This week marked the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, in which 1,138 Bangladeshi garment workers lost their lives and another 2,500 were injured due to horrifically unsafe working conditions. It was the fourth largest industrial disaster in history, and it sparked a revolution.
Like most social change movements, fashion revolutionaries stand on the shoulders of giants. Thanks to the sustained advocacy of the fair trade and international human rights movements over the last 50 years, certification schemes and industry standards had been developed to ensure workers rights and environmental protections - the problem was most brands weren’t using them.
So when people started putting pressure on brands about how their clothes were made, there were systems in place that brands could use to improve the way they ran their business. While there’s still a LONG way to go in getting more brands to comply with industry standards, reconciling minimum wages with living wages, protecting workers’ rights to unionise and reducing negative environmental impacts, the basic building blocks are in place thanks to the work of many, many others before us.
What makes the fashion revolution different from so many other social change movements, though, is how much measurable change it’s been able to achieve in a relatively a short period of time.
In just one year from 2016 to 2017, the percentage of brands rated A-, A or A+ in the Australian Ethical Fashion Report has more than doubled from 6% to 14%, and the percentage of brands receiving an F has more than halved, dropping from 12% to 5%. That’s pretty bloody amazing (and if you scroll to the end I’ve made some bar graphs and pie charts for all my fellow data nerds out there).
I don't mean to gloss over the problems that continue to exist in the fashion industry - Bangladesh is a case in point about how entrenched these problems are and how difficult it is to protect garment workers’ basic human rights. Without a doubt there’s significantly more work to do to encourage more transparency and continue to shift the industry curve towards more As and Bs. But the signs are positive, and they can be attributed to the work of values-driven designers, business owners and so many other people across the fashion industry, and we’d like to give a shout-out to just a few.
Thanks to advocates in the media like the always stylish Clare Press (author of Wardrobe Crisis, Fashion Editor-at-Large for Marie Claire Australia and columnist for Daily Life), ethical fashion brands are included in the mainstream media spotlight, allowing them to share their story and grow their audience.
Thanks to technology, we can now see how brands rate without having to wade through mind-numbingly boring industry reports or reading the fine print on labels - the Good on You app is a fantastic (and free!) resource when you’re shopping online or in ye olde shopping centres.
And thanks to ethical fashion bloggers, we can easily discover new and emerging ethical fashion brands that align with our personal style. Some of my favourites are Natalie from Sustainably Chic, Sammy from Ecomono, Kira from The Green Hub and Ellie from Selflessly Styled. They’re all total babes with amazing style (and no judge-y posts that make you feel bad about your decisions, they know we’re all human).
But above all, change is happening because of people like you. I think this quote from the brilliant Marianne Williamson perfectly sums up why the fashion revolution has achieved great things so far and is continuing to gain momentum:
“Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.”
People like you realised there was a problem, gave a sh*t, found out what they could do to change the situation and are now using their purchasing power and social media voice to support brands doing the right thing and avoid the ones that aren’t. Say what you want about capitalism, but sometimes the market forces of supply and demand can do good things.
Reflecting on what’s been achieved so far and thinking about how much power we have to effect change, I’ve started to wonder - what does success for the fashion revolution look like? My guess is the answer is different for everyone, and it’s probably connected to why someone joined the revolution in the first place. For some, ethical working conditions for all garment workers is the most important goal. For others, environmentally sustainable production methods are the ultimate end-game. And for quite a few people, it’s a combination of both.
For me, the fashion revolution is a feminist issue. Around 75 million people work in the garment industry globally, and 80% of them are women between the ages of 18 and 35. Many of them have children and families to provide for, and are often the main income earner. This means that improving wages and working conditions in the fashion industry will directly improve the lives of around 60 million women around the world, helping to lift both them and their families out of poverty. I’m in.
Looking at the fashion revolution through a feminist lens, aside from living wages, ethical working conditions and environmental sustainability, there are two particular issues that I think we need to focus on when defining success.
Living wages are an important stepping stone to help women lift themselves out of poverty, but this is just the beginning. By supporting women to take on leadership roles and start their own businesses, we can create lasting and generational change for women and girls around the world.
The good news is, some fashion brands are leading the way and have made women’s empowerment a key part of their business model. One of my favourite brands All the Wild Roses supports Opportunity International Australia by investing a portion of sales proceeds to microloans to help a woman in need start her own small business. At Renegades of Chic, we also invest 10% of our profits into microloans for women entrepreneurs in developing countries, as it’s an incredibly powerful and direct way to support women-led businesses in places where women often don’t have access to financial capital.
Other brands like Krochet Kids Intl not only provide women in Uganda and Peru with a job so they can meet their immediate needs, they also provide education and mentorship to help each woman plan a unique and sustainable career path for the future. In their view, ‘the true measure of social impact is not how well you can care for someone in your presence, but how well they thrive in your absence’.
I’m not suggesting that the fashion industry alone can achieve the lofty goal of empowering women worldwide. But as women make up 80% of the industry’s workforce there is a huge opportunity to support women to start businesses and take on leadership roles, so it would be great to see more and more brands incorporating this mission into their business model.
While fair trade and other industry certification schemes are well-suited to factory environments, they often don’t work in the artisan sector, which leaves artisans vulnerable to exploitation. This sector is largely made up of women working in the ‘informal economy’ from home or in small workshops, and is the second largest employer in the developing world.
There are particular challenges in developing compliance standards for artisan-based businesses compared to factory environments. Just as an example, how do you calculate a living wage for someone who works seasonally or on a piece-rate basis? In short, it’s really complicated, but if we can get it right it’s a great opportunity to improve the incomes and working conditions of women working in the artisan sector all over the world.
Luckily there are already some very smart people on the case! Nest is is a US-based non-profit working to advance global artisans and homeworkers through supply chain transparency, sustainable business development and industry advocacy. They’re implementing the first-ever industry adopted standards for artisans and homeworkers, which represents a huge step forward. We’re a proud co-operative member of Nest and it would be great to see more Australian artisan-based brands and retailers support their work (shout-out to KITX for leading the way!), so please spread the word.
As Renegades of Chic hasn’t even been operating for a year yet, I’m the first to admit that I arrived (fashionably) late to the fashion revolution party. Since starting this business I have been completely overwhelmed at the complexity of the challenges we face and the passion, creativity and drive that people are harnessing to solve them. The community of designers, artisans, garment workers, business owners and people who simply care about how fashion is made is seriously inspiring.
Looking back on what’s already been achieved, I genuinely believe there isn’t a challenge or problem out there that we can't solve by working together (while wearing some super cute ethically made clothes and accessories). Because as Marianne Williamson said, “As we go, so goes the world”.
I realise that this isn’t exactly a robust time series, but the report card has only been published since 2014 and less than 300 brands participated in the first two years (the 2016 report surveyed 308 brands and the 2017 report surveyed 330) so I thought it would skew the results to include 2014 and 2015. And sorry the axes don't match, blame my crap Canvas skills.