Clothes are a dirty trade

04/02/2012 § 4 Comments

“Work — work — work!
From weary chime to chime,                       
Work — work — work,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand. 
(Thomas Hood, Song of the shirt, 1843)

In many rooms of the cotton and flax-spinning mills, the air is filled with fibrous dust, which produces chest affections, especially among workers in the carding and combing-rooms. Some constitutions can bear it, some cannot; but the operative has no choice. He must take the room in which he finds work, whether his chest is sound or not. The most common effects of this breathing of dust are blood-spitting, hard, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughs, sleeplessness – in short, all the symptoms of asthma ending in the worst cases in consumption. Especially unwholesome is the wet spinning of linen-yarn which is carried on by young girls and boys. The water spurts over them from the spindle, so that the front of their clothing is constantly wet through to the skin; and there is always water standing on the floor. This is the case to a less degree in the doubling-rooms of the cotton mills, and the result is a constant succession of colds and affections of the chest. (Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844)

For nine long years Yong Li (not her real name) has worked in the garment trade, sewing jeans, T-shirts and other basics… ‘I have a lot of feelings about where I work,’ she says. ‘Lots of bad feelings, really. I feel like we suffer a lot, particularly if we can’t meet the targets we are set.’ At the moment she has to finish two hundred pieces a day. ‘It’s really hard to do that, although I think I am a quick worker.’ And what’s the penalty if she doesn’t achieve it? ‘It is very bad,’ she says. ‘This factory has very low standards, and supervisors think nothing of abusing you with very rude words.’ (Lucy Siegle, To die for, 2011)

A friend lent me Lucy Siegle’s To die for,  an account of the social and ecological costs of ‘fast fashion’. It’s a journalistic book, quite breezy and lightweight but very readable and a good starting point for understanding the way the fashion industry works today. Refreshingly, Siegle starts from the idea that fashion and style are worthwhile and that it’s a reasonable desire to want to wear nice clothes and express yourself through fashion, which makes a nice contrast to some of the more puritanical attitudes you occasionally encounter when it comes to green and ‘ethical’ issues.

The most fascinating aspect of this book is the careful step-by-step tracing of the supply chain of every aspect of clothes production. The amount of labour and resources that go into producing a kilo of dyed, woven cotton–even before it has been cut and stitched to make a garment–is unimaginable. (So much for thinking that making much of my own clothing is a way of avoiding the ethical issues with the fashion industry.) The labour process behind garment production is fairly widely publicised, but the ecological and social impact of fabric production is even more astonishing.

At the other end of the production chain, the huge quantities of waste clothing dumped by Western consumers end up in two places, both problematic: either in landfill, or dumped on the African second-hand clothing market, suppressing any possibility of the development of domestic garment industries in those countries. Again, there are echoes of the nineteenth century here, when Britain took protectionist measures to safeguard the English cotton industry, stifling the nascent Indian cotton industry as Indians were obliged to buy cotton woven in Lancashire mills.

Siegle is careful to reject the idea that the developing world are ‘glad of the work’, an argument that often comes up as a defence of outsourcing to the developing world. “It’s not an attractive argument. First, there’s the crude division between ‘us’ and them’. Second, it just seems too convenient to rebrand our unsustainable, exploitative habits of consumption into a beneficent means of assisting unfortuntaes in the Developing World.” She points to the way that globalisation means that garment producers can, if they choose to, shift centres of production at short notice, meaning that if a factory is exposed as being more than usually exploitative–or if workers become too troublesome and start to demand wages and conditions which threaten a producer’s bottom line–factories can simply be closed down and opened again in a different country. This creates a race to the bottom, as countries who insist on minimum employment standards and ecological conditions may find themselves passed over by potential employers in favour of  countries where exploitation may more easily be tolerated. For this reason organisations which campaign on garment trade inequalities tend to focus on auditing and improving factories where they are rather than simply abandoning exploitative producers or middlemen.

I found the section on fur to be one of the weakest; there was less of the meticulous tracing back through the production chain that Siegle does elsewhere in the book, and more reliance on anecdotal evidence from PETA. I’m also not convinced by Siegle’s arguments against the wearing of vintage fur on the basis that the care of fur is a huge ecological cost in and of itself. For millionaires with fur fridges, maybe, but the average twenty-something wearing her grandmother’s astrakhan is not likely to invest much more in its care than the cost of a bag of mothballs.  Something which could have been given more space is Siegle’s suggestion that following the successful anti-fur campaigns of the 90s, fur suppliers targeted young fashion students, supplying them with free samples of luxury furs in order to revive the demand for fur by a new generation. (I have to confess that I didn’t read the section on python skin as I’m just too squalmy about snakes to bear it.)

I’d also be interested to know more about the social economics of the fashion consumer. Siegle laments the departure of the ‘middle market’ as the likes of Marks and Spencer and Next move downmarket to compete with Primark; is it farfetched to wonder if the polarising of fashion between cheap and designer is connected to thirty years of widening inequality in the UK?

After all, cheap is a very powerful enticement to buy something, especially for people who don’t have much money. And things should be cheap, or that is to say, everyone should have access to nice clothing just as they should to decent food. When I was at primary school in east London in the 80s it wasn’t unusual to see children who only had one set of clothes, their school uniform, which was washed overnight; since the advent of Asda clothing and Primark that phenomenon has vanished completely. One thing Siegle doesn’t examine when she decries the bottom end of the fashion market is the pricing structure. This interesting Wall Street Journal piece following the production of a ‘luxury’ polo shirt points out that the mark-up of high-end clothing is enormous; one way that Primark, Asda and so on keep prices down is by reducing the profit margin on every item and instead relying on fast turnover of large volumes of stock: pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap.

Siegle offers a number of positive actions for the concerned consumer, but these are mostly sops to personal conscience rather than political responses. Her exhortation to spend more money on a smaller number of ethically produced items is well-meant but unhelpful–not just because the ‘power’ of the consumer is hugely exaggerated, but also because identifying an ‘ethically’ produced item is a minefield. What is meant by ethical? Green, fairtrade, organic, recycled, ‘upcycled’… anyone wanting to ‘consume ethically’ is going to have to choose between a number of competing and sometimes contradictory categories. Siegle’s applause for Livia Firth’s ‘upcycled’ Oscars dress seems ridiculous to me: the dress was created from eleven (eleven!) vintage 1930s dresses. While it’s admirable of Livia Firth to bring the question of ethics and fashion to the red carpet, is it sustainable (or green) to destroy eleven vintage dresses–historical artefacts that could still be worn–to make one dress that will probably be worn only once on the red carpet?

And consumer ‘power’ is not an effective way of achieving political change. Siegle is encouraged by the way that major brands were forced to back away from Uzbekistan cotton harvested by child slave labour (the section on the way that Uzbekistani youth are forced to harvest cotton is truly horrific), but also points out that Uzbekistan remains the third largest producer of cotton worldwide. Clearly some producers are confident that their use of Uzbekistani cotton won’t provoke a consumer backlash, either because they’re not the kind of global brands that attract front-page headlines when ethical issues–and especally child labour issues–are exposed, or because they are confident that their consumers are more interested in the price of their clothing than in the ethical issues involved.

More realistic is Siegle’s advice to buy less, throw out less, and buy second-hand (really, the 4 Rs of responsible consumption: reduce, reuse, repair, recycle) but even this serves only to ensure that your own hands are (relatively) clean. The problems at both ends of the production chain–exploitative labour in production, and disposal of waste via the dumping of secondhand Western clothing on the African garment market–are based on the structural inequalities of global capitalism, and the actions of well-meaning consumers are not sufficient to overturn these.

Exploitative labour practices in the Western textile industries in the 19th century weren’t ended (or, rather, limited or mitigated; sweatshopping continues in the West as in the developing world) by the charitable consumer throwing up her hands in horror at the sufferings of the poor workers of the sweatshop or cotton mill. ‘Ethical consumption’ is often a fad; look at the way that sales of organic food have fallen off since the recession. Labour behind the label, one of the organisations  Siegle recommends, are clear about the need to work with garment workers’ trade unions in developing countries in order to raise working conditions and pay. Similarly, ecological problems are only solvable permanently through political means, and in a globalised world that means globally enforced standards for pollutants and toxic processes. While attracting attention to the effects of existing global inequalities is always a worthwhile thing to do, any solution to the problems of fashion production will depend on a collective response to exploitation and not on individualised consumption choices.

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§ 4 Responses to Clothes are a dirty trade

  • Sheila says:

    > One thing Siegle doesn’t examine when she decries the bottom end of the fashion market is the pricing structure.

    Agreed. Higher-end fashion is also often using the same cheap producers, but with a bigger mark-up (although she does point out that the higher end retailers are more likely to at least make a gesture towards auditing their producers, so there is at least more opportunity to hold them to account).

    The other thing I found fascinating in the book was the economist she quoted (sorry, I forget the name) who said that a textile industry is a crucial component of the successful transition of any country to ‘developed’ status. I think the figure given was that 2 – 5 per cent of the workforce needed to be employed in textiles for the economy to succeed. This was in the context of her account of the destructive impact of cheap secondhand western clothes on the African market.

    I agree her section on fur was less persuasive, though her account of HOW you get a textile back into fashion was fascinating (cf also the rise and rise of Swarovski crystals, which were the epitome of tack in the 80s but after smart placing with fashion students are now ubiquitous).

  • Josephine Grahl says:

    Ha – yes, I hadn’t thought that about Swarowski crystals but you’re right.

    I was totally intrigued by all of the economic aspects of the book – haven’t had a chance to search for some more stuff on the economics of fashion but I’m going to asap. This blog is good on that stuff, although aimed more at those in the trade – it’s where I found the polo shirt article: http://www.businessoffashion.com/

  • Chris Brooke says:

    The amount of labour and resources that go into producing a kilo of dyed, woven cotton–even before it has been cut and stitched to make a garment–is unimaginable.

    Adam Smith argued the same point in The Wealth of Nations, I.i.11, with the example of a woollen coat.

  • Josephine Grahl says:

    Oh, that’s really interesting – thanks for the link.

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