A Scandalous Fashion

News emerged yesterday that the disaster fund for the families of the victims of the Bangladeshi factory collapse is not even half full. The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, established to compensate the victims’ families, was “open to contributions from any organization, company or individual.” Therein lies the rub. No one specificallly was made pay. Although at the time of the tragedy, spokespeople from Benetton among other megabrands were promptly wheeled out to peddle remorse for the cameras, they haven’t put their money where their mouth was.

$40 million was needed, $17.9 million has been collected.

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Strewn among the building’s rubble were garments labelled Primark, Mango, Benetton, JC Penney, Joe Fresh and others. British retailer Matalan, deposited money just one day before the payment deadline, like a mean mobster with greased back hair and a sleazy smirk, grumbling past the cigar dangling from his gob, “Okay, okay, stop breaking my balls, there, have it, bleed me dry,” before dropping some coins from his trouser pocket into a bucket.

Reassuringly he pats the wad of notes still in his vest on his way out.

The day before the tragedy occurred banks were evacuated from the Rana Plaza building as a result of warnings about cracks in its structure. Not so the garment factories housed within. “Keep calm and sew on!” Mobster railed. “And if the roof collapses, you must use your head and upper body to protect the fabric. It costs $3 a yard!”

Over here in NYC; over there in London, in Milan and Barcelona, it’s business as usual. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

“Look at this $5 peasant blouse I got during my lunch hour,” a Times Square shopper chirrups, chuffed with herself. “I’ll get a turn out of that at the weekend. My boobs gonna look so cute!”

The blouse is shoddily made but if it falls apart during its weekend outing, she’ll get a full refund within 28 days. The manufacturer’s factory collapses and kills 1134 workers and injures 2500 others, and there’s no refund. There’s no returns policy for the families and the injured. The troubling culture within Rana Plaza continues. Why wouldn’t it? The only ones who were truly penalized are dead. That keeps them quiet. How often do we hear about the factory in Tazreen that caught fire and killed 112 people 7 months after Rana Plaza? There Walmart refuses to pay the victims’ families compensation despite being the manufacturer’s biggest customer.

When the headlines die down, the mean mobsters yell, “Get back to work and snap to it!”

And every time we buy a $5 t-shirt, we turn a blind eye and the mobsters grin toothily from behind their cigars.

Why is the fashion industry so skeevy?

Terry Richardson hides behind his camera to molest models and a few petitions erupt on social media only to drop from sight like yesterday’s status updates. Major glossy magazines explore with baffling regularity the novelty of white models wearing black face and get a slap on the wrist and slope off with a sheepish look. A 4-year-old in Starbucks throws a hissy fit spilling his mango banana milkshake down his cute outfit while the 9-year-year old who sewed it together hasn’t had a bathroom break in 8 hours. Any other industry would be rocked by these events. In fashion, they’re treated almost like faux pas.

Yesterday on a deserted NYC cross street I cut a red light on my Citibike and an officer fined me $190 on the spot. I guess he considered me a liability to myself and others and I must be held accountable.

1.2 million tons of clothing were buried in landfills in the UK in 2009. How reassuring to the families of those buried in Rana Plaza. Destruction breeds destruction.

But you’ve not seen anything yet. Today a Bangladeshi building, tomorrow the world! We’ll destroy it all! How’s that for power?

The theory of Devolution

The Theory of Devolution-we were smarter as monkeys

The current fashion system is an example of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest but there is no theory of evolution here. It is against nature and there’s no grand plan. No one  is in charge. We are careering towards extinction, the control panel sparking and fizzing, communicating nothing. Gluttony and hypocrisy and excess are rewarded at the expense of human life.

We in the Western world, smug imbeciles that we are, always believe we are the fittest, the strongest. Less developed countries are but satellites that revolve around us, serving our needs. If they get detached from us, splinter, fall away, it’s no great loss, we’ll always have options. Countries that should know better exploit countries that have no choice, kicking sand in their faces with their leather boots to punctuate their superior status.

Although once in a while Marc Jacobs might take a notion to donate a fraction of the profits of a t-shirt to Darfur. We consider that commendable. 13071202_ranaplazarubble_dpa_web_01

Sometimes I want to distance myself completely. I feel like an outsider looking in.

Why is fashion so skeevy?

 

My novel set in the international fashion industry is currently available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.

28 comments

  1. It’s not just fashion. The third world pays for the West’s lifestyle with the pollution and poisons that are needed to make and dispose of our toys.

  2. Dear Jackie,

    I could tell you how brilliant your writing is, but you know that already – it is brilliant. But it’s not just your word choice or the way you bring us in, it’s your thoughts, your perspective and your honesty. It’s your worldview that is gracious and sharp.

    This piece brought tears to my eyes because I feel this way. Not just about fashion (though I admit how ignorant I am to the horrors and for the first time in months realize I’ve been so busy pursuing my writing that I haven’t gone shopping for clothing in a very long time – probably too long, but I digress . . .) but about the way we operate in the West. It’s not ok. I can’t think of any other way to eloquently say it.

    So much of what we do is NOT ok. I worry that we’re so blinded we don’t even know things are not ok.

    Thank you for this post and for your courage and compassion in publishing it. I’ll not soon forget it.

    Peace to you, friend.

    Allison

    • Alison,
      Thanks for your compassionate response. My post was quite pessimistic in tone but when I sit back and read your response and the thoughts of others who react like us, I can’t help thinking there is hope that there will be a shift in the thinking that has brought us here.
      We are not alone but we just need to reach the people who (unlike you) shop constantly, buying crap to fill a gap in their lives–not in their closets.
      But we press on and one by one we will see sense as a society–I hope!
      I’m always enjoying your writing and your explorations and revelations. I’m happy that you’re finding yourself immersed. That’s a lovely feeling, Only come up for air when your lungs are almost empty and enjoy a big gulp 🙂
      My writing has been suffering at the expense of new job, new apartment and myriad of other things but you’re inspiring me to redirect my focus.
      As always,
      XO!

  3. I completely agree. It makes me sad. Thrifting and resaling are a good way to support recycling rather than making.

    • A girl after my own heart. Sustainability and recycling on the home front would be the start of a great movement if everyone jumped on board and stopped the endless, satisfactionless purchasing of crappy stuff!

  4. This is such an important and wonderful post. As consumers, we wade from disaster to disaster, changing our focus according to where the media points us. But it’s also our relentless need to buy cheap clothing, to find new items in store every week (rather than every season) that perpetuates the machine. We have closetful of clothes that most people in the developing world wouldn’t wear in a lifetime – just a different type of colonialism. I don’t know what the answer is but putting the brakes to our greed might be a start.

    • A different type of colonialism, that’s such an interesting way to put it. I think if, one by one, we put the brakes on our greed, we’d be well on our way. At the end of the day, there is no other option.

  5. Another amazing post Jackie. I was very angry over these incidents. It’s just appalling. I think modern convenience has gone to our heads. Clothes have become disposable items. Nobody patches clothes or lowers hems any more. I know from buying clothes for the kids that they aren’t designed to last more than a few weeks. I can only give/receive hand-me-downs which were originally fantastic quality.
    I refused to shop at Penneys (Primark) for a long time until one day I found myself back there, forgetting and then thinking it was OK as the fund had been set up. Is there a way to trace clothes and know that the workers’ conditions are of a good standard? I think it is down to the consumer to demand such information and guarantees. Do you know of any high street stores which only use reputable suppliers with good safety records?
    Today I ought a pair of school trousers for my little boy costing only €4! I know that doesn’t add up. The real price is much more.

    • There were rumblings of this but I don’t know if anything has materialized. There is the Ethical Fashion Forum but it only traces Fair Trade cotton and the process of fabric production, not the manufacturing process.
      I think it will have to start with individual brands illuminating the manufacturing process of their merchandise in their marketing. Singing their own praises so to speak.
      Bringing manufacturing home and encouraging customers to return to spending a little more for a fair product thereby also providing jobs for the unemployed is also in play.
      The problem is that so much of what goes on in offshore facilities is secretive. It is unthinkable, isn’t it that we can’t manage this situation? Money is too powerful.
      It’s hard when you’re clothing little ones who are continually outgrowing their things and looking for competitive pricing but at the mercy of your conscience too.

  6. Jackie, I read the title of your post and stopped to google for an article on The Guardian about the garment industry in Bangladesh. I ended up watching a BBC documentary on said industry (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0SbMjz-ZH8).

    I agree with you and more people need to be made aware, and reminded, of the facts behind their bargain purchases.

    • Thank you for the documentary link. Very informative. I’ve bookmarked it to show students in my Contemporary Topics in the Fashion Industry class. Raising awareness one student at a time 🙂

  7. Great post Jackie, this is where you need to be. You have the voice, and you understand the industry well enough to know where and how to expose the stuff it would rather not talk about. Whenever my children complain about doing their homework or going to school, I always offer the alternative of a career in the Bangladeshi garment industry. A lot of comments about the evils of cheap clothing – for my money it’s more the model that’s corrupt. If I buy a £50 designer T shirt, will the person who actually made the garment receive any more than the child who put together one I got for three quid from Tesco, or is the difference just paying for all those highly strung supermodels, coke snorting photographers, full page ads in Vogue and whopping retail markups?

    • Thanks Donald. You’re right, the model is corrupt in that we cannot expect a turnaround of styles from catwalk to shop floor within 6 weeks which is how Zara and H&M etc are now operating. Something has to give.
      The phenomenon of fast fashion is a reasonably recent one and it is that that has been fueling the huge demand for cheaper production in new and far flung parts of the world. Although the higher end designers have had to go off shore sometimes too in order to survive.
      With your three quid T shirt, you get what you pay for: basic cheap fabric run up in a few minutes possibly by a child’s hands that will most likely fall apart in a short time, maybe as soon as you put it in the wash. When I worked in Italy for designer labels, they tended to own their own factories and I spent a lot of time in them. Beautiful facilities, staff well treated and respected who took great pride in their work. But I have been in Indian factories where the same can be said.
      However my experience designing fast fashions is nil. I have to rely on friends whose stories I hear. The lower the cost of an item, the more corners are cut, the more risks are taken, the more units need to be sold.
      It’s the same discussion that surrounds the Made in the US movement that is gaining ground here. Clothes will start to cost more because American workers will not accept 22 cents as an hourly wage. We wouldn’t expect them to–everyone is in agreement on that. And it would bring jobs to the nation’s unemployed and we’d be sure of a more regulated production. All good so far…
      But people balk at spending more. That is what has to change. People have to relent on the cost. You get what you pay for–or someone else gets what you pay for.
      The chances are your $50 t shirt will be constructed of more hard wearing fabric by adult hands that are skilled but there may be exceptions. I can only go by my experience and the feedback of my peers.

  8. Jackie,
    I just read this after running up to Times Square on 8th Ave., then shooting down 9th Ave. looking for bandanas (don’t ask). As I went in and out of the NYC tourist stores – I asked myself, “Who buys this stuff?” Someone does…otherwise they wouldn’t carry it.
    Supply and Demand.

    I have bought clothing items from Wal-Mart, Joe Fresh, K-mart. It is what I can afford at that moment or I like the item. I keep my clothes for a long time or eBay/Resale the pieces, and Goodwill/Salvation Army the left overs.

    Sometimes we look at these problems and think “overwhelming” -maybe one small honest step from each person will help start the ball rolling.

    But, people (like me) might not know what to do to help. What is their small step? You say “don’t buy cheap clothes” – but those clothes may be what they can afford or can find in their town.
    What are other options?

    It is always necessary to bring light to hidden issues — but the truly hard part is seeing and offering solutions that are viable.

  9. I think the issue is not about buying cheap clothes so much as buying such a quantity of cheap clothes. And not understanding that people are suffering as a result. We have become insatiable and buy more new clothes than ever before. The whole system is flawed if we believe that ideas can travel from the runway to shop floor in six weeks. And yes, that’s too grand for us as individual shoppers to attempt to fix. But we have a disposable attitude and no longer mend or preserve clothes because the preciousness of the purchase has gone. Just a generation ago, things were very different. This can be a small step that everyone can make, just taking more care of clothes especially if we know the backstory and draw attention to it. And when the clothes really have to go, passing them on and recycling to preserve their life span. Well done on keeping yours and donating.
    We might not be paying for our fast fashion but someone always is, and dearly. We have to face that fact now.
    If everyone was aware of that, they would think twice at the cash register, I’m sure.
    We can buy less items perhaps and then can afford to spend a little more. Small steps can create great movement…

    • Just thinking about this again (the point of the post, right?!?!) When I lived in Europe, the return policy was minimal or non-existent, so i really thought hard about what I purchased. Maybe your comment about the return policy could be an answer. If you cannot return it easily, consumers would have to think harder at the POS and tried to work with the issue. Hmmm-still thinking.
      PS. Just had to commit a pair of GAP workout pants to the “rag” pile — inner thigh worn through at the seam. 2 years in heavy rotation. You have motivated me to look at the fabric and see if I can get it repaired. $10 vs. $50 if I can save them. XO

  10. My sentiments exactly. I can’t express loud enough my outrage at the current fashion ethos of the western world – but you can! So please do not distance yourself Jackie… All voices that express ethical intentions, ideas and will in such a structured an articulate way, are more than necessary. They are hope!

    I don’t have much more to add, your post and comments covered quite a lot already. Just perhaps a note on the subject of sending off last week’s bargain buys to charity, to make space in the closet for this week’s spree: I watched recently BBC’s Documentary ”This World, The Secret Life of Your Clothes” discussing where cloths, mainly from UK charities, end up. We saw traders importing tonnes of them to Ghana (the biggest importer of UK cast offs) and selling them to local markets. We saw a Ghanaian trader claiming he made 25.000 GBP a day! We saw how this profitable trade works to the detriment of the – once thriving – local textile factories, manufacturing high quality, woven, richly coloured textiles. We saw how this business contributes to the extinction of the local culture!

    So, in case one thinks that everything is fine as long as they can donate their cast offs: think again! According to the documentary, 8 in 10 garments are not actually sold in Charity shops. 41% of charity clothing is sold onto commercial recyclers…

  11. It’s a mess isn’t it?! I get no pleasure from high street shopping anymore and only buy in charity shops or make from fabrics I find there. The world needs to wake up but as I say many times I feel I am alone and howling at the moon!……good to know there are other howlers out there.

  12. Hung Tran

    Another great post, Jackie. I’d like to share some of this on Tumblr (and redirect to your blog, of course) if that’s okay with you?

  13. Thanks Hung, I’d just be delighted!

  14. A very sad situation no one likes to talk about, and we’re grateful to have someone speak up. Good job Jackie! We can always count on you to bring up issues that the world is trying to sweep under the rug.
    Have a great weekend, doll!

    XOXO Nensi & Natasha

  15. Perhaps it begins here, with a rational writer who is brave enough to name and shame.

  16. The dark side of fashion.

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