When trying to make a statement about who you are in what you wear, what statement are you really making? Your fashion sense gives you a sense of individuality and lets others know a little bit about you. For example, you may remember Forrest Gump say “My momma always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they’re going, where they’ve been…”. Your fashion may speak of a certain style of music, your favourite colour, your occupation, a store, an icon, or otherwise. But it could also speak of where or how you received something. A store you went to, a city you travelled to, a birthday or Christmas gift you received, a relative that brought an item back from somewhere they travelled. Most of your clothing or accessories tells a story. But what about the story behind that fashion article, before it reached your hands? Where did it come from? Who made it? How was it made? Where did the materials come from? Who harvested those materials? What is the real story about how it came into my hands? There is so much more behind your dress, hat, pants, watch, shoes, socks, bag, than you ever knew.
All along the supply chain there are people involved to bring you your favourite pair of jeans or sunglasses. These people, although unseen to us, are very real. Would the amount you care about those involved in creating your fashion sense grow more if I told you that Jesus made your clothes? Jesus himself helped to sew the button on your sweater, string the beads onto your necklace? Suddenly, I think you’d care about how he was treated as he did so, & you would understand that the utmost respect and value should be placed upon the process of making your clothes and accessories. So why is it that we should care any less about the woman in Bangladesh who is working in a factory 14 hours a day, 7 days a week under appalling working conditions? Or the child working in India to make you your favourite pair of shoes? Jesus lives in them and loves them too. Now, these awful conditions aren’t always the case – but all too often, they are. And would you care if that were the case for the items in your closet? Is that the story you want to tell or statement you want to make?
Manufacturing factories are primarily based out in Asia, where poverty is rampant and labour laws are very weak due to competition over keeping jobs. This is commonly referred to as the ‘race to the bottom’ effect, where nations lower and lower their standards (salaries, conditions, laws) in order to guarantee that foreign companies invest in their country.
You may ask whether this is a problem that you have any say over or can do anything about. Although the supply chain of our fashion articles are unseen to us, we have a direct impact in how it functions. In fact, without us (the consumer) demanding these products, there would be no need for supply. Therefore, what we demand needs to change.
There are options out there, although harder to find, that consist of clothing and accessories that are made in an ethical manner. A key thing to look for, is where something was made. If you see ‘Made in ____’ (insert third world country, as almost everything is), you know that there needs to be a certification to ensure that there are ethical standards in place. It is our responsibility as consumers to ensure that our products are made in a fair and ethical manner. Buy items that are made locally, or look for third party certifications, such as ‘Fair Trade’. You can also do thorough research online to check out the background and ethical standards of a certain company – though, I do warn you to be thorough and check multiple sources.
For example, I own a dress that I just absolutely love to wear. Not only do I like the way it looks, I love knowing that from down to the materials that are used (organic cotton), to those that harvested it (in West Africa), to the people that manufactured it (in India), to the company that sold it (in the UK), each person was treated with dignity and respect. Not only that, but they were paid enough to pour back into their communities – creating true sustainable development. There are no secrets, no unseen players all along the supply chain. I wear the dress with pride. It tells a story, and is a crucial part of the statement I desire to create in my fashion sense.
I won’t lie and say that it isn’t a difficult thing to navigate these ethical matters. Or that it is easy or cheap to locate ethical fashion. Along with the items I have that are made in developed countries, from a reputable company, or with a third party certification, there are also items that I own that do not follow these standards. I wish that weren’t the case, but the fact is that it isn’t always easy or readily available. But that isn’t always a good enough excuse, and we can help change that. As consumers, we must come together and stop lying to ourselves that our purchases don’t have an impact. We need to stop being blind to the stories our fashion items really have to tell and what impact they have on a global scale. We can also advocate and put pressure on companies that we love to start making changes, and pressure our governments to better monitor their transnational corporations.
Written by Emily Everett
Emily resides in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and son. She is a student and an advocate for social responsibility and making ethical and informed choices as consumers