Living with less: What do we want from fashion once the dust has settled?

The fashion industry has seen enormous upheaval over the last couple of months. As we edge into the post lockdown period, we at The Seam wanted to pause and take some time to reflect on how people’s personal relationships with their wardrobes have changed during COVID-19.

The Seam is an online marketplace that matches people who can sew with local demand,  allowing consumers to find immediate help with clothes repairs and customisations. In April 2020, we launched an online survey* and discovered that people are now gravitating towards more mindful relationships both with their clothes and the communities around them.

 

Make do and mend culture

Some 64% of the people we surveyed now prefer to repair damaged clothes rather than throw them out. Whilst 6 out of 10 of us are actively trying to improve the way we care for our clothes and accessories. Both of these changes are down to the fact that many of us suddenly had a chance to stop and think about our behaviours as lockdown set in. With no one to see and nowhere to go, and the possibility of reduced income, suddenly our piles of unworn clothing took on new significance.

People have been using this time to think more broadly about their impact on the world. Google trends found in April that over the previous 90 days, search interest in “How to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased by more than 4,550%. And almost half (45%) of the people we surveyed said they had learned they need less stuff in order to be happy.

 

Love thy neighbour

In tune with what we’ve been reading in the news about increased community spirit, we also found that 42% of people would like to increase their purchases of locally bought clothes. However, when we asked the same people to name fashion businesses local to them, the average number of brands they could come up with was between 0-1, signalling a significant need for increased awareness and support in promoting small businesses.

Since The Seam launched in London in 2019, an active and growing community of makers are now sharing their skill of sewing and using it as a way to connect with people in their local community. Greater connection with people in our local area seems to be something that, collectively, we have been craving in the UK. The many, many examples of communities coming together (at a safe distance) to sew scrubs, to deliver food and medicine, to hang out of our windows and clap for workers with our neighbours, is testament to this. This is backed up by research commissioned by the RSA which found that compared to pre COVID-19 lockdown, social bonds are now stronger and 40% of us feel a stronger sense of local community. This is having a great impact on us wanting to support local suppliers, including fashion brands.

 

The last days of Rome?

Another potential reason for this desire to invest locally and directly with the makers of our clothes is that Covid-19 has again laid bare the brutal logic of the global fashion industry. Many brands, in the face of plummeting sales, shifted the burden onto garment workers in Asia by cancelling clothing contracts worth billions of dollars, resulting in the furloughing or firing and financial ruin of millions of people, mainly women. Along with the fact that fashion’s environmental excesses can no longer be hidden, mindless consumption of cheap clothing leaves ever more of us feeling uneasy at best.

The question is, will we revert back to old habits – those online clothing hauls purged by drop offs at our nearest charity shop – once there are places to go and people to see again? Perhaps not. Some 85% of British people want to see at least some of the personal or social changes they have experienced continue afterwards, while just 9% want a complete return to normal.

At The Seam we can feel change in the air. Today, buying an item of clothing from a large fashion brand requires such little transactional input from us that we often create little to no emotional attachment to our purchase. The process of choosing to repair or customise our clothes creates a major shift in the relationship we have with them. A more emotional connection encourages us to take better care of the things we buy and keep them for longer.

We certainly haven’t seen the end of the chaos facing the fashion industry which has revealed itself to be highly fragile to sudden disruptions. A global recession will further dampen demand for new clothes. And many people point out darkly that COVID-19 is a mere taster of the chaos to come as a result of climate change.

Big business has not shown itself to be nimble to respond to crisis, as the farce around ventilator manufacturing demonstrated. As production and transaction can now be organised easily between the customer and the maker directly, this might just be the beginning of a movement that sees ‘big fashion’ becoming somewhat of a redundant third party.

People are beginning to experience and engage with their clothes differently, not simply as passive consumers, but as textile custodians with the ability to reimagine, repair and rework items. Long may it continue! 

* The survey was completed between 20th and 24th April 2020 via Facebook and Instagram with 500 randomly selected participants aged between 19-55 and living in the UK at the time of the survey
Fashion an armor to save lives

The Corona Virus Disease 2019 (CoViD-19) pandemic has infected 3 million people and claimed 230 thousand lives worldwide. The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by healthcare workers is one the challenges they face. The World Health Organization (WHO) has asked the different countries to manufacture more PPEs. In the Philippines healthcare workers are at a high risk. Most private hospitals use 10 to 15 PPE suits for one CoViD-19 patient in a week. While the Philippine General Hospital use 3 PPE suits also in a week. The PPEs can only be used for i a limited number of times.

People try to help by raising funds for more PPEs but manufacturers cannot cope up with the demand. The fashion community stepped up to help with the situation. These include the textile and garment workers, designers, artisans, and ordinary citizens who can sew PPE. The drawback is that many of them are not near medically standards and end up use by someone else.

Volunteers sewing thousands of PPE suits, Photo courtesy of Abbey Balagbagan

 

Three students from Institute of Creative Entrepreneurship – Fashion and Design (ICE- FAD) have made PPEs based on the feedback they get from the healthcare workers to whom they donate it. Leilina Kate Yalung has made 300 washable face masks, Abbey Balagbagan has produce 20,000 face masks and 10,000 a two piece PPE suits since March 30 (as of April 21) will continue to do so until needed, and Erjohn dela Serna has made 982 pieces where he targets to create around 1,500. They have donated them to different barangays, Pasig City General Hospital, Child’s Hope Children’s Hospital, Cainta, Tarlac, Angeles, Pangasinan, Bacolod, Bulacan, and Navotas.

  

Erjohn dela Serna PPE suit designs

Kyra M. Mata has also donated 335 isolation (or hazmat) suits and 500 gowns. That went to the Southern Philippine Medical Center and other parts of Davao City with a project with Wear Forward called “Wear Together”. These hand sewn suits are made from taffeta SBL (Silver Black Lining) the same material used for umbrellas. The patterns are cut to make sure they sew less and with a covering over the fly. They adjust the tension and make shorter stitches when sewing. Then do the water submersion test to check if they are air-tight. They sought advice from an Infectious Disease Specialist and help from Kendi Maristela, who teaches in University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman College of Home Economics Clothing Tech Course, to make sure it is close to the medical grade standard, which is a big challenge. She started the PPE design that is approved by the Department of Health (DOH). Another challenge are supplies. They can only make as much as long the materials are available. They only use available stocks and rely on donations because they already spent enough money from their own.

The Manila Protective Gear Sewing Club was organized for the sole purpose of making these PPEs suits. They donate them to the Office of the Vice President (OVP) who has started aiding healthcare workers since the shortage through donation, collaboration and calling for volunteers. It is through the OVP that they distribute the PPEs so there will be less hassle. According to Cynthia Diaz and Mich Dulce, of Manila Protective Gear Sewing Club, that there are no medical-grade fabrics or medical-grade production companies in the Philippines. In order to achieve the medical-grade standard they consider every detail and the construction of the design that is reviewed and tested by a medical organization such as a hospital or an independent medical consultant. The design they have has been medically-approved by the doctors behind the Open Source Covid19 Medical Supplies based in Berkeley, California.

Healthcare workers trying out the donated PPE suits, Photo courtesy of Dr. Maria Almira Kiat

 

It is most rewarding to receive feedback from the different recipients of their donated PPE . Healthcare workers are overwhelmed that there are people like them willing to help in these times of crisis despite the restrictions imposed by the quarantine. They are also excited because of the different colors and designs of the PPE suit that is unusual to see. It also helps patients to recognize them which everyone is so grateful for. The advantages of these PPEs is that they are reusable and washable. According to Dr. Winston Pascual, who is working in the National Center For Mental Health with CoViD-19 patients, said that they are reusable and washable. They are cleaned by using bleach solution and bathe under the sun. Dr. Maria Almira Kiat, of Bataan General Hospital and Medical Center, said that as much as possible they autoclave besides washing. There are other areas where the healthcare workers are hesitant to autoclave them. The recipients of Kyra told her that even they have heat tested their PPE suits. Autoclave is one of the ways they can disinfect them properly, especially if used in direct contact with a CoViD-19 patient. Dr. Maria Almira said that they already have healthcare workers that got infected. That is why they categorize these PPE suits into two types A and B. The type A are inside wards that are in full gear or complete overall suits where they attend positive and suspected CoViD-19 patients. The other suits are considered type B where they use it outside the ward. These PPE suits are more comfortable compared to the ones procured from China by the DOH. Other countries have rejected these PPEs from China because they are defective.

Donated DIY PPE suits are washed and sun dried, Photo courtesy of Kyra Mata

Despite the quarantine restriction people can still find a way to help in this time of crisis. It is people from the fashion community, from textile workers to designers, that can care for the needs of heroes who are the healthcare workers in the front line.

I like to end with a quote
“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
– Bill Cunningham.

Hidden Hands: Homeworkers and their role in the global fashion value chain

Mary Milne from Traidcraft Exchange introduces the women ‘homeworkers’ who play a vital but hidden role in making the clothes we love.  

Think of garment workers and what comes to your mind? Lines of young women at sewing machines in Bangladesh, Vietnam or China? Overcrowded factories in sprawling estates?

You’d be right that this is the kind of place where many people work. But there’s another group of workers who play a vital, but often hidden, role in making the clothes we love. And right now, with European and North American fashion brands shutting shops and cancelling orders, these people are facing huge challenges.

Across south Asia, around 50 million women are ‘homeworkers’ – stitching, cutting, doing embroidery, and trimming clothes for the global fashion industry. Homeworkers are the fashion business’s invisible workforce. They work in many garment supply chains, either doing the jobs that need to be finished by hand – cutting off threads, sewing on buttons or doing hand embroidery – or providing additional flexible labour.

Homeworking is a vital cog in complex supply chains, helping suppliers manage the peaks and troughs of demand that come with fast fashion. Too many orders? Put work out to homeworkers.

Bhavna, 32, lives in Delhi but is originally from the rural state of Bihar. She does thread-cutting as well as ‘moti sitara’ (bead embroidery) on different types of clothes. She explains how it works: ‘The contractor brings the work, he is giving it to a ‘madam’ and she gives the work to us.’

It’s likely that this contractor takes work from a supplier, who maybe takes work from another bigger supplier, who may be contracted by a national or international brand. And the brands, although they should be aware that homeworking is likely to happen in their supply chains, just turn a blind eye.

For most women like Bhavna, homeworking is the only way to earn money while looking after young children. Factory work is much better paid – but homeworking is flexible around caring responsibilities, and can be more socially acceptable for women from socially conservative families.

Ankita explains: ‘I can’t work in a factory, as I can’t leave my kids unattended…. I prefer to work from home and look after my kids. Additionally, my husband doesn’t like it if I work outside.’

Despite their crucial role in garment supply chains, homeworkers are denied their rights as workers. So that means no sick pay, no maternity pay, no entitlement to a pension or other social security and no guarantee of work.

Homeworkers are paid at a piece rate per item which is often just a few pennies. Some women interviewed by Traidcraft Exchange were earning the equivalent of just 30 pence for 8 hours work.

‘We get up to 6 rupees (6 pence) per piece, but it depends on the piece. Sometimes it is 2 rupees, 5 rupees, depending on the hard work. But the right payment for our hard work goes to the contractor and other middlemen, not us,’ says Amita, 36.

Amita hasn’t been able to work for six months because she developed pain in her hands and back. So the family has had to rely on her husband’s earnings alone.

Several of the workers told us that they are only paid around twice a year, when the contractor is paid. Bhavna said that she has to wait for payment which is usually made around the time of the festivals of Holi and Diwali. ‘I take some money in advance when I need to, and she deducts this money when she is paying me at the time of festival,’ Bhavna said. This pattern of payments puts workers at risk of indebtedness and means they have to continue working until they are paid. It makes them less likely to complain about pay rates or move to a different contractor.

Ankita told us that she had tried to ask her contractor for more pay: ‘We asked her to understand how much hard work we have to do, to bring the piece and then return it. We have to bring it again if it needs to be altered, and have to also go back to return the finished piece. So we asked them to increase the rate, but they don’t do it.’

Located at the periphery of the supply chain, homeworkers have to take what they are given. They are in no position to walk away.

Work is never guaranteed, it depends on the needs of the garment factories and ultimately the orders from brands. As Kanchan says, ‘There is no set pattern, some months it comes more and some months it doesn’t.’

With the whole garment industry in lockdown, homeworkers like Bhavna, Ankita, Amita and Kanchan are some of the most vulnerable people in the whole system. Work has just stopped, and it is very unlikely that any benefits or compensation agreed between brands and suppliers will find its way to their families.

We’re connected to these women in ways most of us never realise – because they help make many of the products we buy. Much as many of the brands turn a blind eye, or even deny that homeworking happens in their supply chains, it is part of the system of fast fashion. Millions of families depend on homeworking and a blanket ban is not the solution. But we think it’s time to honour homeworkers, celebrate their contribution – and above all, give them the same rights as other workers.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the women interviewed. Traidcraft Exchange is currently working with representatives of homeworkers in India, Pakistan and Nepal and with European brands and multi-stakeholder initiatives to map supply chains down to the homeworker level. The programme will help brands introduce simple systems that document homeworkers’ contribution and wages, and develop action plans that drive transparency, best practices and improve working conditions.
 
Image Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/Priyanka Chharia
Women Making Change

Can work in the garment industry lift women up? We speak to two pioneers making this happen around the globe. 

 

Image: SOKO Kenya

 

First up, Colleen Clines, one half the sister duo behind Anchal Project, tells us about their journey to creating a global business that lifts women up. It all began in 2009, says Colleen, “While in India, I was introduced to the exploitive world of the commercial sex trade and the extreme lack of opportunity for women in the community. It was in this moment I was inspired to design more than beautiful landscapes, determined to create positive social and environmental change using design.”

Today, Anchal Project works across India and the USA to both train artisans and create projects that generate a meaningful and empowering income for women in both countries. Their Stitch by Stitch program in Ajmer, India operates within a hub of commerical sex work, offereing a different path for women with limited opportunities who are vulnerable to sex work and abuse. 

Colleen says, “85% of Anchal artisans answered that they had joined the commercial sex trade because there was no existing alternative. If the choice to be a commercial sex worker belonged to them, it was a helpless, desperate decision amidst a financial crisis. The average artisan tried leaving the sex trade two or more times, but returned because she was unable to earn a living. Some of the artisans shared that they tried to leave upwards of five times.” 

On the other side of the world, in Louisville, Kentucky, women who are recovering or vulnerable to Kentucky’s high rates of sexual violence can take part in their educational workshops, financial planning, and stress management alongside product creation and making skills. 

“We felt compelled to take the project beyond the classroom with the conviction that our design training, in collaboration with local leadership, could address seemingly intractable social and environmental systems. The women we met became our sisters, sisters we had to fight for”, says Colleen. 

 

Image: Anchal Project

 

Like Anchal Project, SOKO Kenya is a fashion brand that exists with decent work as the foundation. Jo Maiden, the founder, tells us how the brand originated to solve a problem.

“I first visited Kenya with Dave, my husband, in 2007 on a trip with Ethical Fashion Forum. We both fell in love with the country and saw an opportunity to create sustainable change through fashion. We wanted to develop a creative, long-term solution to the high levels of unemployment in the local community.”

Like the wider industry, SOKO’s workforce is largely made up of women. Yet while the mainstream fashion industry often oppresses its heavily female workforce, SOKO came about to change the system. 

“Our three production supervisors are women and have been with me since the beginning of SOKO Kenya in 2009”, says Jo. “We hope that having women in management positions is motivational for other women in the factory and encourages them to take the steps required to progress in their career”. She adds that “When a new employee joins SOKO Kenya, we make sure that they have set up their own bank account as a starting point. Throughout the year they are also offered various financial trainings to encourage independent saving and spending.”

If this doesn’t seem radical, it’s worth considering that around the globe, only 58% of women report having a bank account, while that number is 65% for men (World Bank, 2015). 

And, like Anchal Project, the brand isn’t just about making things, but about teaching skills. “Our Stitching Academy was born out of SOKO Kenya’s need to employ more people but no one had the right skillset. We wanted to offer a comprehensive training for in the community (and now beyond) that would allow locals to be able to work as a machinist in any factory in the country, not just SOKO Kenya. This means offering training on a variety of different machines and specialities, including cutting and quality control, so that we increase their chances of being employed.”

 

Image: SOKO Kenya

 

As we consider how the fashion industry can rethink its oppressive systems, and put an end to gender equality, these considerations of education and training, decent work, living wages, and financial literacy are some of the greatest pillars to lift up women and improve lives. 

 

An Ancient Fibre Transforming Communities

The Maya Youth Artisanship Initiative has been set up by textile artist Angela Damman to teach a new generation of artisans how to work with the fibre extracted from a species of agave indigenous to Yucatán, México: henequen.

One hundred years ago, 70% of all cultivated land in the Yucatán was used to grow henequen and it once accounted for 90% of all ropes in the world, but the advent of synthetic fibres led to a steep decline in cultivation and in the skills used to create this strong, versatile fibre.

As a result, the craft of spinning and weaving with this endemic plant fibre almost became a lost textile art as the artisans who possessed the skill grew old and young people were reluctant to learn this traditional skill.

The young women of this region have been brought up in communities where they are marginalised in every aspect of their lives: they are indigenous women, poor, living in rural communities and speaking Maya. The initiative aims to reverse this sentiment by transforming these into positive attributes, showing them that being Maya, a weaver and living in a rural area with a rich cultural heritage is a pathway to opportunity.

The pilot, in collaboration with Ashley Kubley, assistant professor, University of Cincinnati, aims to preserve the technique of working with henequen and elevate it from the utilitarian to create fine artisanal products such as bags which use new patterns, woven on backstrap looms and using natural dyes. Collaborating with the local community, the practice of weaving is now being transmitted from the teachers to the students, women 29 and under.

By bridging the generational gap through the transmission of skills, the craft is being demystified and destigmatised for the young women. The hope is that this will allow a new generation to develop the industry and see the art of weaving plant fibres as a design vocation. Participation in the luxury artisan handicraft market will enable them to keep alive the ancient knowledge of their ancestors, leading to a new appreciation for their Mayan identity and the regeneration of rural economies. This truly is sustainable development.

 

Text and Images: Carry Somers.

Weaving image: Angela Damman

Fashion Revolution Lao Spirituality, brings awareness to Made-in-Lao.

This fashion short film is made by Fashion Revolution Laos. Spirituality brings awareness to “Made-in-Lao ” fashion and accessories and the diverse artisans and designer stories in a visually impactful way. “Spirituality” not only showcases sustainable and eco-friendly fashion, but is also made from local Laotian film crew, LightFlare Productions, the first ever Lao production company to incorporate VFX in their films. From the staff that created this film (excluding the client), to the accessories and apparel, to the style of dance Fanglao, which is a mixture of Lao traditional dance, contemporary, and hip-hop.

Director Mr. Palinya Sayamoungkhoun states, “I think this film helps Lao people see more clearly about the community, not just fashion, not just film but everything about art. Because nowadays Lao people always think that People like us never surpass the skills and creativity like that. So this project should prove that it is not just foreign people who could provide such a massive impact to art community in Lao, but also Lao people itself”

Spirituality was crafted to celebrate Made-In-Lao products and traditions to help consumers to ask the question “Who Made My Clothes?”

Story Concept:

“Spirituality” is about a young Lao designer who is finishing her work. She is sewing a hand-spun, indigo dyed fabric in an open homely environment. When she turns on her music labeled “Revolution” she awakens her passion and spirit for dance, creativity, and pure self-expression of freedom. As her clothes alter colours, her personality and style of dance change. In Lao, traditional cultural dancing is changed based on the earthly elements. Therefore, when she is clothed in blue her dance style is wind and water and when she is in red she expresses fire movements. At the end, when the music tape ends, she stops dancing.

 

[youtube v=”SK7TfPg-1Jw”]

 

 

Language teaching and the Fashion Revolution

Why this project?  

Language and creativity, the perfect mix for introducing young people to activism in and beyond the classroom. Combining art and language was something I was at first sceptical about, although it brought challenges with messy paint and a dab of confusion now and again it also brought a real sense of energy and creativity to the learning experience. I saw throughout the year that it made learning more fluid and visual.  

Whilst being an English language teacher in Girona, Cataluña I had the opportunity to run some themes in my arts and crafts lessons. I wanted to bring a personal passion to the classroom which every student was directly connected to – the fashion industry. I chose this topic as everyone is inherently linked to this subject, the pupils are also at the age where they are becoming more interested in what they wear and want to choose their own clothes. For language acquisition, it opened a whole new range of vocabulary and concepts building on and adding to what they have learnt in their English classes. 

The process 

The session was to be carried out with five classes in the primary school as their arts and crafts session. The main teacher and myself discussed how the project would work. I wanted the children to be engaged with the project in a creative way, for them to be part of the discussion and for this to have an impact in the school and beyond.  

We decided to introduce the session with the presentation from the Fashion Revolution and to open a discussion about the clothing that the children were wearing, as the children do not wear a school uniform this allowed for a variety of brands and countries of origin to be in the classroom. Then to end the session with some activist work.  

 The Conversation

Within the first session I introduced the topic and the Fashion Revolution organisation. This was a new set of vocabulary for the pupils and at first they were a bit uninterested with ‘moda’ (In Spanish) fashion but as we started their interest grew as they realised it was not all about catwalks and designers.  We went through a presentation resource from the Fashion Revolution website (link). As we went through the slides we stopped for discussions, the children were very curious about the process and the environmental factors as well. They had recently been learning about environmental pollution from factories and domestically in English, so some of the language was familiar for them. They asked questions about the people in the photos and there was a strong sense of empathy and connection to the people who were involved in the processes, over space and time. 

Then we got down to the personal connection – I asked the children where their clothes had been made. I demonstrated with my own t-shirt – finding the label and telling that it was made in Sri Lanka. They started the task of finding labels and we went through the answers with the sentence structure ‘My jumper/dress/shirt was made in… Bangladesh, China, Taiwan…’. Then as a class we plotted these countries on the map and the pupils made observations about where they were made. The dialogue in the classroom was a conversation with a mix of English, Catalan and Spanish. The English language used made comparisons and analysis about the data we had found which was a skill the pupils were learning in their English classes ‘Most of them are made far away BUT some of them are made in Europe’ and some of them had ideas about why this was the case.

We focused on the Rana Plaza Disaster and the children described the photos, they were very shocked about the disaster. We went over the emotions of the workers using pictures and acting ‘he/she looks sad/happy/tired…’ and then we covered the conditions ‘the building looks dangerous/dirty’ and then in a personal context ‘I don’t want to work there’ and we touched on the conditional ‘I wouldn’t want to work there’. 

After the children had discussed their ideas and some pupils had talked about their personal experiences, such as that their grandmothers had made some of their clothes or their parents liked to buy locally made things. 

Activism 

Then we got to the activist part – I asked the pupils to discuss ideas and design a poster for the Fashion Revolution Week, inspired by the things we had discussed. The posters were mainly in English but some were also in Spanish and Catalan. This was a good activity for consolidating the children’s learning and language as they asked for spelling of certain words and built sentences about the topic. The response from the children has been an inspiring one. Seeing them get excited about their fashion consumption is something to be proud of, seeing them running up to me in the corridors and telling me where their jumper or skirt was made has shown me that a curiosity to know more about their possessions has begun. 

Photos of the daily lives of garment workers in India and Cambodia

An intimate look into the daily lives of women from the Garment Worker Diaries project in Cambodia and India.

Several women have given permission to share photos of their home life was part of a yearlong research study. We hope this helps the world better understand what it’s like to be a garment worker and inspires you to become an advocate for the people who make your clothes.

 

BANGALORE, INDIA

A garment worker sits with her cousins, styling each other’s hair.
One garment worker’s home in Ramangara, Bangalore.
A garment worker does all the household chores on her one day off each week.
In the evening, a garment worker counts up her household expenses, together with her sister, for the Garment Worker Diaries project

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

This woman, one of the workers in the Diaries project, lives in Kampong Speu Province, just outside Phnom Penh.
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On her one day off each week, she cooks a big lunch, such as fish soup with rice and fruit relish.
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She also does all the household chores.
On Sunday another garment worker chills at home and watches TV with her kids, just like everybody else!
Another worker stands in her kitchen area where she’s making a big feast.

 

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This woman prepares a large pot of meat and vegetables at her home.

This story was previously published in the first issue of our fanzine: MONEY FASHION POWER. Click here to browse our fanzine library.

The Garment Worker Diaries was a yearlong research project, led by MFO and supported by C&A Foundation, which is collecting data on the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India. Fashion Revolution will use the findings from this project to advocate for changes in consumer and corporate behavior and policy changes that improve the living and working conditions of garment workers everywhere.

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The Future of Denim, Part #4: The democracy of denim

The American dream is a crock. Stop wanting everything. Everyone should wear jeans and have three T-shirts, eat rice and beans”. Comedian Bill Hicks’ prescient remark may have captured the zeitgeist today as slow fashion picks up the pace.

Denim is loved across ages, genders, countries and styles and few items of clothing smash social barriers better than a faithful pair of jeans. It’s the undisputed champion of garments with workwear, revolution and social values woven into its identity. The demand and the market for denim are not going anywhere.

Rosey Cortazzi, former vice-president of womenswear at Levi’s and now global marketing director for Turkish denim supplier Isko, which works with Topman, Diesel and Guess says “we’re extremely optimistic about the health of the denim market and have expanded our capacity to meet increased demand […] We’ve upped our number of looms from 1,700 to 2,000, and increased our annual production capacity from 250 million metres annually to 350 million metres.”

Looking forwards, as the market expands it’s imperative that the practices change at an even faster rate. But a commitment to sustainability means a commitment to worker welfare as well as the environment. As a clothing sector defined by authenticity and heritage, the denim industry would be the first to be called out for overlooking this responsibility.

Fashion Revolution Week is a week of campaigns and action to demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain. Taking place during the week of 24 April, the date of the Rana Plaza building collapse, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it’s the industry’s voice on redefining how we think about clothes. 

Dutch denim brand MUD Jeans, known for allowing consumers to lease jeans rather than own them, headed to Tunisia in April to document how it manufactures new jeans from recycled fabrics. CEO Bert van Son said “we think it’s really important that people realize that their products are made by people, not machines. We hope that they then start to realize the value of a product. For us it’s essential that the people who make our jeans live a good life, are happy. That’s why we will go there ourselves and chat with them to find out what makes them happy.

Eva Engelen, responsible for CSR at MUD jeans told me, “We’re consciously producing our fabrics in Spain and our jeans in Tunisia. We have chosen these production partners as we share the same philosophy towards both social and environmental sustainability. Keeping our Supply Chain simple and close to home allows us to develop a long term relationship with our suppliers and ensure better labour conditions at the factories. It also allows us to save resources at production level. At the jeans factory in Tunisia for example, 95% of the production water is recycled, the additional 5% evaporates and is filled up with rainwater.” 

Levi’s, a brand founded on its social principles and work ethic of its original customers, is similarly dedicated to worker wellbeing. As brand consultant Emma Mainoo says, “For those simply painting their storefronts with rainbows, they might look to Levi’s, which has been supporting equal rights within its workforce since the 1970s and 1980s.” 

Their Worker Well-Being Initiative goes beyond protecting the rights of the people who make the products, investing in them to help improve their lives beyond factory walls. The all American brand partnered with suppliers and local non-profits to help meet each worker’s specific needs, such as health education, family welfare programmes and financial empowerment.

 The programme benefits nearly 100,000 workers in 12 countries. By 2020, 80% of all Levi’s products will be made in factories that support Worker Well-Being, benefiting at least 200,000 workers. By 2025, Levi’s plan to increase that number to 300,000. It’s an incredible example of the impact which global brands can have on sustainable development goals. 

A 166-year history is testament in itself to success, but the last few years have been particularly important for Levi’s, as it’s tapped into its heritage and adapted to reflect values of product innovation, pioneering sustainable practices and political engagement before launching on the stock market.

For me, the social substance of its denim jeans is one of its greatest charms and a key part of the romance of Levi’s heritage story, which it continues to balance with innovation, evolution and customer connections.

It was the father of jeans as fashion rather than workwear, Giorgio Armani, who said that “jeans represent democracy in fashion” and he was right. Sustainable fashion is the story of democracy communicated through clothing and denim has the opportunity to lead this conversation, include and support stakeholders at every level and act as a signifier of social change for both industry and culture. 

As we consider denim’s role with fashion industry’s environmental more broadly, it’s worth returning to the central question of circularity and how this ultimately reflects what the industry is striving for. It’s not only a question of using less water, producing less waste and adopting innovative pattern cutting techniques, but a case of observing the three ‘R’s – re-use, re-pair, re-cycle. The future of denim looks set to be shaped by society and crafted by culture as it ever was in 1873. And an awoke society demands dependable denim brands with authentic values. To refer back to Joel Makower’s analogy (in Part 2) comparing the fashion industry’s poor efforts in sustainability to teen sex – Sustainability is like teen sex. Everybody talks about it. Nobody does it very much. And when they do it, they don’t do it very well – maybe, just maybe, the denim industry, so loved for its heritage spirit and vintage values, has come of age and – with the wisdom afforded by age – is doing sustainability rather well?

Working with weavers and waste; Pala Eyewear

Back in 2016 when I founded Pala, the foundations of the company were very much built up on the mission of creating an eyewear brand that minimised impact on the planet and maximised impact on people in need. Initially this was born our in our partnership with UK charity Vision Aid Overseas by providing grants directly into their eyecare projects in Africa through the sale of our eyewear. These projects have enabled thousands of people to benefit from spectacles, and the empowerment that lies within being able to read, write or carry out work that requires good vision.

As Pala materialised, I set about finding ways for all touchpoints of our brand to connect back to these values, one of those being the sunglasses cases that would protect our product but also end up encapsulating our mission as an ethical brand. Whenever I had bought spectacles or sunglasses in the past, the case was just the ‘added extra’ that came with your frame – nothing more, invariably made from plastic. I struggled for quite some time to work out a design that both was functional and used a substrate that did not necessitate using a virgin material, and yet could be made with relative simplicity. I was also keen to see if I could connect back to Africa in the same way that the sale of our frames did.

It was ultimately that veritable that ‘friend of a friend’ introduction that led me to a solution when I first met with Jib Hagan, founder of Care4basket, a Ghanaian NGO working directly with weaving communities in Bolgatanga, Upper East Ghana. Separated by only 8 miles of Sussex coastline, he and I met early in Pala’s evolution to see if we could work out a way to work with these impoverished communities to create our sunglasses cases and help empower them economically. It coincided with the time that Jib had begun to facilitate the use of waste plastic as an alternative to the ever-dwindling, traditionally used natural straw that the weavers were finding increasingly hard to access. 

In 2015, Jib had decided to set up the NGO to highlight the environmental issues affecting rural communities in Ghana and the impact of global warming and single use plastics on their livelihoods. 70% of all diseases in Ghana are caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation with 6 million people being unable to access to clean drinking water. This has led to the widespread use of the water sachet which has become a necessity in providing a clean and treated source of water across Ghana. These used sachets unfortunately are extensively littered throughout towns and villages.

His solution was to switch perceptions; to help others to understand that this discarded plastic was a wealth, not a waste. It was up to us to find a way to work with these otherwise landfill destined materials. The process of reusing this started with plastic bags and water sachets, but as we have scaled we have begun to work with a plastic packaging and sachet factory in Accra, where we take the secondary waste from their manufacturing process. You may think this is somewhat counterintuitive, but the tough reality is that there is no better or cheaper solution than providing water sachets for the very poorest people in Ghana. Even hot meals are served in a plastic bag from street vendors as the most efficient way to transport the food home, and it would be remiss of us to frown at their use of single use plastic in those circumstances.

The cases provided one solution. Alongside Jib, we prototyped many different designs over a period of six months and ultimately landed with the simplest case structure. It just works. It ensures the easiest techniques for the weavers; this leads to a better conformity of case (although we love the ‘wiggly’ ones too!) and doesn’t necessitate the use of any other materials that would complicate the process for the weavers. We provide the materials directly to the communities, the plastic, scissors, wooden templates and labels. They weave the case in their own time and are paid once completed.

Wealth Not A Waste – Jibs Story from Pala Eyewear on Vimeo.

When I was over there at the end of last year, I was struck by the strength of their community spirit and pride in their work. Later this year we will have pictures and names of all the weavers on our website, and going forwards, all cases will have a tag with the name of the weaver written on it. They’re proud that their work has reached people across the world, and I think it resonates deeply with our customers to be able to know of the person who take the care and attention in making it.

We’ve been working with the weavers for over three years now and have developed trust and a good working practice. The number of weavers has increased over the time we have been working together and there has been great stories of how the extra income has provided empowerment. We continue to talk, we continue to learn together and our intention is to build on the incredible opportunity we have here to do and create more for these talented communities.

The Birth of the Case from Pala Eyewear on Vimeo.