand
If the itch to refresh your wardrobe becomes unbearable, sell your unwanted clothes online or at a local market and use the cash to purchase some secondhand classics. You’d be surprised at the gems you can find when sifting through existing pre-loved items of clothes – designer stuff at a fraction of the price. If you can’t bear the idea of wearing a strangers hand-me-downs, chat to friends and arrange a barter day.
Not only are natural fibres such as silk, wool, hemp, linen or organic cotton better for the environment, they’re also exceptionally comfortable and nice to wear. Synthetic fibres like nylon, acrylic and polyester are hazardous to the environment and almost always end up in landfills taking decades to decompose.
Supporting local businesses that you know practice ethical sourcing of products and are taking steps in becoming more sustainable is one of the most effective ways for us to cultivate a better future together. Find local businesses that give back to the community and advocate sustainability. Support farmers markets, artisanal breweries, and local clothing outlets – simple, small changes like this can make a bigger impact than you may think.
While some criticism of the conscious consumerism concept states that ethical purchasing is nothing more than a way for us to feel better about ourselves, and that it won’t do much to change the more powerful, structural policies in place, I believe it is a start in the right direction. We certainly can’t escape the fact that we live in a consumer-driven capitalist society and we’re going to spend money whether we like it or not. But baby steps towards progress will, collectively, have a hugely positive impact. Thing progression, not perfection.
JOIN THE FASHION REVOLUTION!
Fashion Revolution is a global movement calling for greater transparency,
sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry.
We want to unite the fashion industry and ignite a revolution to radically change the way our clothes are sourced, produced and purchased, so that what the world wears has been made in a safe, clean and fair way.
On the 5th anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,138 people and injured many more in 2013, we encouraged millions of people to ask brands #whomademyclothes and demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.
The more people who ask #whomademyclothes, the more brands will listen.
Use your voice and your power to change the fashion industry.
Together we are stronger.
Text © Julie Graham | Images © iStock