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Fashioning change: from the factory floor to the high street

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Development Debates, Economic Development
V V Brown
VV Brown is a musician, entrepreneur and model. She campaigns for ethical fashion and is backing the first ever Fashion Revolution Day to commemorate the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed over 1,100 people and injured many more.

I put my book down and went to make another cup of tea. I never thought that those few steps to the kitchen would be the start of a journey towards creating a sustainable online fashion store called VV Vintage.

The book "To Die For" by Lucy Siegle had got me thinking. It had opened my mind to the realities of how and where our clothes are made and the real story behind the process. Although I was involved in it, as a model and a consumer, I realised my ignorance of the fashion industry and began a mission to uncover the truth.

I distinctly remember 1 passage in the book particularly - a young teenager is walking down the street and her Primark bag opens up with all her clothes falling to the ground and landing in a puddle; she just moves on with no thought. The young girl's new bundle of clothes was so cheap and disposable she could just shrug it off and walk away.

I dived deep into the truth of the fashion industry, how the West is lavishly buying, whilst poorer countries suffer awful factory conditions and questionable environmental practices. I began to realise that things need to change.

The Bangladesh Rana Plaza disaster last April opened this up to the world stage. People were shocked and surprised. However, despite the coverage it made me frustrated - this is happening all the time, all over the world. Human beings are being given a lower value of life all in the name of money.

The mother of 18 year old Aleyais cries and holds a picture of her daughter who is believed to be among the victims of the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka.
The mother of 18-year-old Aleyais cries and holds a picture of her daughter who is believed to be among the victims of the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka. Picture: G.M.B. Akash/Panos

Clothing companies make huge profits and could afford to make conditions and pay better. Just 1% of the profits made from these companies would improve conditions exponentially. The compensation being paid by Primark and others to Rana Plaza survivors is a start, but only a start. The whole industry needs to take responsibility for improving conditions long term.

We live in a strange world of corporate slavery and we choose to ignore it because we are hypnotised by consumerism and globalisation. Often, as consumers, we don't know what to do or how to make a difference. It is hard when you’re bombarded with countless campaigns for cheap, fashionable styles. But what if it was my family or friends who had to work like that? I wouldn't feel so detached.

What tore my heart strings was a documentary I watched whilst being a panellist for the Observer Ethical awards. BBC3's "Blood Sweat and T-Shirts" was about teenage workers in the fabric industry. A young Indian teenager was told about how many jeans were thrown away in a year in the US and he couldn't understand the scale of waste. He broke down in tears.

There needs to be a revolution in the way we think about clothing and with Fashion Revolution Day alive and buzzing with valour it’s great to have a dedicated day that encourages people to think about the shopping experience.

True reform starts with us the consumer and then through the bureaucracies of governments and corporate law, leading to change and regulation. Action by the UK’s Department for International Development to improve safety standards and start local factory inspections is a step in the right direction. It's a shame it took the outrage around the Bangladesh tragedy for real global action to happen.

Next time you’re in a shop have a think about where those clothes came from and how they were made. It may be hard, but we need to break the hypnotised consumerism bubble we are all dancing in and think about the effect our purchases have on people around the world.

Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or have the support of the British government.

For more details of the UK's work on improving safety and working conditions in the ready made garment sector in Bangladesh read our news story and have a look at our timeline infographic.

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  1. Comment by edward frost posted on

    Some sort of international standard on healthy and safety could help.

    The uk government could insist on certain standards before allowing goods to be sold. There could be inspectors that that the company have to pay to certifiy there factories and batches of good could have a certificated or reference tag.

    To see goods in the uk shops would need the certificate or reference, to get this would have to be supply chain inspected. The inspectors could be private business that companies need to pay.

    I did wonder this in respect to health and safety for some Chinese manufactured toys that had lead in the paint. If there was a sort of certification, and could be reference number with items that could trace the whole process. Each part of the supply chain would need a reference and certificated.

    Because done electronically would not need to cost much more, the inspectors be local business check standards etc.

    The reference would give the supply chain each part would need to be approved.

    Although it unlikely almost any governments would agree with this scheme, the arguments would be used, free trade, that by restricting access to entry to the markets the people may be every poorer, that people choose to work in these factories so consider it better than their other options.

    Also that these factories are part of the process of countries developing, at this point they have a comparative advantage from the lack of restrictions, that by applying higher standards, then would take away the advantage slow development and leave the people destined to poverty and deny them the right to advance.

    That it would be unfair restriction on the activity of the countries, and restrict development.

    Even with governments refusing could set up voluntary scheme or certification, like the fair trade coffee, if was marked well in the west, then it may become a question of acceptability at fashion shows that uncertified clothes etc, the market in the west could drive the shift away from unsafe sweat shops.

    Could become a question of social acceptability etc don’t know if there is a scheme already like this I don’t know about clothes or anything.

    I just read and see you have a shop selling ethical clothes, well may be a certificate would be competition, but would tend to think would compliment, you could set up a certificated or system like the fair trade for coffee but a standard for clothes.

  2. Comment by Cristina Sander posted on

    The Savar building collapse was such a disaster. I hope the people who have sent the employees back to the factory after seeing the cracks in the building are in the jail right now! All major manufacturers treat they employees as they are goods they don't care about. They are not! They are human beings. Yes, they are poor, but this fact doesn't make their lives less important. Money is not the most important thing. They have to realize it sooner or later!

  3. Comment by Podaraci za Svatba posted on

    It's very strange that here in Bulgaria they didn't say anything about the collapsed building on the news. Poor people! It's so sad that money actually can take human lives...