Fast Fashion - Made in ______
As a teenager, I spent a formidable time devouring fashion magazines and trying to keep up with new fashion trends. These magazines were oozing with unmistakable style and glamor and because this was before the digital access era, I was hooked on the way they looked and smelled in my hand. But I was also an avid reader, and had within our family circle, people who were cynical enough to make me question the status quo and to look at things that were subliminal and political. I read books like '1984', 'The Beauty Myth' and 'Warrior Marks' which shaped my thinking and were the antithesis of my fashion magazine indulgence. I can’t deny being torn between the love of symmetry of clothes and the exploration of color and textiles and the awareness that I am being sold a product that has some disturbing truths.
Developing Countries – Sweat Shop
After graduating from college I got a first-hand glimpse of this other side of fashion while vacationing in India and this was the defining moment that as a consumer still riddles me with guilt and sadness. Even though it was more than a decade ago, I can still sketch from memory the room full of men and women, cross-legged on the floor, hand embroidering some of the most intricate and beautiful designs- the kind I had seen in fashion magazines on couture wear. I remember seeing them in the basement in the morning when we went to pick up a friend’s cousin who lived in one of the apartments and as we came back to his place late that night I saw the same group of artisans still crouched over the delicate fabric in a room that shone with electric brightness.
We were a raucous group that was in exuberant spirits, and so one of these artisans looked up towards the basement window and watched us as we laughed and ribbed each other near the stoop of the building and near his window. I couldn’t help but look into the room. When I caught his gaze, I was stricken by the fatigued and resigned expression on his face. I screamed internally – “have these people worked a 12 hour day, and why are they still here, working?” Later that night, I quizzed the cousin who lived in the apartment and was shocked to hear that the long hours and the conditions they worked in was a norm, which he had seen as long as he had lived there.
Film- Fashion and the Crime Syndicate
What I had seen, was before the era of critiquing the working conditions in the fashion industry. The feminist theories, I had heard in abundance, and the critique of how advertising inveigles consumers was old hat. But the fashion industry’s human toll, the imbalance of worker rights and profits in this glamorous world was still a quiet whisper. Many years after witnessing the sweat shop conditions in New Delhi, India - I watched the Italian film ‘Gomorroh’ (2008) and was once again reminded of the underbelly of the fashion industry. Through the character Pasquale - an haute couture tailor - we get a glimpse of the nefarious links between fashion, the mafia and garment workers. Wondering if it was more fiction than reality I dug around and found that this film was based on a book written by an investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, who had to flee Italy because of death threats.
Documentary – Fast Fashion and Sweat Shops
Upon a recommendation, I recently watched the documentary ‘The True Cost’ (2015) and was horrified to be reminded once again about the massive costs to human lives associated with working conditions in the fashion industry. The filmmaker documented the era of ‘Fast Fashion’ where multi-national retail networks outsource their garment manufacturing to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, or any country ready to bid the lowest price for output. The documentary revealed that 97% of garments sold in USA are manufactured elsewhere and how this business decision impacts our physical environment, the lives of garment workers and consumer choices. This was the first time I had heard of the term ‘Fast Fashion’ which describes our dependence on cheap clothes made under the most brutal and inhumane conditions. The most poignant moments, for me, were the words of 23 year old Shima Akhtar, a garment worker in Bangladesh. By following her story, the filmmaker allowed us to walk in her shoes, and as a consumer, I was moved by her tearful plea when she said “I don’t want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood, we want better working conditions.”
Both these films, educated and reminded me about the plight of garment workers who are still fighting against the kind of conditions that were prevalent at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Through my own experience and by watching these films I know that the fight for fair wages and safe working conditions is not new. We all want to pay less for things that we desire – it is, and has been justified as economic gain. I don’t really have the answers and I don’t know what kind of consumer decisions will bring about change but I’m ready and burning for an economic system that genuinely attempts to protect our environment and sincerely fights for our rights and provides decent working conditions and livable wages. I am yearning for an economic system that starts putting the long term costs over short term gains into perspective.