Six years on from the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, global awareness of the pitfalls of the fashion industry – from its extensive pollution and water consumption to the use of low-wage sweatshop labor – has grown considerably. Yet thanks to the Internet and modern technology, consumers are now able to connect directly with the small artisans who design and make their clothes and have access to more and better options than mass-produced fast fashion.
These were the key takeaways from a digital panel discussion with Christian Smith, an expert on sustainable fashion, and Kavita Parmar, a fashion designer and founder of the IOU Project, hosted by the Global Landscapes Forum in April.
Many of the issues surrounding fast fashion derive from its intimate connection with consumer culture. Clothes are manufactured in developing countries, shipped to developed countries where they are sold, barely worn, and then disposed of in landfills back in developing countries. Parmar traces the roots of this life cycle back to the Industrial Revolution: “The most damaging thing that it did was that it made us think success is quantity. Efficiency, productivity – those words became mantras.”
At the same time as society became increasingly obsessed with the accumulation of goods and possessions, clothing manufacturers started to engage in a race to the bottom, constantly shifting production sites to produce apparel at the lowest possible cost. “China wasn’t cheap enough, so Bangladesh became the next cheap-labor place, and now it’s Africa,” Parmar explained.
Smith believes fast fashion needs to be phased out, as rising incomes in countries such as China and India will lead to demand for clothing that cannot be sustainably met with the prevailing business models that emphasize short product life cycles. However, he stressed that alternative job opportunities need to be provided for workers in developing countries.
“Workers who were waiting for their turn to take part in economic development also need to benefit,” he said. “That’s why the fight for higher wages, better working conditions and improved education is really important, because these countries won’t get to use fashion as a springboard for a better economy, like China did.”
This struggle, Smith contends, has to be led from within the workplace. His work focuses on engaging workers by helping them understand that they have both a stake in how their factories operate and the responsibility to demand higher wages and improved working conditions. “The key driver of change going forward is the ability to form organizing committees that allow dialogue between the different actors in a factory,” he elaborated.
Parmar believes consumers also bear the responsibility to demand a more just and sustainable fashion industry – and increasingly have the power to do so. She argues that the internet has given consumers a channel to make their demands heard. One such example is the public outrage that followed the Rana Plaza collapse, as awareness of conditions in garment factories spread across social media. Over 200 global fashion brands and retailers responded by signing an accord to ensure safe working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories.
Her company, the IOU Project, is also using the Internet to directly connect consumers with small-scale artisans, creating a digital platform that “allows individuals to exchange work,” in the vein of Uber and Facebook, and eliminates middlemen. It creates tailor-made apparel made from Lungi, a hand-woven fabric from South India. Each piece of clothing contains a code enabling it to be traced to the weavers and artisans who produced it.
By designing each piece of clothing uniquely and assembling them by hand, the IOU Project also seeks to recover the meaning of fashion, which Parmar believes has been lost in the age of mass-produced clothing. “About 80 years ago, clothes were a language and a way to express yourself – where you came from, how you felt that day or what you were fighting for. Clothing was a way to communicate. It’s really important that we go back to this form of producing.”
But as both panelists made absolutely clear, there is only one way to make the fashion industry truly sustainable: consume less. Whereas economists and policymakers are fully fixated on growth, the panelists believe society needs to move away from consumerism and reevaluate where human happiness comes from. “People are seeking connection,” Smith said. “There is a wider change taking place as people try to find out who they are and what it means to connect.”
“We need to build a dream,” Parmar concluded. “We have a huge opportunity to stop talking about sustainable growth and start imagining a new system and building it with the technology that we have today.”